By RAY GASKIN
The following story first appeared in The Heavener Ledger in 1999. It has been edited slightly for clarity.
One of my prized possessions is a framed photo that brings back a lot of good memories. It also serves a larger purpose. The photo is a reminder that life is short, and you shouldn’t take it for granted. Family, friends, religious faith, community involvement, and the spirit of good, clean athletic competition were important ingredients in my upbringing.
I haven’t lived in Heavener since 1963 when I graduated from high school. But every time I look at that photo, I realize how much a part of me Heavener still is and that to this day, when somebody asks where I’m from, I’m quick to respond proudly, “Why, I’m from Heavener, Oklahoma. That’s Heaven with an e-r.”
These days my home is in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Not surprisingly, a lot of folks tell me they’ve been to Heavener. The reasons are varied. Some have passed through on a fall foliage tour. Others have come to see the runestone, visit LeFlore County kinfolk, or merely stop to stretch their legs at the deer pen on their way to other destinations.
Except at the bi-annual town reunions rarely does anybody want to swap stories about Heavener Wolves football. Not that the game isn’t as important to some folks as it was a long time ago. Just ask the proud mom or dad whose son will play quarterback for this year’s Heavener Wolves’ pigskin team.
There’s something about winning that gets people talking and prompts those apathetic fence sitters who otherwise might stay home on Friday nights and watch TV to come see the home team in action. That’s what the framed photo is all about.
In the blurred Kodak snapshot, taken by my father, who was seated five or six rows up on the home side of Harvey Stadium, it’s a brilliant, sunny Thanksgiving Day in 1960. Heavener is hosting a state quarterfinal playoff game against the Stigler Panthers, led by their elusive running back, Richard “King” Cole. Judging from the lengthening shadows, it must be around four o’clock.
Daytime high school football games were a rarity, and Thanksgiving games even more scarce. But it was the second time in three years that the Wolves had hosted a turkey day playoff affair. In ’58 Heavener lost to visitors from segregated Okmulgee Dunbar during a Thanksgiving afternoon blizzard. There was nothing but sunshine and blue sky on this day.
During pre-game warmups a gaggle of reporters watched from the sidelines, including writers from the Tulsa World and The Daily Oklahoman. Gene Hall, a fixture at Heavener football games, snapped photos.
In the foreground of my dad’s faded snapshot, you can see the yard marker, a piece of black rubber bearing the number 50, displayed in white paint. The yard stripes are perfectly lined. The grass is thick but dead, a sign that the first frost of late fall has come and gone. The playing field is in superb condition, especially considering it is late November. Coach Bob Collins took great pride in keeping the field in tip top shape. He was a former Marine and a stickler for things being “buttoned up.”
Behind the light pole at the 50-yard line is a white frame house belonging to the late Fred Addison. You may recall that years later the house exploded from a gas leak after Fred lit a cigar at his kitchen table. He survived unscathed and the story caught national media attention. Charles Wilson, another fixture in Heavener lore, had not yet built his stately house on that same hill. At the far left is Reeder Thornton’s ag building and a sliver of Fred Cox’s house next to it.
Temporary bleachers, packed to capacity, line the visitor’s side of the field. Estimates put the crowd at 5,000 or so. There are more red colors in the crowd than purple, but not because Stigler fans had an edge. It was deer season and many hunters had come directly in from the woods to see the game, decked out in bright colored flannel shirts and caps. In the distance Poteau Mountain keeps watch over the majestic scene.
The Wolves are clad in purple jerseys with gold lettering and white pants. Linemen are wearing low-cut cleats and most of the backs are outfitted in soccer shoes with white stripes down the sides. As an oddity, Heavener quarterback Jerry Johnston, wearing number 17, is suited up in a gold helmet, while many other Wolves in the photo are wearing white helmets.
With the game winding down in the fourth quarter, the teams were tied 6-6. In that era there was no overtime. Games were determined by statistics, the most important of which was offensive penetrations inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Heavener trailed in penetrations and needed to score.
As illustrated in the photo, center Bob Babcock has just snapped the ball to Jerry at the opponent’s 42-yard line and he drops back to pass as the red and white clad Panthers come charging toward him. Fullback Mickey Wynn, number 33, is squared up to block. Left tackle Jerry West, number 82, takes on a Panther defender.
At the far left of the frame, a skinny wide receiver takes off down field. His jersey number is 16. That’s yours truly. The knot in his stomach was bigger than a pumpkin. When he’d emerged from the Wolves locker room in the basement of the old rock gym beforehand and seen the overflow crowd, heard the band blaring “Allegiance” and the pep squad waving pom poms he had almost thrown up from the excitement.
On this play nothing big happened. But moments later, a fourth down pass reception came up a foot short, ending the Wolves dreams of going to state. Stigler routed Hominy the next week but eventually lost to Choctaw in the state championship contest.
Heavener finished the 1960 season with an 11-0-1 record. Second year coach Collins had guided the Wolves to their best record ever in the post-World War II era. But a few skeptics around town suggested that Collins was the benefactor of the previous coach, Carl Twidwell’s handywork, branding them as “Twidwell’s boys.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The two coaches were complete opposites in their approach to the game of football. By 1961 that term would be forgotten and the Heavener Wolves would be known solely as “Collins’ boys.”
Although the outcome that Thanksgiving afternoon was disappointing, the pageantry on display—the brilliant sunshine, crisp fall air, the halftime band performances, pep clubs, cheerleaders, the throng of cheering spectators including the deer hunters, many of them decked out in hunting clothes—is forever remembered by anyone who was there.
Ray Gaskin has recently written a book about his boyhood experiences in Heavener. The book is titled Tales from Indian Rock and is available at Amazon.