Laney, Aquinas to meet in 50th anniversary of historic matchup

Laney and Aquinas first met on the football field on a Saturday in September.

 

It was 1967, and it was the first integrated game in Richmond County.

An estimated crowd of more than 7,000 piled around the Richmond Academy stadium between the bleachers and a nearby hill. They eventually had to turn fans away at the gate and stop selling tickets.

By the end of the night, the teams shook hands and walked off the field. Accounts from players described an uneventful conclusion to the night.

Laney principal C.W. Johnson penned a letter to Aquinas after the game that read:

“We are very happy to have played you in a football game last Saturday, not because we won, for winning is secondary, but because it demonstrates that people of opposite race(s) can work, pray and play together in harmony and peace. Your team is to be commended for its fair play and sportsmanship. We wish to commend highly the cheering squad for their beautiful gesture of friendship. It was the nicest thing in race relations that was done publicly in our many years of existing. May the Lord bless you and keep you many years to lead your great school to its greatest heights.”

This year is the 50th anniversary of the game that was played Sept. 23, 1967, and marked a watershed moment in race relations in Augusta, at least on the sports scene. Tonight’s rekindling of the Richmond County rivalry will honor that moment.

Aquinas will play host to Laney at 7:30 p.m. in the seventh meeting all-time between the two. The Irish and Wildcats met last year for the first time since 1975, with Aquinas winning a thriller, 19-18, on a Crimmins Hankinson 44-yard field goal as time expired. It was the Irish’s first win in six meetings with Laney.

This season’s matchup is expected to be another tight, physical battle between 0-1 teams that faced state-ranked opponents in its openers.

“Coach (Rodney) McFadden does an awesome job, great kids down there at Laney, coached a lot of them the past couple Border Bowls,” Aquinas coach James Leonard said. “They’ve got great kids, super athletes. We think it’s going to be another battle. We’re both 0-1, both hungry for a win, so I think it’s going to be a very physical, tight football game.”

As was the case 50 years ago, the game carries more weight than a win and loss on team records. Halftime festivities are planned to commemorate the game and recognize players and coaches from both teams. Mayor Hardie Davis and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis will be on hand to present proclamations from the city of Augusta to both schools.

For years, black and white schools remained segregated not only in the classroom, but on the football field. Laney played in the all-black Georgia Interscholastic Association. Aquinas was a member of the Georgia High School Association, although the private Catholic school had already integrated in 1963, almost a decade before Richmond County’s public schools.

Laney coach David Dupree and Aquinas coach Denny Leonard, James’ grandfather, struck a friendship and scheduled the game for 1967, one year after Leonard stepped down as head coach. Tom McDevitt took over a struggling Irish program that last posted a winning season in 1957.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, were a force in GIA, winning Class AA championships in 1961, ‘62 and ‘66.

Laney entered the contest 3-0 in its first GHSA season. Aquinas was 0-3 with a combined 15 points scored.

Leading up to the Saturday game, McDevitt downplayed his team’s chances in The Augusta Chronicle.

“Looking at it realistically, they should beat us by four or five touchdowns,” he said. “But I hope they don’t.”

Laney senior quarterback Donald Caldwell tossed a 59-yard touchdown pass to Ellis Robinson in the second quarter, then added a 40-yard strike to Tommy Waltower for an 18-0 halftime lead. Caldwell added a 35-yard touchdown pass to Neely Lovett for a 24-0 lead in the third quarter, then capped the scoring in the fourth with a short pass to Frank Eunice for a 30-0 victory.

Dupree praised Aquinas after the game to The Chronicle.

“They’ve got a nice team…better than their 0-4 record would indicate,” he said. “They hit just as hard as Sol Johnson, but maybe not quite as often. We didn’t want to run up the score. That’s why Waltower and Robinson didn’t play in the second half.”

After the game, according to The Chronicle, a white man named Henry Howard from Belk Enterprises walked to Laney’s locker room. He told Dupree he liked the way his team played and was coached. Howard said he wanted to buy the Wildcats a steak dinner.

“So I thanked him and I went to go back into the locker room, and he stopped me again and said, ‘Coach, I don’t mean a hamburger, I mean a regular steak dinner and tell them to send me the bill,’” Dupree said in a 2000 interview with The Chronicle.

“It’s a great deal,” McFadden said. “We’ve talked about it. All the attention, you start to learn the history about Laney and Aquinas and the coaches at the time. You hear about no issues back then when the game was said and done. We’re glad to be able to go to their place and try to get a win.”

“It’s special knowing the part (Denny Leonard) had in getting the game scheduled,” James Leonard said. “It was cool to hear that kind of history and how both those teams back then respected each other when not a whole lot of other people back then did. I think it’s a big game for both of our schools.”

 

Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or david.lee@augustachronicle.com.

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