Ducks, dour atmosphere took its toll on Rockdale
I f you were alive and of a certain age on November 22, 1963, you probably know where you were and what you were doing on that tragic date when President John F. Kennedy was stopped by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. It is the timepost of a generation.
While shots ricocheted in Dallas, the echoes were heard around the world.
It was a fall Friday in November in Texas and fall Fridays in November in Texas are reserved for high school football. There were dozens of playoff games scheduled for that tragic night all over the state, including a bi-district affair between rivals Rockdale and Taylor.
The two teams had already faced each other earlier in the season and the Tigers had prevailed 13-0 in the second week of the season.
In an oddity, the rivals were not clustered in the same district, thus the need to play a second time.
Taylor was a pedestrian 6-4, but was hosting the game at Memorial Stadium.
Around lunch time, the word started getting around at both schools—the president had been shot and was dead.
Like most people, Wayne Schroeder had vivid memories of the events of the day that unfolded just 162 miles away.
“Our lunch hour was from noon to one. Just before English class started at one, the word went around that President Kennedy had been wounded in Dallas,” Schroeder told legendary Austin American-Statesman sportswriter George Breazeale in 1993. “Then the teacher came in, with tears streaming down her face, to tell us the President was dead. We were like people everywhere, confused and wondering what would happen next. And whether we would or would not play football that night was a part of the confusion.”
(Breazeale, who was at the game, called the 1963 Rockdale Taylor game one of the top five games he had seen in his 50 years of covering sports).
Schroeder, who would later become head coach at Taylor from 1987 to 2000, was a junior and the starting quarterback and defensive back for the Ducks.
“People were crying, people were furious, but that Friday they didn’t know who to be furious at.”
Gary Holliman, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound lineman for the Tigers, spoke with Reporter Editor Mike Brown in 1997.
Holliman, who went on to a stellar athletic career at Baylor, passed away in 2005.
“I was coming back from lunch,” Holliman said. “They told us. I remember going in the halls of the school and I don’t remember anything else about the afternoon.
“Teachers were crying, angry. I know we must have gone to class and we must have talked about the president but I can’t remember any of it.”
There was some question as to whether the game would actually take place.
“I think it should have been postponed,” Holliman said. “Lots of them were. Nobody told us any different so we figured it was on.”
“We were in limbo,” Schroeder said. “I didn’t really know if we were going to play.”
Officials decided to play the game as scheduled because there were several games across the state that were going to play.
“Our dressing room was almost totally silent before the game,” Schroeder remembered. “We did have one player who was very emotional about what happened.”
Taylor coach Raymond Haas didn’t think the somber circumstances affected the game that much.
“The schools had been rivals for a long time,” Haas told Breazeale. “We thought we had a chance to win.”
“We were zombies. I couldn’t tell you the details. I know there was a field goal that I didn’t think was good.”
Rockdale quarterback Dickie Summers also disagreed with the Taylor coach.
“The atmosphere affected us,” he said. “Because of the uncertainty, it was difficult to get focused on the game.”
Taylor discovered just enough effort to pull the monumental upset, 9-7, over the top ranked Tigers.
All the scoring took place in the first half, including a wobbly game-winning field goal from Wayne Tennill from 31 yards away that barely cleared the crossbar with three seconds left in the half.
“The ball seemingly lurched up and down in the air,” said retired Reporter Publisher Bill Cooke, who covered the game. “It didn’t appear long enough, but it was.
“It buzzed across the crossbar and into the Taylor marching band which was waiting to take the field at halftime.”
“It was about as ugly a field goal as I’ve seen,” said Schroeder. “But it got three.”
Rockdale had scored first, driving 60 yards on 10 plays after a first quarter interception. Ronny Menn bowled over from the three and also kicked the conversion for the Tigers’ only points of the evening and an early 7-0 lead.
Taylor retaliated after the ensuing kickoff, rolling 80 yards with fullback Rodney Marek pushing in from the one—the only touchdown the Tigers allowed in 1963.
The kick was wide left and Taylor trailed 7-6.
Two Rockdale threats in the second half were stopped by a pass interception and a loss on fourth down.
“The only thing wrong was that Taylor had 11 guys who just didn’t want Rockdale to win,” said Rockdale Coach Ray Birchfield.
Rockdale—the only team to post a 10-0 regular season record in school history—went home, Taylor went on to win one more playoff game before bowing out of the state playoffs.
“It’s difficult to say what impact it had on our game or any game that Friday night,” said Schroeder, who is now 66 and the head coach at six-man school Fort Davis. “I’m sure it was just as hard for Rockdale’s players to focus on the game as it was for us. We expected to win the game.
“And postponing it would have been difficult because no one knew what would happen next.”
Before his death, it was difficult for Holliman to recall the famous game on that balmy Friday night.
“I just don’t think about it,” Holliman said in 1997. “It was such a disappointment. We started out ranked No. 1 in the state and we expected to finish that way.”