I experienced the Comer Camaraderie in 1958 when I became associated with the J.S. Clifton family who lived on Pelham Avenue in Sylacauga. I was smitten with Arrie Clifton’s youngest son, and I was still in High School at Sylacauga High, in Fess Simpkins’ half-million dollar band and fully dedicated to my school, but…….. I soon found that my sweetie’s mother and his siblings tolerated no disrespect of their Comer Tigers. I learned when not to speak.
It was a different day, but I can remember we would see Mrs. Clifton and her youngest daughter, Judy, who was my age at the football game, only to find that they had walked to the stadium from their home on Pelham Avenue in Avondale’s Mill Village. Her talk was of “our boys,” and to me she was very old (I have a different idea of old now). The Comer-Sylacauga game was off-the-table as far as discussion on Saturday morning because if Comer lost, she always had a strong opinion about the reasons. You know the drill.
Seems like Adam Fossett, Comer’s personable coach has brought that special feeling back to the Comer nation. Fossett said in a recent Sylacauga News interview, “It’s just special. People have a hard time understanding how special it is and that camaraderie we have among fans and the players and everybody involved in making Friday nights happen and make it work.” The Comer family is loyal. I found that out when I was hired to teach fourth grade at B.B. Comer Elementary School. Teachers got complimentary football tickets, but Comer Principal, Jimmy Hayes, knew an Aggie when he saw one. He quickly reminded me that now that I was teaching at Comer School, I was to attend the games and be in my place on the Comer side of the stadium. It was a hard and fast rule that since the two schools shared the stadium, the student section flip-flopped the home/visitor sides, and I found it difficult that first year to make my way across the field when the Tigers were seated there. I found out why Comer is special after teaching there and being affiliated with great teachers, parents, and students. There’s just something about B.B. Comer School, and people do have a hard time understanding it. I’m still an Aggie, but I will always love Comer, too.
Since I am on the subject of football, let me say that many of my Black friends like Willie Olden and Gregory Holtzclaw feel that camaraderie with their alma mater, East Highland High School. They work to continue to keep it alive although that time is long gone.
Football is covered very well by my friend and Sylacauga historian, Earl Lewis; but this just seems like a fitting time to mention that camaraderie I witnessed in the early fifties when I would go to Legion Stadium with my Daddy on Monday nights to see “Big Train” Holtzclaw run down the field for the East Highland Indians. Maybelle Marbury would have already parched her peanuts for the game at Jones Bakery, but she always reminded my Dad that they were for the ball game, and never allowed him to put his hand down into that gunny sack that was full of the aromatic treats. (She would let me get some-my hand was small; and Daddy would buy us some at the game.)
In those days of segregation we sat at the north end of the stadium, and I learned first-hand how it felt not to be able to sit in that prime spot on the fifty yard line. The East Highland Band was outstanding, and Daddy always took me to the parades on Monday afternoons. Still the treat was the wonderful announcer who commented on that “Big Train” moving on down the field, the roar of the crowd punctuated by the real train that seems to move down the track at every football game in Sylacauga. It was magic, sitting at that stadium, holding Daddy’s hand, and “Big Train” made his plays look magical, too.
Coach Haywood Scissum, longtime East Highland Coach, spoke about it in interview with the Birmingham News: “I had no new players. All of mine were old players. There was a hill above where we practiced, and there would be 200 kids-4th, 5th, 6th graders-sitting on the hillside watching practice every day. They watched our tackling drills. They watched blocking drills and watched us run the tires and run the ropes. They knew everything about our system before they got old enough to play. They didn’t have any cars to run around in and the drug thing wasn’t here then. All they had to look forward to was being an Indian. So they just came down the hill and became a part of my success story.”
Derry Lee Holtzclaw, also called “Mule Train” was 6’2” and a running back. He scored 16 touchdowns for Scissum, but his story did not end happily ever after as did the stories of other Scissum successes like Lightning Threat, Cecil Leonard, and Sonny Oden. Coach Scissum secured a scholarship for Derry to Texas Western University in El Paso and later to Tuskegee University. It was there the summer after his freshman year that he flipped his convertible on Highway 81 and was killed along with several other young people. They were hurrying to attend graduation exercises when the wreck occurred. His promising career ended, but the camaraderie that existed at East High Highland School, and the memory of the excitement when “Big Train” moved on down the field lives on. It was not so long ago at that.
Special thanks to Samantha Machen, Alabama Tribute, Friday June 7, 1957, Birmingham News September 12, 1993; Kay Chesser Cirlot, Earl Lewis, Gregory Holtzclaw, and Willie Olden.