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For 40 years, the Armstrong-Walker Classic was the highlight of Richmond's football scene
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For 40 years, the Armstrong-Walker Classic was the highlight of Richmond's football scene

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RTD A1 - Nov. 24, 2021

Where did all these people come from … for a high school football game, for crying out loud?

Close your eyes and, with a little imagination, you can still hear the roar of the crowd … the pop of helmets and shoulder pads colliding … the sights and sounds of high-stepping marching bands … the pageantry of young women dressed to the nines, riding in convertibles, parading around the field of play … the laughter of people having a good time … neighbors coming together as rivals for a year’s bragging rights until they did it all over again the next Saturday after Thanksgiving ... friends, win or lose — the sounds of voices dying.

It has been 43 years, believe it or not, since Maggie Walker and Armstrong — not to be confused with today’s local emporiums of higher learning that go by the same names — played football in what was, for all involved, an experience of a lifetime. Ask anyone who was there. “It wasn’t just a game,” said John L. Taylor III, 66, Armstrong defensive end/offensive tackle and valedictorian (Class of 1973).

On Saturday, the city will throw a parade in memory of the event. It will begin at 10 a.m. at Leigh and Fourth streets, and end at Virginia Union, where there will be a tailgating party and youth football game.

“It was 40 years [of memories] for one generation,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said. “We’re going to create a new streak of 40 years for a new generation of Richmonders.”

***

Howard Hopkins couldn’t believe it, watching upward of 20,000 fans descend on City Stadium. He was a come-here, fresh out of Fayetteville State, hired to teach health and physical education. Oh, and while he was at it, how about assisting with track (which he ran in college) and helping with football (which he never played)?

“I was paid $5,100 a year … and thought I was rich,” recalled Hopkins, 75, whose résumé at Maggie Walker includes starting a wrestling team, also coaching basketball and softball as well as being athletic director. He has seen it all — and done most of it — when it comes to sports and education here for 54 years.

The rivalry with Armstrong, however, holds a special place in the old memory bank, starting with his introduction in 1967.

“When I walked into the stadium, I didn’t have a clue what to expect,” Hopkins said. “There were some people there while we warmed up. We went to the locker room … and came out, ready for the game. In that short period of time it was unbelievable how many people had gotten in the stands. And there were long lines everywhere. Here I am, brand new to Richmond, and I’m involved in one of the greatest high school classics ever played.”

For sure, it was the greatest ever held in Virginia — for a number of reasons, some more obvious than others. This is Volume 73 in the memory man’s nostalgic look at the good, old days of yesteryear. Call it: “A Treasured Era.”

***

The inaugural “Classic” was held in 1938, the last in 1978. Nobody knows for sure how many attended the first game (a good guess would be around 3,000) except that it was held Dec. 2 on Virginia Union’s Hovey Field. Having just opened, Maggie Walker nevertheless challenged Armstrong, which won via a shutout.

There also was some question about the final score, but it hardly mattered. For the next 41 years, Richmond’s Black community celebrated a commonality quite likely never equaled, before or since. “It was something that everybody looked forward to. The records didn’t matter,” said Hopkins.

“It was just absolutely beautiful … the streamers, the dress, the stadium filled with cars decorated in orange and blue and green and white … the Corvettes, the cheerleaders … sitting in the back ... and everybody screaming — an unbelievable sight, if you’ve never experienced it before.”

From that opening low to a high of 34,000 in 1969, the average crowd was 16,000. Over the final 20 years, it was 21,000-plus. (By the way, all attendance figures for the “The Classic” are estimates, and there are people who insist some were under counted. Really!)

Think about it. High school football is important in this part of the country, yet you would be hard-pressed to convince anyone based on gate receipts alone. On the other hand, Maggie Walker/Armstrong, which moved to City Stadium in 1941, was a better draw than most state college games.

“This was so special,” Taylor said. “The whole city of Richmond shut down.”

To put the overwhelming interest in some perspective: In 1968, when Walker/Armstrong attracted 30,000 to City Stadium [cap., 22,000. approx.], the Tobacco Bowl — West Virginia 20-0 over William & Mary at the same venue — did 15,500 … and 16,114 saw Richmond’s 49-42 Tangerine Bowl upset of 15th-ranked Ohio in Orlando, Fla. The official record for City Stadium is 21,319 for the 1995 NCAA soccer tournament’s semifinals. Go figure!

You get the idea. So, they never bothered to count and/or announce the number of tickets sold to the “Classic.” Bottom line: “It paid the entire athletic budgets for both schools,” said Hopkins.

***

How to explain? Well, for one thing, we’re talking about a different time, when it was all about fair play … friendly competition. “It was like we were one big family,” said Weldon Edwards, who last played for Maggie Walker in 1969 before becoming the first Black athlete to suit up (in any sport) for UR.

“We had higher standards then,” said McDaniel Anderson, 70, Armstrong (‘73) quarterback who ran the “veer” offense and scored six touchdowns as a senior. “Sportsmanship came first.”

His wife went to Maggie Walker. “So many friendships were built then,” Anderson said. “It was a treasured era.”

Taylor : “If you weren’t playing Maggie Walker, you were rooting for them. Richmond back then … we were all brothers and sisters.”

Everyone we spoke to got almost wistful, thinking about how it was — and wishing they could go back in time and re-live the good old days. More to the point, wouldn’t it be nice if things hadn’t changed so drastically?

“It also was an escape from what was going on in the world. It kept us grounded … and focused,” said Taylor , from Church Hill and a lawyer here for more than 40 years. “It was not about the politics of the day … and the quality of education was good back then. Old school. The quality of coaching was excellent.”

So was the quality of blocking and tackling. Twelve of the 41 games were considered major upsets. Five ended in ties, the last in 1957. Walker won 22 on the field but a 17-12 upset of previously unbeaten Armstrong in 1976 was forfeited by the Virginia High School League because of an ineligible player. More on the VHSL’s effect on “The Classic” in a moment.

***

Full disclosure: We never saw a “Classic.” Our loss. No question. Our interest was triggered by James Jackson, who attended Armstrong back in the day but played basketball, not football. “The information shouldn’t be hard to find,” he said, “… and it can write itself.” Easy for him to say.

Originally, the plan was to have some of the participants tell stories — and let it go at that. The more they reflected on then ... as compared to now … Plan B also emerged. So, if you’re looking for the nuts and bolts of “The Classic,” start to finish, be advised the absolute best source is “United in Rivalry: Richmond’s Armstrong—Maggie Walker Classic,” compiled and written by local historian/author Michael Whitt (The History Press, $19.99). It’s all there, game by game, a worthy account of the rise and fall of a splendid rivalry that eventually died through no fault of its own — a victim of the times.

It was a series built on the genius of coaches like Maxie Robinson, Arthur “Stretch” Gardner, Fred “Cannonball” Cooper, Pierce Callaham, Angier Lawrence and Lou Anderson … and players such as Willie Lanier, Leroy Sledge, Jesse Dark, M. Anderson, Nathan Munford and W. Edwards — who was profiled in Volume 48: “Mother Knows Best.”

While students from both schools were engaging in a week-long buildup to the annual clash — pep rallies, etc. — the coaches were designing their game plans, invariably looking for ways to outfox — read: surprise — the competition. “I can’t remember which game it was … but ‘Cannonball’ Cooper said, ‘Let’s put an extra set of jerseys in our bag in case it rains … and we can change them at halftime and lighten the weight on the kids a little bit,’” Hopkins recalled.

“Sure enough, it rained … and at halftime we were behind 12-0 and changed jerseys. We won the game, and all people talked about was the fact we won because we changed jerseys. No, I didn’t believe it. We won because we played better in the second half.”

Hopkins also remembered Lawrence, the Armstrong coach who succeeded Robinson, putting in “the ‘belly series,’ where they’d put the ball in the belly of one back, take it out and pitch it outside. I’m sure seasoned coaches like Cooper and Callaham had seen it before … but our kids just couldn’t get used to it. They’d go for the fake every time. He’d pitch to the guy outside and … boom! They tricked us, that’s what we said.”

OK, so what kind of chicanery did Maggie Walker use to get even? You did something, didn’t you?

“Well … one of our favorite plays that we won a couple of times with we called 23 Pass. We’d fake handing the ball to the halfback, and he runs through the line and down the middle of the field. In the meantime, if they were in two deep, we’d put an end on both sides. They’d go deep down the sidelines … the safeties would go with them, and our halfback would be wide open every time,” Hopkins said.

“You would think, after a while, they would know ‘this is what they’re going to do,’ wouldn’t you?”

***

Lanier, 76, probably is the best known alumnus (Walker, ‘62) of “The Classic,” a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs. A retired stockbroker/investment banker, he lives in Midlothian.

Munford (Armstrong, ‘75), a 5-8, 160-pound tailback, scored four touchdowns (had another called back) and never lost to Walker. The first three were by shutouts, including 22-0 when he was a junior. “It was 0-0 going into the half. We made some adjustments. I ran 73 yards for a touchdown and, after that, we poured it on,” Munford recalled. “My senior year was called ‘the best game ever.’”

The Wildcats won 24-22 after Munford carried eight times on a 99-yard drive, scoring the first touchdown from three yards out then running for the two-point conversion. A retired juvenile corrections officer and coach, he turns 65 next month.

Starting in 1962, Maggie Walker ran off nine straight wins in “The Classic” and claimed a couple of VIA state championships along the way. If Lanier was the best known, Sledge was probably the best — ever.

“He’s considered a legend,” said Edwards. “Leroy was a big guy — 6-2, 230 — and the ultimate back. Unbelievable to tackle.”

In 1965, the late Sledge ran 62 yards for a touchdown, among 104 yards in all. Walker won 18-0, and a crowd of 22,000 left talking not about his ability to carry a football but about his punting, which kept Armstrong on its heels throughout the game. One Sledge kick went 67 yards, to the Wildcats’ 20.

He attended Bakersfield Junior College then played for the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions (1967-69) and Edmonton Eskimos (1970) before joining the NFL’s Houston Oilers (1971). A knee injury, reportedly suffered in a team workout, ended his career.

Dark, a northside playground basketball legend who went to VCU and later played for the NBA’s New York Knicks, was an excellent field-goal kicker, too. Edwards remembered “Bodine” as someone who “could kick the ball out of the field.” Dark played on both sides of the ball, recovering an Armstrong fumble and catching a touchdown pass en route to an 18-6 victory in 1968.

***

OK, so what happened? Where did it all go wrong? What ended something that was so good for so long?

“The breakdown came with integration,” McDaniel Anderson said.

In 1968, the schools joined the VHSL and, for the first time, played previously all-white John Marshall. Walker beat Jayem 7-6 while Armstrong won 26-0. In addition, the Wildcats romped 27-0 over George Wythe and 66-0 over Kennedy, which was in its first year of competition.

Two weeks before “The Classic,” the VHSL informed Armstrong it had used a couple of over-age, and thus ineligible, players and would have to forfeit all six of its victories. Coach Maxie Robinson told his players John Marshall turned them in. Then, eight years later, the VHSL ruled Walker used an ineligible player — a transfer from Hermitage High — and awarded “The Classic” to Armstrong.

Meanwhile, the teams never were eligible for the state playoffs because they insisted on playing their annual showdown after the VHSL-mandated deadline date. “We had no choice,” Jackson said. “In today’s terms, that was our ‘money’ game … I was told … the biggest money-making event in the state. Everybody made money.”

Long before kickoff, everyone knew the 1978 game would be the last, thanks to something called Plan G, that would consolidate the city’s seven public schools into three. A crowd of anywhere from 30,000 to 43,000 — estimated, of course — turned out. Walker won 18-0, and just like that, a good thing, that bound a community together, was gone.

“Now, there’s no respect for anything,” said Hopkins, who retired officially in 2003 but since then has served nine city schools as interim principal. “It’s changed so much … and a high percentage has to do with lack of parenting. I worked in the city all my life, and I can’t recall but one or two fights among students at Maggie Walker.

“My mama used to say: ‘When you go out there and act like a fool, it’s a reflection on me … Nobody better come and tell me you did something wrong — and be right’ … I can’t remember having a parent upset because we had to discipline a child. Now, parents come in mad and sad and fussin’ and cussin.’ It’s really sad.”

***

Saturday, the old “Classic” gang will gather again to swap stories — that are bound to have gotten better with age — and celebrate an event that unfortunately is lost forever.

The reunion will be centered around the 10 a.m. parade, which will start at the Coliseum and run down Leigh Street to Maggie Walker on Lombardy. That will be followed at noon by a tailgate party at Virginia Union, site of the first “Classic” 83 years ago. Also on tap will be games involving youngsters wearing gold and blue and green and white uniforms. Everyone is welcomed.

It will be a reminder of when times were good — and taken for granted, perhaps.

“Like fine wine … some things you learn to appreciate with time,” Taylor said.

mbl749@comcast.net

804-370-1080

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