Twenty-one state championships, three state final appearances in the past five seasons and two Pro Hall of Famers often come to mind first about the rich tradition of Pine Bluff High School football.
As for the 1939 national championship, Leslie McIntyre recalls that quite well.
“I was just lucky,” said McIntyre, 90, a sophomore halfback on that team. “I was the right age, I was coming up from junior (high). … But this group of boys on the ’39 football team had been playing together all this time. It was such an experience to play on that team and to be able to be there with them, it’s just something everybody would have loved to have done, and a thrill for me for the rest of my life.”
This season will mark the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest achievements in Zebra football. Fourteen years after winning its first national title, Pine Bluff got to prove itself worthy of the crown in a head-to-head battle on Dec. 30, 1939, in Baton Rouge, La.
By this time, Pine Bluff had already been steeped in football tradition. Its greatest player up to that point, Don Hutson, had a stellar career at Alabama and was building a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. Its longtime head coach, Allen Dunaway, had chalked up his seventh state championship and was going for his third unbeaten season (and the Zebras’ fourth since winning the 1925 national title).
“I think we were so inspired (by Dunaway),” teammate Eddie Atkinson said, asked what made the Zebras so successful. “I always give credit to Allen Dunaway and another coach who was a real technician in blocking and tackling.”
The 1939 Zebras weren’t very big in size or in numbers. Only one player weighed more than 200 pounds, and 41 players made up the roster.
But their backfield “had a smooth combination of speed and power,” according to the 1940 Zebra yearbook. Twins Ray and Rob Hutson, Don’s younger brothers, led a ground game that helped the Zebras outscore opponents 265-25.
Included on that “suicide” schedule were Fort Smith, El Dorado, North Little Rock, Hot Springs and the fierce archrival Little Rock. Not to mention McGehee, Fordyce and Hope.
Of all the in-state games that year, the Zebras’ farthest trip took them to Blytheville.
“We left on Thursday, and we didn’t just stop and get out of the bus and play football,” McIntyre said. “We left on Thursday and stayed at the 20th Century Motel in West Memphis. Then we went on into Blytheville, he (Dunaway) fed us, and the day of the game, we’d come down about 4 o’clock, and he’d give us the right kind of diet to eat before we went on to play football.”
The diet apparently worked. Pine Bluff won 12-0, the second of three straight shutouts to begin the season.
Fordyce was the first to score on Pine Bluff, a moment Zebras guard Eddie Atkinson recalled with regret.
“It’s still a sore spot,” Atkinson told The Commercial in a 1989 article, two days before he and his Pine Bluff teammates celebrated their 50th anniversary.
“Yeah, but we had a lot of subs playing that game,” Jerry Glover said in the article, adding many of the Pine Bluff starters scouted another team that night. Pine Bluff won that game 38-6.
In fact, no team scored more than seven points on the Zebras, who had beaten their first eight opponents by double digits. North Little Rock, however, threatened to shut out Pine Bluff in Week 7 as both teams went into halftime scoreless.
“We were really kind of dragging around,” Atkinson said.
“Of course we’re supposed to beat them pretty bad, and at the half it was nothing-nothing,” McIntyre said. “(Dunaway) took those 13 first-stringers in the locker room and just talked to them and said, “We’re going out there and we’re going to beat that team and you can’t run but three plays. We beat them 25 to nothing.”
All of Dunaway’s plays were designed for touchdowns if the players made the right blocks, McIntyre said.
Two of the Zebras’ toughest games that season were yet to come. The Pine Bluff-Little Rock showdown in Week 9 ended in a 0-0 tie, one of very few blemishes for a national champion in history. The next week, Pine Bluff played its annual out-of-state game in Atlanta against Georgia Military Academy and escaped with a 14-7 win.
“Little Rock had a wonderful team,” McIntyre said. “They could have beaten Baton Rouge with the team they had. Georgia Military Academy could have beaten Baton Rouge.”
Pine Bluff wrapped up the state championship the week after the Georgia Military Academy game by blanking Hope 13-0 in a regularly scheduled game. (The Arkansas Activities Association did not organize playoffs at the time, and Pine Bluff was named champion based on its record.)
The Louisiana Sports Association selected Pine Bluff and Baton Rouge to play a month later in the National High School Championship Football Game. The LSA made the invitations after seeking opinions from “leading coaches and sports writers” in the country, according to the game’s program. In 1938, Louisville (Kentucky) duPont Manual defeated New Britain (Connecticut) 28-20 in the only other title game the LSA organized.
“Dunaway actually gave us two weeks off from practice,” McIntyre said. “When we came back, the football field at Pine Bluff was grass and a lot of the grass was gone, it was winter time, and the flood from the rain had come up and frozen hard as a rock.”
But the Zebras practiced anyway and headed south for the championship game.
It was 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30, and kickoff arrived at LSU Stadium (now Tiger Stadium). The Zebras faced the task of slowing down halfback Sulcer Harris, who averaged 10 yards per carry and more than two touchdowns per game.
“We had a boy named ‘Foots’ Lafitte (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) and Eddie Atkinson (5-9, 165),” McIntyre said. “They kind of roughed up Sulcer Harris, and what Pine Bluff had was not one star, but Dunaway had a quality player three-deep at every position.”
Lafitte also was “considered an excellent pass receiver and one of the best end prospects in Arkansas for future collegiate glory,” the program read.
Pine Bluff silenced Harris and the Bulldogs 26-0 for the championship, and Atkinson was named best lineman of the game while Rob Hutson won top back honors.
Atkinson didn’t imagine the Zebras would be as successful during the season.
“Maybe not as successful as we were, but I think we knew we had to work like hell and we were going to do that,” he said.
The Zebras got to watch the Sugar Bowl two days later in New Orleans, where Texas A&M squeaked out a 14-13 win over a Tulane ballclub that featured Ralph Wenzel, an All-American who was the brother of Zebra teammates Robert and Frank Wenzel.
Today, four members of the 1939 team including McIntyre, a retired contractor and owner of the former Eden Park Country Club, are still alive. Atkinson resides in Rogers, Jim Kennedy lives in Little Rock and Ray Hutson is in Florida.
Red Sanders, who was the LSU coach in 1939, visited Atkinson in Pine Bluff two months after the championship game.
“He asked me, ‘Have you thought about going to Vanderbilt?’” Atkinson said. “I said no. He then asked ‘Do you accept a scholarship to Vanderbilt?’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, aren’t you the coach at LSU?’ He said, ‘I’m at Vanderbilt now. It hasn’t been announced, but it will be in a couple of days.’”
Atkinson accepted the scholarship, which he said took seven years to complete because he was inducted into the Navy for World War II. Atkinson went to work for IBM for 20 years lived in New York, France and near San Jose, California, during his career.
McIntyre believes his enthusiasm for playing football transferred into his later life.
“Everything I ever did in building, I did it to the best of my ability,” said McIntyre, who constructed a trophy case honoring Dunaway’s teams at the Jefferson County Historical Museum in downtown Pine Bluff.
“I didn’t shortcut anything. You just learned that.”