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CHESTER COUNTY FOOTBALL 2019: Remembering Chester's last "Encore"

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Spearman's Red Cyclone won it all in '35, '36

By Travis Jenkins

Every morning, Lawrence Spearman lined up each of his Chester High homeroom students and gave each a paddling to “warm them up.” He handed out lots of spankings on the football field too.

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The Chester Cyclones are about to embark on “The Encore,” the theme they’ve selected for the follow-up to the undefeated, 2018 AAA state championship season. Because the program’s last run of sustained success was so long ago and far away, most fans may not realize Chester has actually repeated as state champions on two occasions. Back in 1936, when America was comprised of only 48 states, before World War II began, when the high school yearbook contained an ad honoring local Civil War veterans, when a state-of-the-art “Heatrola” furnace (and 2,000 pounds of free coal) could be obtained with a $2.00 down payment at most hardware stores and the phone number of Chester’s Hardin-Brice Drug Company was 202, the then Chester High Red Cyclone football team ruled the Palmetto State.

High school football in South Carolina was still in its infancy when Spearman was hired as head football coach at Chester in 1928. State champions had only begun to be recognized 12 years beforehand and the Red Cyclone did enjoy some early success, finishing as state runners-up to Charleston High in 1921. That accomplishment would pale in comparison to what Spearman’s teams would accomplish.

Very little is known about the early life of Spearman. Census information from 1906 does indicate the birth of a Lawrence Spearman in Newberry. Later newspaper accounts of Spearman's coaching exploits note that he played football, baseball and basketball at Newberry College. He is listed as being an "all-state football performer" at Newberry, which would be the modern equivalent of an all-conference player. A previous inquiry to the Newberry College sports information department failed to turn up anything about what position he played or what sort of stats he may have accrued. Davidson College, where Spearman later worked, did provide a copy of a coaches profile that looks to have been crafted on a manual typewriter. It notes that he was a "strongly-built man of nearly six feet" with brown hair and blue eyes and says he was married. Spearman often went by “L.A.” but was strangely listed as having been given the nickname “Lady” among friends in Newberry because of "a boyhood prank with an air rifle years ago."

In Spearman’s first year at Chester, the Red Cyclone went undefeated in the regular season and outscored the opposition 136-6. The postseason format in those days was a complete crapshoot. Records and newspaper accounts indicate that there were structured, organized playoffs some years and in other years not. There were instances of the regular season ending and the two presumed top teams challenging one another with a title on the line. That year, there was a playoff for the “B” championship (one of only two classifications in the state at the time). Chester defeated now-defunct Simpsonville 19-6 in the first round before losing a heartbreaker to Batesburg-Leesville 7-6.

Chester won state crowns each of the next two years. The following year shows how different an era it was for sports in the 1920s. Chester went unbeaten in the regular season and was to play Brookland-Cayce in the playoffs. The two teams tied 6-6. A clear winner had to be declared for the sake of Spartanburg having an opponent the next week and there was no overtime then, so the two played again a few days later (something that could not occur now because of mandatory rest provisions). Chester won, then played two tie games with Spartanburg in the course of only a few days before winning a third contest, their fifth in less than two weeks. That left them in poor shape to face a well-rested Camden for state, with the latter claiming the title with a 32-7 win, the second-worst beating of Spearman’s tenure.

It’s difficult to glean many particulars about Spearman’s early teams outside of player names and final scores. None of his contemporaries or players are still alive to sing his praises, the Cestrian yearbook would simply state every year that praise that could paid to any one player “could be said of all” and newspaper accounts were long on hyperbole and short on actual game accounts.

"More thrills were packed into the Chester-Gaffney game in Chester Friday than are usually seen in a dozen games...The game was too fast for anyone to attempt to keep any statistics but as near as we could record, the two teams tried 33 passes between them as well as nine or 10 laterals. Interspersed with these brilliant aerial maneuvers were some scintillating runs, splendid blocking and tackling and punting that practically all the college teams we've seen this year might envy,” one story noted. Records of the team’s off-field exploits were far more through. A story believed to have run in a 1930 edition of the Chester Reporter indicates, oddly, that as Spearman’s team drove through Union County headed to a game, they came upon an unoccupied home that had caught fire. By the time the Union Fire Department arrived, Spearman’s boys were “on top of the house, inside the house and all about the lot with the fire completely under their control.” The players used “their hats and caps” to collect drain water and dumped it on the flames (and won their game later that day).

By the time Spearman had his second back-to-back champions in 1935 and 1936, things had changed. The Chester Reporter previewed and covered each Red Cyclone contest in great detail. High school football remains an important part of the culture, but it was a focal point of life in general at that time. Chester football stories ran on the front page of the newspaper (including details on injuries to players, with one story noting a starting lineman was suffering from “a troublesome boil”), as would reports on the happenings with upcoming opponents. A 1930s account detailed how a new coach at York High School had his team “spending a few days in the Yadkin River Valley near Lenoir, N.C. engaged in football practices and other forms of athletics” and that “Coach Pressley is putting the football candidates through four hours of stiff football practices each day and that the boys are thriving on it.”

Because almost no high school stadiums were furnished with lights at that time, games were generally played on Friday or Saturday afternoons. Local businesses would close up shop early on game days, figuring they’d have no customers then anyway. Henry Nichols, the photographer of record for Chester County for decades, helped preserve some history of the program and not just with the still pictures for which he is famous. One 1935 Chester Reporter story makes mention that he had been “furnished with about $25 worth of moving picture film and his camera will be grinding continuously behind every play and from various angles for best results. It will be the first moving picture ever taken of an entire game played in by Chester.” That was for a showdown with Rock Hill which Duke University Coach Wallace Wade was said to be attending in person to “cast a critical eye on the Red Cyclone machine.”

Judging from two years worth of game accounts, Spearman’s teams won on defense and a running game. They would generally run for 180-200 yards per game, attempt somewhere between four and six passes a contest and usually hold opponents to under 100 total yards. Spearman also seemed to have a knack for calling “trick” plays, with the Red Cyclone often recording deciding scores on reverses or surprise laterals.

Despite his tenure having been an overwhelming success to that point and the presence of future NFLer “Zip” Hannah on the line and soon-to-be South Carolina Gamecock starter James “Muscle Head” Weir at end, Spearman offered up a world class job of poor-mouthing his squad coming into 1935. Perhaps using the local paper to motivate his team, Spearman told reporter Tommy Hedgpath in August of that year “I am disappointed with the number of players reporting for practicing. However, with the material on hand barring injury, etc., we hope to make a fair football team by mid-season…Of the 16 lettermen of last year’s squad, eleven have been lost through graduation and otherwise…This is the most severe loss ever suffered by a Chester 11, if my memory serves me right.” His comments, among the only direct quotes from Spearman found over many years worth of written newspaper accounts, mentioned the tough upcoming schedule featuring schools that were all much larger than Chester in terms of enrollment. He tried to ready his team with two practices a day, each of which lasted several hours and featured full, 11-on-11 scrimmages (practices which are no longer allowed). George “Crokie” Fleming was a young boy at that time and previously told the News & Reporter it was not uncommon for Spearman to deliver a kick to the rear end of players that did not get low enough in their stance or square up to tackle properly in practice. Hedgpath noted in a following issue that “to point your finger at an experienced reserve to replace a tiring first team player cannot be done with any degree of confidence…the reserves are green and Coach Spearman is having trouble whipping up the fire and spirit of these lads.” He then pointed to “listless play” and a lack of energy. The team also lacked the “200-pound behemoths” on the line that Spearman’s early teams enjoyed.

Still, Chester opened with blowout wins over Orangeburg and Parker, then defeated a heavy favorite in Columbia 20-6.  “Geney” Robinson was the star for the Red Cyclone, hitting 6-of-7 passes for 54 yards (big totals in those days), accounting for two scores and averaging 36 yards-per-punt.

In subsequent weeks, Chester pounded Sumter 18-0 (holding the opponents to 45 total yards of offense) and beat Easley 27-14. The powerhouse Gaffney Indians were next on the slate.

“(This) writer visited Gaffney and general talk is that Gaffney is taking Chester seriously and expect Chester to furnish the Indians their keenest opposition of the season,” Hedgpath wrote.

With Gaffney having beaten teams from North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, a win was said to be for the claim to a somewhat fictional Southern football title. The Indians apparently offered Chester $350 (a large sum at the time) to move the game to Gaffney. It was played at Chester, though, with admission listed as being 75 cents (which Hedgpath deemed “well worth it” considering the quality of football to be on display). The Red Cyclone took a 13-10 win. Chester trounced Rock Hill 52-13 behind a big day from Robinson (noted in the game write-up as having been named an All-American and All-Southern back by that time). They finished up with a 33-7 rout of Florence to claim the state crown in a year with no playoffs. Spearman attempted to arrange a post-season game with either Raleigh High of North Carolina or Boys High of Georgia to allow his team to lay further claim to a multi-state title, but records indicate that did not happen.

The following season, Spearman had 26 players come out for the team and took them to the mountains for a week of rugged camp. Robinson was gone, but with a line still anchored by Hannah and an offense powered by back Fred Ringstaff, Chester opened with big wins over Woodruff (48-0), Union (44-0) and Orangeburg (18-7) before going to Columbia to battle the highly-ranked Capitals. Ward Pegram, covering the Red Cyclone for the Chester Reporter by this time, noted in a column that the contest was the first he’d ever attended at night.

“On each side of the field were four posts and on each of these posts was six lights which perfectly lighted the field,” Pegram wrote.

 In front of 6,000 spectators, the teams battled to a controversial 6-6 tie. Pegram pointed out Columbia’s lone score came late and was aided by questionable penalties.

“Whether the many, many penalties received were justifiable or not cannot be said, but it was noticeable that Columbia played much rougher ball than the locals. Several times local ball carriers were tackled out of bounds many seconds after the whistle had been blown…slugging and other ‘illegal’ playing seemed to be the greatest asset of the Columbia boys,” Pegram wrote.

His claim does not appear to have been exaggerated or tailored for a Chester audience, since The State newspaper wrote an editorial on the contest.

“Without taking anything from Columbia’s game battle, we believe Chester had the better ball club…Columbia got the ‘breaks’ when they helped and that, in our opinion, was the factor which gave the Caps a tie.”

The Red Cyclone bounced back from the tie, traveling to play the Miami High Stingarees the next week. Most Red Cyclone players had only left the county for football games and many had never been outside the state. A preview of the game was the lead story in the Miami Daily News on Thursday, October 15.

"The Chester S.C. High School football team, which tangles with Miami High's unbeaten gridiron forces Saturday afternoon at Miami Stadium is scheduled to arrive in Miami late this afternoon. Coach Jess Yarborough of Miami High said this morning that the Carolina boys will arrive by bus and will stop at the Robert Clay Hotel. They will either work out at Stingaree field or at the stadium. Chester is expected to be one of the toughest games on Miami high's remaining schedule."

Yarborough may have known what he was up against and started the excuse-making in advance, since he complained to the paper of having a kicker with "a twisted foot," injuries at guard, end and halfback and a tackle with "a touch of influenza." Chester won 2-0, recording a safety in the final 30 seconds. Pegram wrote that “half the Chester team” tackled Miami’s punter in the end zone as he tried to field an errant snap.

Miami proved to be excellent hosts to the visitors. They painted one half of their field in Chester colors, put Red Cyclone players up at a nice hotel and gave them a bus (which cost $100 to rent) for travel and sightseeing purposes and staged a post-game dance.

“A group of Miami’s most charming young ladies visited the local lads and all attended a dance. The chaperones were taken to Miami’s largest night club by Coach Yarborough and all report a marvelous time,” Pegram wrote.

Chester dispensed Easley, Brookland-Cayce and Porter Military Academy, then faced a game at Gaffney that most agreed would go a long way to deciding the state crown. Pegram worried, though, what sort of reception awaited the Red Cyclone. He’d been to the Gaffney-Columbia game the previous week and reported that a bottle was hurled at a Columbia player during a play. It struck him and shattered, leading to a stoppage in play while the shards were picked up.

“Such unsportsmanlike rowdyism is giving Gaffney a bad name with other schools…the majority of the trouble was staged in the northern stands, which were occupied by the Columbia visitors. It seems that a group of Gaffney roughnecks make it a habit to gather here during each game and make it as unpleasant as possible for the visitors. These roughnecks fail to show any qualities of gentlemen…Chester goes to Gaffney November 13…just what kind of reception they will be given remains to be seen,” Pegram opined.

In response to Pegram’s story, a Gaffney fan came forward and said during the previous year’s contest between the Red Cyclone and Indians, that a Chester fan had pulled a knife on him. Chester fans represented an unsavory element, he said. It was announced before the game that S.C. Gov. Olin Johnston would be in attendance. Perhaps because of that, or the increased security, fans were reported to be on their best behavior. Johnston actually addressed the massive crowd of 5,000 people over the stadium PA system, congratulating both teams on splendid seasons and compared the atmosphere in the stadium to that of a big-time college game. It was a defensive struggle, with the teams combining for only five first downs in a first half that saw no completed passes. Gaffney’s Mendel Ramsey thumped a pair of 50-plus yard punts that pinned Chester deep in its own territory. The break the Red Cyclone needed came in the second half as the Indians fumbled a punt that Weir pounced on. Ringstaff completed a pair of throws to get Chester to the Gaffney three, then the Red Cyclone line plowed the way for the game’s only score. Chester won 7-0, then knocked off Sumter and Florence the next two weeks to claim a second straight state title. The Red Cyclone lost a postseason matchup with Asheville for what was dubbed the “Southern Championship” and just like that, the first golden age of Chester football was over.

"Monday afternoon saw the addition of a new face, that of Lawrence Spearman to the Davidson coaching staff," read a March 10, 1937 edition of The Davidsonian, the school newspaper of Davidson College. "Coach Spearman will assume immediately his new job of assisting Head Coach Gene McEver with the spring football practice here...Spearman hails from Chester S.C. where for the past nine years he has made football history with the high school teams that he has turned out."

In Spearman's nine seasons, Chester went 83-5-5. Three of his ties and two of his losses occurred in the playoffs. That means the Red Cyclone lost two regular season games in nine years, and recorded 60 shutouts. His teams outscored opponents 2,092 to 288. His teams gave up just over 32 points a season and 23.7 points per regular season. That equates to about three points per contest and just over two points per regular season game. Chester won state five times in that stretch and finished as runners-up on two occasions. One of his teams two teams that didn’t at least play for state was unbeaten and unscored upon, but missed the postseason because of a scoreless tie with Gaffney.

Spearman coached the offensive line and ends at Davidson. The teams were good, but playing far larger schools like Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State kept the team, then known as the Presbyterians, from attaining the elite status Spearman's Chester squads did. Spearman served two years in the Navy. He resigned his post at Davidson in the mid-'40s to accept a position as personnel director of Shuford Mills in Hickory, N.C. Even in leaving coaching behind permanently, Spearman still enjoyed the game and remained very well known regionally. Legendary Atlanta Journal columnist Furman Bisher mentioned Spearman in an undated column. Spearman received a patent on a blocking sled that measured the power a player threw into his blocks, Bisher noted. He also made mention of Spearman's "dry wit."

When Spearman took his brand of discipline and strategy with him to Davidson, Chester’s football team suffered for it. The year after his departure, the Red Cyclone lost six games, more than Spearman lost in nine years combined. The Chester football program enjoyed a resurgence in in the ‘40s and ‘50s under  “Big” Joe Collins. The 1963 team coached by “Ears” Wilson won state, but from then until the mid 2000s, Chester (renamed simply  “The Cyclones” after the school was desegregated and merged with Finley High) had the most non-winning seasons of any team in the state. The team made it to state in 2007 and 2008, losing to Wilson and Myrtle Beach respectively and finally won it all in 2018. Friday night’s opener against Aiken begins “The Encore” to 2018 and, perhaps, to a time when Chester was widely acknowledged as the unquestioned top program in the state.