FLORENCE, S.C. – The stifling heat from that 1970 preseason locker room meeting can still make Danny King gasp.
But at McClenaghan High School, this wasn’t about the heat of the moment. It was about the weight of first-year football coach Ladson Cubbage’s words.
“He said, ‘Boys, your world is gonna change. And you need to accept it with the right disposition,’” recalled King, a two-way player.
Although McClenaghan first included black football players in 1969 as a result of integration, this ’70 team was about to become much better, as future Pro Football Hall of Famer Harry Carson was among those transferring from what had been the city’s black high school, Wilson.
Those players from Wilson had not yet joined the team, but Cubbage made sure he was setting the tone.
What followed was not only a display of acceptance among teammates but a memorable season that fell one game short of the Yellow Jackets reaching the playoffs.
“Coach would say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re here to play football, and this is what it’s all about. You treat these new guys nice, and these guys are going to become your friends,’” King recalled.
That, they did. And they remain friends to this day.
Through the highs and the lows, the bond these Yellow Jackets made were among the joys of Friday’s reunion of McClenaghan players and cheerleaders from the years between 1969 and ’72.
Carson, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the New York Giants, recalled the transition from Wilson to McClenaghan.
“It was a new experience, because from the time I started going to school, I went to an all-black school,” Carson said. “So once I went to McClenaghan – there were black kids already going there, but it was a small number. So, everybody had to sort of draw themselves in and get to know each other, and you sort of wondered how you would be received, whether you’d be welcomed or not.”
Then, the new teammates began to settle in and focus on the season.
“For me, everything was pretty fine,” Carson said. “I was never one of those people looking to create a problem. But I wanted to play football, and I went out for the football team, and that was a new and different experience for me as well, because I had grown accustomed to playing with black guys. Football is a universal sport, but there are some differences. At the black schools, there’s a lot more talking, just talking smack or whatever you want to call it. It’s sort of built into our DNA to talk a lot on the field. For me, it really wasn’t a major problem. It was different, but it wasn’t anything major.”
Carson accepted it for what it was.
“Just as you play the game, you understand the guy across from you, or the guy next to you is white and you accept it,” Carson said. “There’s nothing to even talk about. Once you’re in uniform, everybody is sort of going through the same thing.”
Linebacker Jimmy Outlaw also said it was all for one and one for all.
“You didn’t even think about color,” Outlaw said. “You didn’t think about race in practice or on the field for games. It didn’t even come into play. Even though it was back in those times, black and white didn’t matter to me. It was about the team working together for a goal.
“And, color shouldn’t have ever played a part in anything, and definitely shouldn’t now,” he added. “We love one another to this day. We all went through all the tough practices. We all went through the blood, sweat and tears there, together.”
THE BIG GAME
In the buildup to what would become the region championship game against Sumter, McClenaghan shook off a season-opening loss to Bennettsville and became a more polished product. But so were the Gamecocks, quarterbacked by future NFL star Freddie Solomon and featuring their wishbone offense.
Then, late in the season, Sumter and McClenaghan faced off at a sold-out Memorial Stadium with that region crown on the line.
“My most memorable experience was having the opportunity to play against Sumter and Freddie Solomon,” Carson said about Solomon, who died in 2012. “Freddie was one of those athletes that everybody sort of remembers. Playing against him was probably my most memorable game, because we couldn’t stop him. I had never seen a guy so talented at that point.”
Outlaw, however, thought he had stopped Solomon on one play.
“The hardest hit I ever hit anybody as a linebacker happened to be on (Solomon),” Outlaw said. “He went back to pass, and I hit him and knocked him five yards back. But then I looked over my shoulder and the Sumter receiver brought in the pass for a touchdown. Freddie was so elusive.”
And Solomon proved to be too much, as the Gamecocks captured the region crown with a 34-21 victory.
Since only region champions reached the playoffs, McClenaghan’s players could only think of what might have been if they had defeated the Gamecocks.
“It was a shame,” Outlaw said. “It was probably one of the best teams Florence/McClenaghan ever had, and we couldn’t move on.”
CARSON'S SENIOR YEAR
Carson, however, moved on the next school year to become McClenaghan’s senior class president.
“And I was on the biracial committee, because one of the things we were trying to do was bring the two races together in harmony and tackle the issues that we were sort of going through at that time and make sure we keep things peaceful and keep everyone on the same page and try to cut off any racial issues before they got started,” Carson said.
Although Carson started the 1971 season as a team captain, he didn’t finish that way.
That’s because he quit the team late in the season during practice.
“I wish there had been some diversity in the coaching staff,” Carson said. “You could say there’s only one color when you step on the football field, but the reality – at the end of the day, there are black players who are built a little differently than white players. That was the thing we probably needed. Nobody talked about it at the time.
“We had maybe six coaches, and all of the coaches were white and – I can’t tell you how many black players we had – but you had these white coaches who did not necessarily always understand that mindset of black players. We had issues from our perspective and our experience that many of the white players probably could not relate to or many of the white coaches could not relate to. So that was the thing I wish we could have addressed prior to the desegregation of the team.”
Carson then recalled what led to him leaving the Yellow Jackets in practice.
“I had a little disagreement with (Cubbage). We had two or three games left in the season, and I had sprained both my ankles in a game and sat out for a couple of days,” Carson recalled. “And when I came back, I went through practice and we were running sprints.
“So, (Cubbage) was overseeing conditioning and he said, ‘Carson, if you can’t run any faster than that, get off the field,’” he added. “So I got off the field.”
And Carson never returned.
“What I should have done was just let it roll off my back and not let it bother me and just finish the drill,” Carson said. “But I’ve always been kind of impulsive, and you have to be very careful what you say to me and the tone in which you say it.”
“That’s why I say if it had been a black coach, I can understand where he was coming from,” he said. “But because (Cubbage) said it, and as I said, I was coming back from two sprained ankles, to me I felt like he thought I could be like a superman to come back from those injuries just like that. And by him saying, ‘If you can’t run any faster, get off the field,’ I followed directions and got off the field, because I couldn’t run any faster.”
So Carson quit.
“So in essence, what I did was cutting my own throat because by not being a part of the team – walking off the field and quitting – I was no longer part of the team,” Carson said. “So, anything like any coach or school may have been scouting me, if they contacted the coaches, the coaches couldn’t help but say, ‘Well, he quit the team.’
“So you sort of get a glimpse I was a malcontent, but I wasn’t,” he added. “I’m an emotional player at the time. And sometimes if you say the wrong thing to me, I just sort of blow up. So I probably could have had an opportunity to play in the North-South Game or the Shrine Bowl. There were some college teams that were looking at me. I was getting some queries from schools like Tennessee and Colorado State. And then, all of the sudden, it all stopped.”
THE NEXT STEP
But after one of his teachers, Dorothy Jo McDuffie, took Carson to visit South Carolina State, Carson became a Bulldog under coach Willie Jeffries, who was also at Friday’s McClenaghan reunion. At South Carolina State, Carson enjoyed a legendary collegiate career.
“Had I not walked off the field (at McClenaghan), I probably could have been at some other – or bigger school,” Carson said. “But again, I cut my own throat by walking off the field. But in retrospect, it was probably the best thing that has happened to me, because my four years at South Carolina State were the best four years of my life.”
Cubbage went on to become a Wofford assistant, and Carson’s Bulldogs went 1-1 against the Terriers.
Carson said he and Cubbage patched things up long ago. (He even sent Cubbage an autographed Pro Football Hall of Fame helmet after he was inducted in 2006.)
On Friday, meanwhile, the 1969-72 McClenaghan football players and cheerleaders reminisced about what made those years special.
And it all started with a desire shared by players. Not black or white players.
“We just wanted to play football,” King said.