Friday the 13th of November, 1964, may have been the unluckiest day in the history of Lebanon High School football. Friday the 13th of November, 1964, was definitely the luckiest day in the history of Watertown High School football.
Exactly 50 years ago tomorrow, before a sold-out crowd of 4,500 at the sixth annual Industrial Bowl in Lafayette, the tiny Purple Tigers, not by hook or by crook, but, by one fortuitous bounce of the football and a field goal, broke the hearts of the vaunted Blue Devils, as they snatched a 9-7 squeaker. The match was also the last time the two schools faced one another on the gridiron.
"It was the Super Bowl," recalls Bill Robinson, who played for the smaller school in the big game and later served as head football coach at Watertown for 23 years.
The headline in The Nashville Tennessean read 'Watertown Upsets Big Lebanon 9 to 7.' Indeed, a 21-poing underdog, the Purple Tigers spent most of the game with their backs to the wall. The Blue Devils picked up 17 first downs to Watertown's seven.
Lebanon drew first blood in the first quarter when star running back Billy Sellars made a six-yard plunge across the goal line for a touchdown and kicked the extra point. Watertown's only touchdown came in the third quarter when defensive lineman Gary Martin, described by The Nashville Banner as a "will of the wisp," snared a Lebanon fumble in mid-air and rambled 70-something yards into the end zone. The extra point attempt was blocked.
Late in the third quarter Watertown capitalized on a Lebanon fumble at the Blue Devil 30-yard-line and drove to the eight where the Lebanon defense shoved the Tigers back to the 21-yard line. With 30 seconds left on the clock in the third quarter, Randy Davenport booted the ball between the goalposts, giving Watertown a 9-7 lead that held.
Perhaps it was just desserts as the last time the two squads faced off was in 1952 when Lebanon skunked the Tigers 62-0. (Lebanon and Watertown's first encounter on the gridiron took place in 1928.)
Going into the bowl game half a century ago, the Blue Devils outweighed Watertown an average of 20 to 25 pounds a man. Leading the charge for Lebanon were fleet running back and the state's second-highest scorer Billy Sellars and all-state center and linebacker John Major.
"The largest starter we had was Buddy George. He weighed about 175 pounds and played right tackle both ways," said Robert Johnson, a senior guard and captain of the Watertown team, who tipped the scales at 166 pounds.
Co-captains Skid Williams, the Tiger quarterback, weighed 138, and halfback Jerre Armstrong weighed 153.
"Coach [Brownie] Robinson was a good coach. He knew when to gamble and how to do it. He just had the touch. Our main objective was to keep Billy Sellars contained. If he got outside of you, he could scat. We had some key defensive plays at the right time that stopped them.
"We weren't supposed to do what we did. We was just little old country boys but hard-nosed. We were up for it. We were a lot smaller and had nothing to lose. We went out and played our ball game. We all clicked on all eight cylinders. We played together and it worked out," recalled Johnson.
Obviously, Lebanon Coach Clifton Tribble's game plan did not pan out.
"I don't think we necessarily looked down our noses at Watertown," said John Major, tri-
captain of the 1964 Lebanon team along with Mike Hunter and Bobby Spears. "We just wanted to play a ball game and that was a bowl game. The fact that it was Watertown, that was OK. We knew some of the players on their team.
"Coach Tribble treated every team about the same. His pregame speech would have been something like this: 'These guys have some talent. You better be ready or they will get you.' He never downplayed the other team. Tribble was a really good football coach, a demanding kind of guy who expected the very best out of everybody all the time.
"A funny thing happened in the second half," continued Major. "I think the ball was intended to go to the fullback off-tackle to the left side and somebody hit the quarterback before the handoff, and the ball hit the ground and bounced straight up in the air and bounced right into the hands of the defensive end who was running full stride. He never broke stride, and he was gone and scored the touchdown."
Describing how the game evolved that crisp November evening, Major, who continued his stellar career at Middle Tennessee State University, said, "We'd move the ball down the field but then we'd try a pass and they would intercept it and stop us. It just kind of went back and forth and they held us to seven points. They could not move the ball on us at all. They were never a threat to score.
"We moved the ball pretty good on the ground but seems like to me it was mostly turnovers. I bet you we had more turnovers than we had punts. I daresay we had three or four interceptions and three or four fumbles. It wound up being a defensive standoff.
"I do recall this. Their coach was known to pull a lot of trick plays. Tribble had us practice a little bit against that. I don't believe they pulled a single tricky play. They just played straight, heads-up, hard football. I remember standing watching the ball go through the uprights.
We did not try to block the field goal. We thought it was a trick play.
"It was a nice night, a good night to have a football game except for the end results. Yeah, it was a rough night for the old blue. It was not the toughest loss of my high school career, but it was the most infamous," Major reminisced.
Watertown field goal kicker Randy Davenport, aka "Hog" and later nicknamed Golden Toe, had only made one three-pointer all season long.
The senior, who also played linebacker, was fearful the Blue Devils would block his field goal try as they had overpowered their line earlier in the quarter and blocked his extra-point attempt.
The game-winning play remains vivid in his bank of memories.
"I was on the sideline getting ready to go in, and Coach was afraid they would block it again and run it back for a touchdown. Brownie Robinson made the decision, but Skid was the quarterback, and he talked him into it.
"My main concern was when you're kicking a field goal you have to keep your head down. I knew I could hit it that far but I also knew they might block it. I was concerned about getting it high enough so they couldn't block it and make sure it had a chance. I concentrated more than normal. Then I got it up and it was going straight. Once it was up there, I didn't have any doubt it was going through," said Davenport, who was set up for the play with the snap from center by Tommy Knight and the place and hold by Williams.
"It didn't make it by a long way. It barely made it over," recollected the hero of the night. "The first thing I thought of was, 'We're gonna beat 'em.' . . . They probably could have beaten us if they had kept running the ball.
"Was it the biggest thrill of my athletic career? No doubt about it," said Davenport with a grin as wide as the goalposts in his voice.
That night held few smiles for junior Billy Sellars, Lebanon safety and tailback, although he made up for it his senior year in 1965 when he was rated the most valuable player in the state.
"We run up and down that field all night long but could not get it in the end zone," he recounted.
"It was one of them games everything went the other way. We'd drive it to the 10-yard line and fumble the ball or throw an interception and then we'd get the ball and do it again.
"The loss was kind of devastating. I do remember walking off the field thinking, 'This is one game we should have won.' But that's the way the ball bounces. I think we would have beat 'em nine out of 10, but you only play one game. I ain't taking nothing away from Watertown. They had a real good team," Sellars said.
For Skid Williams, the Purple Tiger quarterback, his strongest memory of the game came when, "Gary Martin picked up that fumble that got the Sunday bounce and he took it on in. Probably the biggest thrill was when Randy kicked that field goal. I put it down, and Randy put that toe to it, and it barely went over it, and we just went crazy then.
"I told Brownie, 'Golden Toe said he could make this kick, coach.' And he did and that was all that really mattered. We were just ecstatic, almost in disbelief when it went through, and we hung on to that win.
"We had played a lot of big teams but not any team that much bigger than us. It was something that just picked this town up," said Williams.
Bill Robinson, then a junior, played linebacker on the Watertown team, which was coached by his father. Brownie Robinson was at the helm of Purple Tiger squads from 1963 to 1973. Bill took over the head football coach job in 1974 and notched 32 years as a teacher at Watertown High.
He was standing beside his father when he made the call to kick the field goal.
"Skid came to the sideline and said, 'Hog, said he can do it,' and Daddy, he had that old toboggan cap on and grabbed it in his hands and started scratching his old head and says, 'Dern it, you tell Hog he better do it,' and they go back out there and made history," laughed Bill.
He recalls that afterward his father said, "We ain't never playing them again. We're not giving them another shot."
Robert Douglas, a junior who played fullback and defensive tackle on the '64 Blue Devil squad, notes that Lebanon found a silver lining in the dark clouds of that defeat.
"It really prompted us to come my back my senior year. We had a great spring practice, and I think we based it off the disappointing finishing game. We went into the 1965 season and were very seldom behind. We won nine in a row. We were nine and one and then went to the super bowl [the Clinic Bowl, where they lost to Donelson]," Douglas said.
Voted the game's outstanding lineman, Watertown's Tommy Parker, who weighed 150 pounds, played right guard on defense and left tackle on offense. He gets at least half the credit for the Tigers' only touchdown as his hard hit started the big play.
"Lebanon had scored and was marching down field again. The quarterback handed off to the halfback, and my helmet hit in the pocket where the ball was and knocked it out. Gary Martin rushed in from the other side. It bounces one time into his hands, and he never broke stride all the way to the goal line. I didn't think he was ever gonna get there," recalled Parker.
"We were loaded for bear that night. They were good, but everybody there played real hard. I was just lucky to cause that guy to fumble."
Ken Fountain, a 1970 alumnus of Watertown who coached football, basketball and softball at the school in 1990s, has turned into an archivist of local high school sports teams with a concentration on football and basketball and especially on Watertown teams.
Over the years he tried to glean information from coaches Robinson and Tribble about the historic bowl game.
"I asked Brownie why he played the game, and he told me he did it because the athletic department was broke," said Fountain. "Coach Tribble really didn't want to talk about it."
"Tribble told me the reason he didn't try to block that field goal was because Brownie was good for running trick plays, so he told his team, 'Just hold the line. It could be a trick.'" Thus Tribble's caution may have proven a costly decision.
Fountain also found out that Coach Tribble had the 1964 Industrial Bowl filmed but due to the outcome, he had no desire to watch it or keep it, thus he gave the game film to Coach Robinson.
During Fountain's senior season as a football player for Robinson in the fall of 1969, inclement weather rained out an afternoon practice.
"Coach Robinson told me to go get the film so that we could watch the game, but somebody had taken it," said Fountain. "Please tell whoever took it that I would like to have it back, no questions asked, and so I can convert it to a DVD."
Should that game film ever come to light, Watertown likely would hold a grand viewing party, a fitting tribute to the luckiest day in Purple Tiger football history.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.