By Jackie Hunt
Special to The Gazette
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of the When Marion Played Sports series. Click the link to see all the articles in the series.
“Confident” is how Bobby Lanell Andrews recalls the 1969 Eastside Demons squad at the beginning of the season. “We just felt we were going to be good. We had some very smart players coming back”, he says.
That confidence, however, was not held by all who followed the Demons. They were coming off the school’s first ever play-off game, a 21-20 loss to McCall High School the previous year. Gone from the 1968 squad were a lot of big, talented players. Stars like George Bragg, Harvey Lowe, Joe Fields and Alvis Hill were no longer on the roster. To further compound matters, desegregation had come to Union Parish and all of Eastside’s freshmen and sophomore students had been moved to previously all white schools at the start of the year.
The most impactful change came when the only head-coach Eastside had known, Dave Crawford, was moved to another position in the parish to aid in the integration process. He was replaced by assistant coach, C. H. Jackson. While the team mourned the loss of their beloved leader, Jackson was well liked and would prove to be a very capable head coach.
The cynicism about the 1969-70 squad began with the 1968 play-off loss with team followers telling team members they had blown their golden opportunity. The stars were all gone now. What are you gonna do now? Well…
From the confusion and doubt came a juggernaut. Ralph Holley, a keen and avid sports observer, and member of the Marion Industrial championship team of 1957 called the 1969 Demons “The best high school football team I have ever seen,” adding, “They were good in all phases of the game. They dominated”.
Jackson quickly put his mark on the team, making a major decision to elevate junior Bobby Smedley to starting quarterback and use senior Andrews in passing situations. The two-quarterback system blended with a lethal running game to post 44 points a game. The team’s fleet of running backs ran through gaping holes made by a small but effective offensive line. The running back room was led by 1200-yard rusher Henry “Cow” Thompson. The “Cow” along with Larry Fields, Benny Archie, Billie Joe “Hawk” Jackson and Charles “Bo” Bilberry rushed for 250 plus yards in each game except one. The elusive Smedley added over 800 rushing yards, tossed 14 touchdowns passes and rushed for 8 more.
And then there was James Lee Bright. Bright was big, strong, fast and could catch anything catchable. On his way to earning a scholarship to U.C.L.A. he managed to grab 12 touchdown passes, return a punt 74 yards to rescue the Demons in a 12-7 win over Grambling High and add five interceptions on defense. Bright, while at UCLA was an All-Pac 8 safety as a senior. He was drafted in the 6th round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1974 but opted to spend that season playing for the Southern California Sun of the World Football League. He joined Dallas in 1975 but injury forced him out of the game.
For many of the players there were no rest plays, as they labored on both sides of the ball. Emmit “Cube” Burch, Ronnie Andrews, Johnnie Smith, Joilet Morris and captains Earl Nute and Jackie Hunt opened holes on offense and then moved to defense to close holes. So “confident” was this line that the fun-loving Burch would often break from the huddle, point to a defensive player, and loudly warn that “The choo-choo is coming over you.” The choo-choo did.
When the players moved over to defense, they were joined by All-State defensive end Jimmie Brown and linebacker Kenneth “Sap” Dixon, a small but fearless hitter. This stingy unit gave up an average of 6 points per game. The secondary of Bright, Smedley, Hunt, “Hawk” Jackson and James “Bud” Ellison allowed one touchdown pass all season.
In addition to tipping off defenders they were about to be demolished, Burch handled the kicking duties. He famously boomed a 74-yard punt to pin back Richardson High in the Demons only other close game that year. That kick and a late interception by Dixon sealed the 20-14 win.
The undefeated Demons hosted the final LIALO state championship game at the new Doc Elliott Stadium, where they had started playing the previous year. After taking the kick-off and going 70 yard in four plays, it was apparent to all watching the Demons would have little trouble with Grand Avenue High School from DeQuincy, La. The final score was 70-0.
C. H. Jackson had his and the school’s first championship. So, vicariously, did Dave Crawford, who though no longer with the team, had groomed this group from eighth grade practice dummies to a “confident” group of champions.