Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of the When Marion Played Sports series. Click the link to see all the articles in the series.
By Jackie Hunt
Special to The Gazette
From 1947 until 1959 Marion Industrial High School set among pine trees on the area that is now the Oliver Recreation Center and served as the education hub for blacks in the Northeast portion of Union Parish. The campus consisted of a cluster of wooden buildings and areas cleared for football and basketball fields.
Conversations with alumni of MIHS paint a picture of sports as the center of school culture. Much of what is shared in the series of articles related to sports in Marion can only be gleamed through the still sharp minds of some 80+ year old men and women, bits and pieces of yearbooks and lore handed down over 70 years.
Pivotal in gathering information for this segment were lengthy interviews with Ralph D. Holley of Marion and James Wayne, a retired attorney who now lives in Baton Rouge. Additionally, conversations via ZOOM during a series of podcasts captured the thoughts of many others who were part of the Golden Lion experience.
These elder statespersons were excited to share their recollection of the many male and female athletes who went outside to play for the school. Outside is taken literally when considering the basketball court was a segment of maintained dirt with plant backboards and goals mounted on cut pine timbers at each end.
Both Holley and Wayne were key members of the 1957 state championship football squad and agreed to relive that fateful year and talk about the school in detail. A photograph provided by Holley shows 21 imposing young players (minus protective facemasks) that appear ready to take on anybody. In ’57, they did. They were all lean, solid and looked like the group of rough country boys they were. In addition to the players there was a young head coach John Q. Watley, who taught and coached in the parish for many years after MIHS was gone.
The player’s names are recognizable to almost anyone who grew up in and around Marion. Many are life-long residents, while others moved elsewhere but left the memories. Cliff Gilliam, the diminutive quarterback, who Holley calls, “a real field general”, his brother Houston Gilliam and Holley are the last of the 1957 Lions still living in Marion.
The Golden Lions roared through opponents on their way to a 10-1 record and the L.I.A.L.O. class 1A state championship. The Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic and Literary Organization was the governing body for black athletic and academics. The season ended with Marion defeating the Grand Avenue High School Tigers from DeQuincy, La.
After being beaten 19-14 by the Lions, Grand Avenue went on to win championships the next year and in 1965 and 1966. The Tigers also made a trip up to Union Parish in 1969 to face Eastside High in the state championship. The Demons proceeded to hand them the worst loss in school history, 70-0.
The lone Lion loss that year was to Haynesville Colored High, 12-0. This came as somewhat of a moral victory considering Haynesville were winners of two of the three previous titles and played in the 3A ranks.
The 1957 squad featured a defense that never gave up more than 14 points in a game. Coach Watley’s defense was led by stars like Hilbert C. Lee, Willie Clyde Wayne, Johnny B. Lee, Chester Ferguson, “Big Doc” and Charles Archie, Holley, Wayne and others. The team kept Marion’s local doctor, Grady Dugas, busy repairing opponent’s broken body parts.
While they were shutting teams down, the offense put the finishing touches on. During group chats that included Lee, Holley, Wayne and others they fondly recalled their go-to play. It was a pass play called “end one”. The trickery would start will quarterback Gilliam and the offense rolling left to resemble a power sweep. Gilliam, however, would slip the ball to left end Holley, who went against the flow and looked for the right end Hilbert Lee, who would be the target for Holley’s passes. The play worked for 15 touchdowns that year, including two in the state championship game. The group cites the innovative mind of Coach Watley for creating such an out-of-the-box play and implementing it to perfection.
The success of the 1957 football squad is on the list of proud moments for the sleepy state-line hamlet over 60 years later. Holley remembers beating neighboring Westside High in the play-offs and that Union Parish Training Center chose not play Marion that year, speculating that legendary coach Dave Crawford knew his 2A team couldn’t compete with Marion.
When we talk Marion sports, remember the Lions.