The High School Game of the Century

Star OKC Capitol Hill defender Jim Dobson drags down OKC Douglass’s Joe Bruner after a short gain.

It was a game like none other in Oklahoma, perhaps American, high school football history. The “colored” team from the wrong side of the tracks versus the “cracker” team from the wrong side of the river. One team’s school was named for famed African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The other team’s players had attended grade schools and junior highs named for Confederate legends like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Neither team’s players felt safe venturing into the other’s section of race-segregated Oklahoma City. The black team had not lost a game in five years and had thrashed rivals from three states by scores like 47-0, 65-0, 61-18, and 67-0. The white team had won seven straight conference titles and a half-dozen large school state championships.

Capitol Hill quarterback Dick Soergel.

Never before had a “Negro” high football team slugged it out against a white one in a school game in any class of play in segregated Oklahoma. The game was not sanctioned by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association (OSSAA). That made no difference to the iconic head coaches, Moses “Pi-Yi” Miller of all-black Douglass and C. B. Speegle of all-white Capitol Hill.

Good friends, they had scrimmaged their teams for years in pre-season play. Injuries and even hospital trips were not uncommon in those violent set-tos. Miller and Speegle set up the historic regular season clash themselves. What about school administrators and civic leaders in still-segregated Oklahoma City? “They didn’t even know about it,” Speegle said.

The gridiron was far from the only venue where blacks and whites lived forcibly-separated lives. Jim Crow era segregation laws dating back to Oklahoma’s 1907 statehood still prohibited “race mixing” across society.

Douglass quarterback Russell Perry demonstrates his vaunted jump pass form.

African-Americans were restricted to buying homes in “their own neighborhoods.” They could purchase clothing from white-owned stores, but not try on those clothes beforehand. Many white-owned restaurants prohibited blacks coming in to dine. Some allowed them to “pick up their food to go, in the alley,” as black historian Bruce Fisher recalled from his childhood days.

Clara Luper and other Civil Rights champions had not yet won African-Americans the right to sit at lunch counters in OKC drug stores and department stores.

Meanwhile, white business owners faced economic boycotts, social ostracization, and possible misdemeanor legal charges if they served black customers. White ministers could be and sometimes were fired for standing up for African-American constitutional rights.

Redskin coach and Roosevelt, Oklahoma native C. B. Speegle.

Packed House, TV, Radio

The general public apparently held no such qualms as their leaders or laws about the Douglass Trojans and Capitol Hill Redskins facing off on the football field. They bought all the tickets that Capitol Hill, the host school, would sell, over ten thousand of them, including for thousands of rented, portable bleacher seats. Those who didn’t get tickets watched on live television or listened on one of the two radio stations covering the game.

And what a game it was. Future college stars littered the field. Some of OU and OSU’s greatest players of the 1950s wore the Redskins’ maroon and white or the Trojans’ black and orange.

Douglass Trojan football coach Moses F. Miller.

Douglass’s Prentice Gautt, “easily the outstanding performer on the field,” according to Daily Oklahoman sportswriter Bob Dellinger, would become the first black player for the Oklahoma Sooners, an All-Conference star, and a longtime NFL player. OU’s Prentice Gautt Academic Center would be named for the scholar. He earned his doctorate and served for years as Assistant Commissioner of the Big Eight and Big Twelve Conferences.

Douglass fullback Wallace Johnson became the second black OU gridder, as well as a Vietnam War officer, lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, and a professor at George Mason University.

Six-foot-three-inch Dick Soergel of Capitol Hill would quarterback Oklahoma State for three years, star on the Cowboys’ basketball team, and pitch their baseball team to the 1959 national championship. Redskin end Jim Dobson starred with Soergel on those OSU football and baseball teams, and his bat hit the latter to the national title.

Douglass football star Prentice Gautt’s NFL trading card.

But on Friday night, November 3, 1955, they were teenagers playing for many kinds of pride. Douglass quarterback and future college quarterback, Oklahoma Secretary of Commece, and broadcasting titan Russell Perry remembered, “We wanted to beat the white guys…We felt like we had to win….It was the biggest game of my life.”

“We probably had a fear of black people,” Soergel said. He had never spoken to an African-American person, and didn’t during the game. He recalled the hostility he felt from blacks at a Douglass-area YMCA where he had played a few basketball games when younger.

The 1959 OSU National Championship baseball team. Dick Soergel and Jim Dobson, stars of the 1955 Capitol Hill football team, pitched and hit, respectively, the Cowboys to the crown.

Game for the Ages

“A titanic struggle…(with) some of the sternest line pounding seen on the Oklahoma gridiron all year,” the Oklahoman’s Dellinger wrote as the two teams battled their way to a 6-6 halftime draw. Gautt had thundered for 110 yards and a touchdown.

At halftime, however, Speegle adjusted the Redskin defense. “It was the only time that I (ever) changed defenses at halftime,” he recalled later. The overhaul worked. Gautt gained only thirty-seven yards in the second half.

Capitol Hill lost four fumbles in the bruising battle, but Douglass, whom numerous Redskin players accused of biting them during the contest, sustained numerous penalties, as they had in their previous games against all-black teams.

Capitol Hill’s modern-day football stadium, named for legendary Redskin coach C. B. Speegle.

The thrilling contest rumbled down to the final thirty seconds, still tied 6-6. Amidst the deafening roar of the crowd, Soergel and Capitol Hill lined up over the ball with a fourth down and goal on the Trojan one-yard-line. Redskin fullback Bobby Jobe, soon headed to OU as Gautt’s teammate, barreled into the end zone with twenty-seven seconds remaining to give his team a 13-6 lead after the extra point kick.

Remarkably, even that did not settle the contest. Douglass had one more chance. In his offensive huddle, quarterback Perry called a long bomb to star pass catcher Ellsworth Hardeman. Coach Miller had ordered the play. Hardeman surprised his teammates by voicing a rare protest on the iron-willed Miller’s team.

“Soergel will be waiting back there and he’s too tall,” the fleet receiver urged. “Throw it to me on a medium route across the middle. I’ll get open and I’ll get it into the end zone.” Perry stuck with his legendary coach’s play.

He took the snap and dropped back to throw. Leaping into the air, his trademark throwing style, Perry hurled a dramatic jump pass fifty yards through the air into the end zone toward Hardeman as time ran out. The lanky Soergel intercepted it.

The OSU-bound quarterback finished the game with nearly 170 yards offense himself.

The Daily Oklahoman newspaper sports section’s dramatic, morning-after coverage of the historic 1955 Douglass-Capitol Hill football game.

Opening Doors

“From start to finish it was a toe to toe battle of two mighty defensive lines,” Dellinger wrote, “keyed to a fervor which was matched by the constant uproar of the overflow crowd.”

It was a memorable launch to integrated high school football in Oklahoma. Hardeman told this author that the game officials encouraged players from both teams during the game, and gave them playing tips.

Though there were no fights or unsportsmanlike eruptions, the clash was savage. Injuries sustained from it ruined both teams for the year. Some Douglass fans claimed that poor officiating contributed to their team’s defeat. Trojan players who participated in the game told the author they believed the officiating was fair.

“The more time goes by, the prouder I am to have played in that game,” Soergel told the Oklahoman newspaper in 1999. “Perhaps, in a small way, that opened some doors that needed to be opened.”

Douglass High School’s modern-day football stadium, named for mighty Trojan coach Moses F. Miller.

Two-thirds of a century later, Douglass’s football stadium is named for Coach Miller. Capitol Hill’s is named for Coach Speegle, whose decorated tenure there stretched nearly 40 years. Gautt and Soergel later became good friends.

Perry served as Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce in the Frank Keating gubernatorial administration. He built Perry Publishing and Broadcasting Company, the largest independent broadcaster in the state, as well as the Black Chronicle, the largest weekly newspaper in Oklahoma.

The year after “The Game,” Douglass entered the ranks of OSSAA high school competition. Perry led them to the large school state championship in their first campaign. Capitol Hill won the state title the following two seasons.

Logo for Russell Perry’s Perry Publishing and Broadcasting Company, the largest independent broadcaster in Oklahoma.

John J. Dwyer | redriverdwyer@gmail.com | OKLAHOMA, USA

Pendragon Web & Graphic Design