It’s been 50 years since the first integrated Forest High School football team took the field en route to posting a perfect season and a conference championship.
A special ceremony to honor the 1970 team is scheduled Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, at L. O. Atkins Field during halftime of the Forest/Florence game. (Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.)
Family members of deceased team members are also encouraged to attend and be a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration. Cheerleaders for the 1970 team as well as members of the 1970-71 All-Superior FHS Band are invited to attend and participate in the event.
In looking back over the historic season, what those coaches and players accomplished is more than amazing. Not only were they victorious with the school’s first integrated squad (full integration occurred during the 1970-71 school year) but they did so with a mostly new coaching staff and faced several other challenges throughout the season. The biggest challenge came at the final game of the season, with the program’s second-straight conference championship on the line. More about that later.
The 1970 Bearcats were led by first-year head coach Gary Risher, who took the helm at age 28. Risher was an assistant the previous two years for Ken Bramlett, who was serving his second tenure as the program’s leader. Bramlett’s 1968 squad went 8-3 and was followed by the 1969 ‘Cats who finished 10-0-1 and claimed the program’s first overall Little Dixie Conference Championship.
The 1969 team was regarded as one of the best in Bearcat football history, and with the loss of 18 seniors (many of whom received scholarships on the university and junior college levels) from the championship squad, expectations were not high for a repeat season. (Note: This was the era when high school teams were divided into conferences and did not participate in the current state playoff system.)
Risher was serving a second stint as a Bramlett assistant, having previously served on his Mississippi College staff. Bramlett had taken the MC post following his first successful coaching job at Forest.
Risher, who mainly coached offensive and defensive linemen for Bramlett, was selected the new Bearcat head mentor following the 1969 season, when Bramlett and assistant Warren Crain took their talents to Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia.
A 1960 FHS graduate, Risher was first native son to be selected the Bearcats’ head football coach.
Risher’s athletic background also included stellar football careers at Forest, East Central Junior College and Mississippi College.
Prior to joining the FHS staff, Risher was an assistant at Peoples Junior High in Jackson and was head coach at Hickory.
He recalled being asked by then Forest Supt. of Education L.O. Atkins (now deceased) to submit his application for the job.
“Mr. Atkins informed me soon after I applied for the job that the Board of Trustees had chosen me to lead the program,” Risher said. “I was very honored to be selected and was ready to go to work and continue the winning tradition.”
When Risher became the Bearcat leader in November 1969, it was not known for sure if Forest would be an integrated school the following year or if the decision would be delayed until the 1971-72 school year. But it was a known fact that integration was an eventual reality.
But Risher was not concerned about integration; he was focused on selecting the most qualified assistant coaches he could find.
His first call went to former Bearcat standout Billy Ray Dill, who at the time was serving as a junior high coach at Pascagoula. Dill decided to join his longtime friend and mentor on the Forest staff at mid-year, so he could assist with spring training activities.
Dill excelled at running back and defensive back at Forest, where he received All-Little Dixie Conference honors in addition to his selection as the Bearcats’ most outstanding player and most outstanding defensive player. Dill continued his athletic career at then East Central Junior College, where he received All-State and honorable mention All-American honors. (In recognition of his success, Dill was named to the ECCC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.)
Dill also had a stellar career as a running back at Mississippi College, where he set a rushing record in 1966 and was the leading scorer and pass receiver for the 1967 campaign, during which he averaged 100 yards rushing and pass receiving per game. With his background, Dill was a natural fit to be in charge of the offensive and defensive backfields.
Risher and Dill conducted spring training drills not knowing if “new” members would be joining the team later that summer and fall. But just as the 1969-70 school year was coming to a close, it was apparent that Forest as well as most of the other schools in the state would be fully integrated the following fall.
Risher now had the task of adding another assistant to his staff. He knew the perfect man for the position: James “Bo” Clark (now deceased) who had served the previous five years as head coach of the “Black Bearcats,” as they were called, at E. T. Hawkins High School in Forest.
“I remember the day Coach Risher asked me to join his staff,” Clark said during an interview for this article in 2016. “I was working T-Ball games as my summer job. I looked up from what I was doing and saw a man getting out of a pickup truck. He walked toward me and asked if I was Coach Clark. I replied ‘yes,’ and then he introduced himself as the new head football coach at Forest High School. He asked me to be his line coach, and stressed the point that he would not tell me how to coach the linemen. That would be my responsibility. He just said he wanted results. We shook hands and Coach Risher said, ‘Let’s go to work.’ And believe me, we did!”
Clark brought seven years coaching experience to his new position. He previously served two years as an assistant at Hawkins for W.L. Slaughter (now deceased). Clark, a former football standout at Hawkins High School, began his coaching career at the request of the man in whose honor the school was named.
“It was during my senior year at Alcorn State University,” Clark said, “when Mr. Hawkins (then school principal and now deceased) came to me and after first giving me a dollar - like he did all Alcorn students from Forest - and wanted to know if I had applied for any jobs now that I was about to graduate. I replied that I had not done so and he said don’t - you are coming home! And I gladly did…and that it is how I began my coaching career. I not only coached football, but all the sports as well. ”
Now that Risher had assembled his staff (which must be stressed included a head coach and only two assistants, unlike coaching staffs of today), it was time to go to work and put together a plan which included black players for the first time in school history.
“During our first coaches’ meeting, it was evident that we would mesh,” Risher recalled. “We had a lot going for us in the beginning - we were all three from Forest, we knew a lot about each other, we knew the community would be behind us, and of course, we were willing to work as hard and long as possible to be successful. And I had the utmost confidence in Coach Clark and Coach Dill.”
When the first team meeting was held, about 85 players - black and white- were in attendance. Also attending the meeting was Forest product Jim Harvey, then a standout lineman for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, who related his experiences as a member of an integrated squad. Risher said Harvey (now deceased) “did a great job” explaining how well the black and white players got a long and worked together as a team.
But when two-a-day practices began in the August heat, many of the black players decided to leave the team, which was a surprise to Coach Clark, especially since he was expecting many players - especially seniors - from his Hawkins team.
“Some players moved to Chicago and other places,” Clark said, “they just did not want to continue their football careers here in Forest.”
The first day of practice especially stood out for Clark as he prepared to address the offensive and defensive linemen. The other players were assigned to meet with Risher and Dill.
“I was walking behind the linemen as they headed to the top of a hill on the practice field,” Clark recalled. “And then it dawned on me that there were no black linemen on the team! I thought to myself, ‘Bo Clark, it’s time to work your magic, son!’ When we got to the top of the hill, I told the linemen to take off their head gear and take a knee. Then I took a deep breath and said: Gentlemen, I am going to be your line coach…and I am going to respect you as a player…and in due time I think you will learn to respect me as a coach. But one thing I know for sure…I am going to be your daddy away from home!”
Coach Clark laughed when he recalled the players’ reaction.
“They thought I was crazy,” he said. “So I repeated myself: Gentlemen: I am going to be your daddy away from home. And when I blow my whistle, I had better be the last man to hit the sled!”
Clark added, “I really felt that we earned each other’s respect that day…and I thoroughly enjoyed being their ‘daddy’ away from home…and I think they enjoyed it, too! And I must say that those guys were the best offensive and defensive linemen I ever coached. They could block and tackle…were very quick and fast…and were good kids as well.”
Among Dill’s memories of the first few practice days was that the black players had never pushed or blocked a seven-man sled.
“Some would miss the padded part and hit the metal…it just took a while for them to get acclimated to the sled,” Dill said. “But they were quick learners and worked hard at being the best they could be.”
Riser said Dill quickly became “one of the guys” due to the fact he was still a young man and was in great shape.
“The players loved him,” said Risher. “He would run drills and even sprints with the players. Coach Clark and I would watch in amazement and had no desire to try to keep him with him! Coach Dill really developed a great relationship with the players.”
Risher said the same could be said for Coach Clark, who was always available to talk with players and offer encouragement, just like any “Daddy.” Clark was also an effective motivator and will always be remembered for the following two words he often spoke prior to each game and during the halftime meeting: “Hit somebody!”
As a head coach, Risher set the tone early that he was all business…did not want to put with any crazy stuff…and did not want to be accused of “playing favorites” in assembling the best team possible.
Dill offered the following assessment of his long-time friend:
“Coach Risher made the game exciting and fun yet still got his players to play to the best of their ability,” said Dill. “And he realized it was nearly impossible for the players to get fired up for every game, but he was determined to make sure the players were emotionally high for the key conference games.”
After four weeks of practice, which included two-a-day workouts in the August heat, it was time for the first ball game - the home opener against Neshoba Central, a much larger school.
According to intern reporter Jack Elliott’s pre-game story in The Scott County Times, the Bearcat squad featured 20 lettermen on the 40-man roster. The roster included seven black players who were members of Clark’s “Black Bearcat” squad at the Hawkins school.
Forest was the defending Little Dixie Conference Champs, and Neshoba Central had previously won the Sam Dale Conference.
Risher described the Neshoba team as “big and tough…a winning team.”
Regarding the Bearcats, Risher stated in the article: “All the boys are healthy. We have a few nagging bruises but nothing serious.”
The Forest offense was mainly a Power I formation, with a quarterback and three running backs. The ‘Cats ran a 4-3-4 defense.
Risher stressed that he and his staff focused on the basic fundamentals of offense and defense in preparation for the season opener.
“We wanted to get the basics down before we tried anything fancy,” Risher was quoted as saying.
Offensive starters by position included: centers, Bobby Latham and Larry Risher; guards, Bob Smiley and Terry Austin; tackles, J.W. Clark, Rodney Russell and yours truly; ends, Lee Dukes, Jackie Calhoun, Willie Bowie and Tug Ledford; quarterback, Mike Massey; fullbacks, Ricky Dilley and Tye Gaddis; tailback, Billy Thompson; wing backs, Ken Gordon and Joe Buddy Madden. Bowie was the only black player listed as a starter. Johnny Payton, one of the standouts on the Black Bearcats squad, was also on the roster but was unable to play due to a shoulder operation performed earlier that year.
Starting defenders were tackles, Elbon Johnston and Mike Vaughn; ends, Clark and Calhoun; linebackers, Ricky Dilley, Smiley, Gordon and Gaddis; backs, Dukes, Randy Dilley, Bowie, Madden and Dave Gibson.
Calhoun also handled punting duties. Massey kicked PATs and field goals, and yours truly kicked off.
The Bearcats cruised 27-7 to win the opener, with several players leading the offense. Massey scored on a 16-yard run and later connected with Dukes on a 14-yard TD strike. Gordon scored on a three-yard run, but no doubt the most exciting score came on Dukes’ 93-yard pass interception for a last-minute tally.
The Forest offense totaled 263 yards, while the defending Sam Dale Conference champions could only muster 75 total yards. Clark recovered a fumble to set up the Bearcats’ first score, Elbon Johnston blocked a punt and Gordon snagged an interception in helping lead the Forest defense.
After a resounding 47-6 victory over Raleigh in the second game, the schedule got tougher the following week as conference competition began against Brandon.
The potent Forest offense during the first two games stumbled against the tougher-than-expected Bulldog defense, which had yielded numerous points in their previous contests.
Forest won 6-0 on Gibson’s five-yard run in the fourth quarter. The two-point conversion was not successful. Gibson had replaced starter Thompson after the offense had sputtered for most of the game.
According to the game story by my late father, Erle Johnston, in his Scott County Times weekly newspaper, “It was ‘mini-back’ Randy Dilley (a junior), all 128 pounds of him, who foiled a touchdown-certain Brandon pass completion, and halted two scoring threats with a fumble recovery and pass interception to help preserve the victory.”
The Brandon game also marked a “turning point” for the stellar running back, Billy Thompson.
“Billy was having trouble adjusting to a new head coach…new system and so forth,” Risher recalled, “and was not playing like Billy Thompson could play, in the Brandon game. So we pulled him out of the game, and put in Dave Gibson who scored the only touchdown. But after the Brandon game, Billy got his head on straight and finished the season as one of best running backs Forest has ever produced.”
Conference action continued with Clinton, and resulted in another close contest as Forest held on for a 10-6 victory. Most of the homecoming contest was played under a heavy rainstorm and ruined the planned dedication for Clinton’s new Roy Burkett Field.
All the Bearcat points came in the second period, beginning with Clark’s tackle of a Clinton running back in the end zone for a two-point safety, followed by Ricky Dilley’s 12-yard TD run. Thompson ran for the two-point PAT.
Bowie set up Dilley’s score with his 25-yard punt return to the Clinton 30.
Massey drove the offense deep in Arrow territory on four occasions but each time the ‘Cats were denied the end zone. One drive stopped on the six-inch line.
Clinton’s only score came on a blocked punt in the end zone.
The Bearcat defense was again superb and caused several Clinton turnovers, including fumble recoveries by Calhoun, Gaddis and Elbon Johnston.
Through the first four games, the defense had not allowed a single point. The 13 points allowed were scored by the opponents’ defense.
The next test for the Bearcats: homecoming with Pearl-McLaurin.
And once again, the Bearcat defense dominated and the offense scored enough points to win in a 12-6 decision.
nior quarterback Walter Hatch gave Forest a 6-0 lead when he fired a 30-yard strike to Bowie, who raced the remaining 40 yards to pay dirt on the 70-yard play. Hatch alternated with Massey who had injured a shoulder in the Clinton game.
Pearl answered to deadlock the score at 6-6 in the third stanza.
Forest later took the lead for good in the final stanza thanks to nifty runs by Thompson and Raymond Robinson, who accounted for the drive’s final 47 yards. After Robinson (a black junior) gave the ‘Cats a first down on the Clinton seven, Thompson finished the drive with his short TD run.
Pearl threatened to score late but Madden and Lee Evans (a black junior) combined to break up a fourth-down Clinton pass attempt in Bearcat territory to preserve the win.
The Bearcats took a break from conference play to battle home standing Newton.
Forest disposed of the Tigers 28-12 in a game that featured one of the most successful “trick plays” designed for each week’s opponent.
As described by my late father in the game article, the “trick play” went like this: “It was fourth and four in the fourth quarter when quarterback Mike Massey, having his greatest evening in the aerial department, tossed long to Willie Bowie who deflected the ball over to fast-running Ken Gordon on the outside edge.”
The 23-yard play, referred to these days as a “hook and lateral,” reached the Newton seven and led to a short TD pass from Massey to Madden.
Coach Risher said the play - named “Sweet Georgia Brown” - was used for the first time in the Newton game.
He explained it was patterned after the Georgia play that beat Alabama and was given a lot of notice in Sports Illustrated.
Each week during the season a certain amount of time was devoted during practice in designing a “trick” play, much to the delight of players as well as the coaches.
“We had fun coming up with an unusual play that hopefully would surprise our opponent and give us a little edge - a boost - and momentum when we needed it,” said Dill.
Ricky Dilley scored first for Forest against Newton on his eight-yard jaunt. Gibson followed with a 40-yard interception return for a TD, and Thompson earned his second tally on a five-yard tally.
Newton’s scores came in the first and fourth periods.
Massey completed 11 of 19 passes for 79 yards. Bowie was the top receiver with five receptions. Thompson led rushers with 60 yards on 19 carries.
Once again the Bearcat defense was outstanding. Smiley led tacklers with seven stops and five assists.
The subsequent three contests were easy victories: 25-0 over Forest Hill, 43-6 over Carthage; and 40-0 over Florence.
Next came the regular season finale with the arch-rival Morton Panthers, with a lot more than just bragging rights and the Golden Chicken on the line. The winner of this matchup also captured the North Little Dixie Conference title and a shot at the overall conference championship.
The home standing Panthers - led by then head coach Reggie Robertson - took a 7-0 first quarter lead when quarterback Ronnie Roberts completed a 30-yard TD strike to Kenny Massey.
Forest got on the scoreboard on the last play of the first half, when Massey drilled a 42-yard field in his first-ever field goal attempt.
Many players and no doubt Bearcat fans questioned the sanity of such a call by Coach Risher. After overcoming the “shock and surprise” of the call, everyone (including yours truly) was determined to block for Massey and provide him with enough time to make the kick. And it worked! The long field goal narrowed the Morton advantage to 7-3 and obviously provided much-needed momentum for the Bearcats.
The score remained 7-3 until the final eight minutes of the game.
It was fitting that the Bearcat defense - which had been so dominating throughout the season - would score the winning points. On fourth down and the Panthers about to punt, Latham burst through the Morton front line and blocked Hiram Richardson’s punt at the Panther 20 and Madden, reportedly dazed from a previous contact that he depended on reflex action, scooped up the pigskin and made it into the end zone. Massey booted the PAT and Forest took its first lead at 10-7.
nother standout defensive play came earlier in the game from the speedy Gibson, who caught Panther receiver Bruce Pevey from behind following a 42-yard pass reception from quarterback Roberts. Pevey appeared to have nothing but daylight ahead of him until Gibson pulled him down at the Forest 28. The Bearcat defense once again stiffened and the drive stalled.
Although several minutes remained in the contest after the Bearcats’ defensive score and a 10-7 lead, some players - especially one in particular - began celebrating much too soon!
“I can still see Lee Evans celebrating with Mayor Fred Gaddis,” Risher recalled. “He was eating it up….dancing and having a good time. I jacked him up and told him to get in the game and that he had better make the next tackle! Well, he did better than that…he made several tackles in a row to help clinch the victory!”
Elbon Johnston led the Bearcat defense with seven tackles and seven assists. Other top tacklers were Ricky Dilley, six and six; Gordon, five and five; and Randy Dilley, four and six.
Thompson led ground-gainers with 148 yards on 22 carries.
Mayor Gaddis and Morton poultry executive John Rogers - who sponsored the Golden Chicken Trophy and who are both now deceased, presented the trophy to Forest Supt. Atkins, Risher and the Bearcat team.
In his editorial in The Scott County Times, my father congratulated the Forest coaches and players on the victory: “Sweet was the victory at Morton Friday night, after one of the tensest games in the history of the rivalry between the two schools. Coach Reggie Robertson and the Morton Panthers fought greatly, as expected. In fact, we believe the Friday contest was between two of the finest teams ever fielded by their respective schools.” Dad also extended congratulations “to the cheerleaders, who kept up the spirit in the stands, and the Forest High School Band, under the direction of Doug Harvel, which furnished music and halftime spectaculars during the season.”
The celebration of defeating Morton a second-straight year after a long drought was short-lived, as the Bearcats began preparations to take on Monticello, which won the South Little Dixie Conference title.
Serving as the Red Devils’ head coach was Parker Dykes, a former FHS assistant under Coach Bramlett and who had coached most of current Bearcat squad.
Forest entered the contest with a perfect 10-0 mark, while Monticello was 7-3.
Game preparations went well for the Bearcats and the team was ready to compete for a second-straight overall conference title. Risher had changed the offensive formation to a Wing-T as a surprise move to hopefully confuse Monticello.
But on the morning of the Friday night contest on L.O. Atkins Field, Risher’s infant son, Robin, became ill and was rushed to a Jackson hospital with a serious illness.
Risher recalled that Supt. Atkins ordered him to go be with his son and let the assistant coaches call the game.
It’s a day Risher will never forget.
“I got to the hospital and everyone was shaking their heads like there was no hope for Robin,” Risher said. “I was told to prepare for the worse.”
Not knowing the exact cause of Robin’s illness or if he was contagious, Risher was put in isolation as a precautionary measure. He could not leave the hospital even if he wanted to do so.
But thanks to Supt. Atkins and several Bearcat supporters, a phone line was set up so Risher could maintain communication with his coaches on the field. Risher talked with Forest Schools administrator Troy Henderson (Coach Risher’s uncle) via the special telephone hookup throughout the championship battle.
Was Coach Risher apprehensive about leaving game decisions to his assistants?
“Absolutely not,” Risher stated. “I had all the confidence in the world in Bo Clark and Billy Ray Dill. There was no panic from any of us.”
Clark and Dill echoed those sentiments during the 2016 interview and recalled they were “very well prepared” to meet the challenge.
“But one thing they did not know,” Risher said with a big smile while they were interviewed for this article, “if they had lost the game I was going to fire them both! Now you know….the truth comes out…46 years later!” All three shared a big laugh after that comment, as one might imagine!
But Forest did not lose the hard-fought contest, which was tied 10-10 after three periods.
Thompson scored twice in the final stanza - first on a 13-yard scamper and the second, a one-yard plunge - to clinch the 22-10 victory.
It was Thompson’s one-yard dive in the second period that provided Forest with a 7-3 lead. He also scored on a two-point conversion. Thompson finished with 115 rushing yards. Ricky Dilley had 83 yards.
Gordon led the defensive effort with numerous tackles and assists.
In reflecting on the championship battle, Dill, who had laryngitis during the game, obviously found communicating with players, especially with quarterback Mike Massey, to be somewhat of a challenge.
He especially recalls one “meeting” with Massey during a timeout and the Bearcats near the Monticello goal line.
In a raspy voice, Dill asked the signal caller what play he wanted to run. And to his surprise Massey replied, “I don’t know…you’re the coach!” Dill tried to hold back a laugh when he told him to run tailback belly….resulting in one of Thompson’s three scores!”
In a show of support for Robin Risher, several “Get Well, Robin” signs were displayed by cheerleaders and other students on the fence between the field and stands.
Robin, who was diagnosed with meningitis, remained hospitalized for 10 days and fully recovered from the illness.
he 1970 team accomplished what no other team had done before - a perfect 11-0 record along with the prestigious Little Dixie Conference title. And did so with the first integrated team, a new head coach and staff, and without the head coach on the sidelines for the title game.
(It should be noted that the perfect season in 1970 was unmatched in Bearcat history until the 2010 squad went 15-0 and claimed a state championship.)
The Forest community showed its support of the 1970 squad by sending the team to the Sugar Bowl. Various gifts were also presented to the coaching staff.
Risher was named Little Dixie Conference Coach of the Year and six players - Dave Gibson, J.W. Clark, Ken Gordon, Bob Smiley, Mike Massey and Billy Thompson received conference honors. Thompson received a scholarship to Mississippi College and several players continued their careers at East Central Junior College.
Sadly, several members of the 1970 squad are deceased, including “seniors” Billy Thompson, Dave Gibson, J.W. Clark and Elbon Johnston.
The three-man coaching staff would never experience the same success together.
Risher logged 45 years in the the coaching business, including 12 years as a head coach at several schools. He was twice chosen to coach in the annual high school All-Star game. He most recently served as an assistant at his alma mater - East Central Community College in Decatur - as a member of Ken Karcher’s staff. Even at age 75 when this interview was held, Risher said he still “yearned” to be on the field and would jump at another chance to coach (but I doubt his wife Nelda would approved of such a move!).
Risher, 79, is battling cancer diagnosed earlier this year. He received good news in mid-July that his cancer is in remission. He is expected to attend the special ceremony and provide brief remarks.
Clark stayed in coaching a few years after that historic 1970 season, and when asked how many total years he coached, the then 85-year-old public servant replied, “All of them!” He was serving his ninth term as a member of the Forest City Council when his health failed at age 89 in May 2019. He was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Pearl.
Dill 74, spent 13 years in coaching and served as offensive coordinator and back field coach on the undefeated and state champion 1976 Pascagoula team.
He left coaching for a career with the Chevron Oil Refinery and retired in 2005.
All three agreed the championship season in 1970 would not have happened without the cooperation and support from the school administration, faculty and staff, cheerleaders, band, as well as the tremendous community support. While some communities fought integration, the vast majority of Forest embraced it and made it work.
“But the biggest challenge,” Risher stated, “was getting everybody to accept one another.”
That “challenge” was obviously met, and the 1970 Forest High School Bearcats will no doubt be remembered not only as an undefeated and championship team, but one that overcame numerous challenges to do so….by simply working together as a team to achieve success.