Gary Tilley said he remembers the day well.
It was November 22, 1963 and he was sitting in chemistry class at East Surry High School. That evening his football team was scheduled to play for a state championship.
Then the news broke of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
“I remember the intercom coming on. We already had a radio broadcast going on. It came on right in the middle of the broadcast,” Tilley said. “We all just sat there in stunned silence. We took nearly an entire class just listening to the broadcast, with no one saying much of anything.”
Teammate Earl Sheppard vividly recalls the day’s events as well.
“I was sitting in the library at East Surry High School. It came over the speaker. There are certain things you remember. We all just set there,” Sheppard said. “I would have been 15 years old at the time. I remember thinking, ‘This is not true, this can’t happen in the United States. Then we all started talking. They said ‘Yes, it’s true, he’s been shot in Dallas. He’s dead.’”
The decision was made to play as scheduled — and East Surry defeated Carthage 12-6 that day for the Western Class A football title. The game was played at Mount Airy High School, because East did not have the seating capacity to host a championship game.
Tonight, East Surry and Mount Airy square off at Wallace Shelton Stadium for a second round playoff game, on the 50th anniversary of the Rebels’ state title and the tragic JFK assassination.
Donnie Moore was the quarterback on the 1963 team.
“I remember that the coaches were undecided at one point whether to play the ballgame,” Moore said. “Then they made the final decision to go ahead and play it. It was tragic. As a player you go in to a ballgame like you do any other, and practice for the game. The atmosphere of the players playing for the championship was there, but it was still in the back of your mind.”
East Surry finished the championship game that year with 224 yards of offense (221 on the ground). Moore and Tilley scored touchdowns for the Rebels, who boasted a powerful defense that held the Bulldogs to 73 yards.
John McKenzie, who played safety, said everyone still says the defense was better than the offense that year. Then he added that it was the same players on both sides.
“The defense had eight shutouts and there were only 39 points scored all year against us in 12 games,” McKenzie said. “It’s still an East Surry record. Carthage, they had this guy named Bobby Myers. He ran it, kicked it, threw it. If he could have thrown it to himself he would have. He was a horse.”
Not strong enough against the Rebels on a day in which the nation was shaken by the loss of JFK. Under head coach Bob Ward, East Surry capped off the stellar season 10-2. The team was inducted into the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame Ring of Honor in 2006. The state awarded three championships, divided into Western, Eastern and Central regions.
“There was debate whether we were going to play or not,” Sheppard recalled. “Finally word came down that they wanted all things to go on. We didn’t want the United States to stand still.
“We played football. We needed to make sure life in the United States would go on.”
Sheppard, who played left tackle on the team, said it was a good crowd at the game that day. More than 2,000 fans were on hand for the championship game.
“I think people wanted to get out and forget the tragedy of the day, looking back on it,” Sheppard said. “We had a tremendous outpouring of people. We just went on with it. It was a very positive atmosphere with our team. We were there to play ball and we were going to do that. The next day we were back dealing with the assassination and its effects.”
At the time, East Surry played its home games at the Pilot Elementary field. McKenzie said for a championship game, the stadium had to have a 2,000 seat capacity. So the game was played in Mount Airy, at Floyd Poore Memorial Park.
McKenzie recalled hearing the news of the assassination that day over the intercom from Principal James Templeton.
“Everybody was thinking about the game until then,” McKenzie said. “Then everything got thrown up in the air. We didn’t know if the game was going to go on, but it did.”
“It was a great bunch of guys. A lot of them were just farm boys like myself,” Tilley said. “We’d come out of the tobacco fields in August in the late afternoon and evening. Most of us were on the farm and had to work all day. Coach Ward was an outstanding coach. Rev. Henry Ridenhour was our spiritual leader, our chaplain. He was a minister in Pilot Mountain. He was terrific for keeping us focused in the right direction.”
Donnie Moore’s twin brother Ronnie played halfback on the 1963 team. Donnie Moore’s grandson Casey Marion is a fullback/linebacker on the current Cardinals’ team.
The winner of tonight’s Cardinals-Bears playoff game moves on to the third round. It will be the first time these two teams have ever met in the state playoffs. The rivalry between the two schools goes way back.
“We played Mount Airy during the regular season,” Donnie Moore said. “They beat us every year, the four years I played.”
Mount Airy defeated East Surry during the regular season and has won seven in a row in the head-to-head series. The Bears lead the all-time series 34-13.
“What a great Friday night it will be. Where else can you find that in a small county like this?” Sheppard said. “You can’t ask for a better atmosphere. It will be a wonderful experience. These kids will remember this forever. I am excited for all of them, the coaches and the community.”
The 1963 champion Rebels team was Don Marion, Donnie Isaacs, Pete Templeton, Donnie Moore, J.W. Gilley, Eddie Butcher, Jimmy Love, Tommy Boles, Wayne Holder, Max Taylor, Gary Tilley, Ronnie Moore, Terry Love, Thomas Needham, Archie Armstrong, Philip Armstrong, Wayne Sheets, John McKenzie, Mickey Arrington, J.C. Taylor, Jeff Boaz, Bobby Gordon, Sammy Fulk, Roger Stevens, Richard Grogan, Jimmy Collins, Earl Sheppard and Jerry Needham.
East Surry defeated Surry Central, Sparta, Courtney, North Surry, West Yadkin, Scotts, Walnut Cove, Oak Hill, Celeste Hinkle and Carthage on the way to the title. The only losses came to Mount Airy and Boonville.