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Staff file photo / Chamberlain Field at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is shown in 2000.

For more BlueCross Bowl coverage from the Times Free Press, read more here.

To the casual high school football fan in and around the Scenic City, it just might be the greatest upset in Southeast Tennessee prep history. On September 23, 1966, Howard High School shocked powerful Central 7-6 at the University of Chattanooga's Chamberlain Field.

It was so surprising — given that predominantly Black Howard was in its first month of playing predominantly white schools at the onset of desegregation — that one of the Hustlin' Tiger players that Friday night wasn't certain it had happened until he read the newspapers the next morning.

"It didn't really resonate until I saw it in the paper the next day," said 73-year-old David Cook earlier this week. "I really needed to see it in print."

What he saw and read was almost unfathomable, given Central's total domination of local high school football in those days. It was the Purple Pounders' first loss to a Hamilton County public school in 27 years, dating back to 1939. Ironically, that loss to City High had also been by a 7-6 score.

Beyond that, Cook was given credit in both the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News Free Press for the winning extra point — running it in back then only counted for one point instead of today's two points — even though teammate Andrew Kitchen had scored it.

"I guess I could have kept my mouth shut and anyone who reads about that game will think it was me," said Cook. "But that wouldn't be right. Andrew scored it and that point made us a winner."

When the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl games to decide nine total state champions begin Thursday at Finley Stadium, Nashville East in Class AAA will be the only predominantly Black school competing for a title. Not since Tyner won the 1997 state championship has a predominantly Black local program won it all in football.

It hasn't been so rare across the rest of the state, of course. In 2016, for instance, Memphis schools Trezevant, Whitehaven and East all won state titles, though Trezevant — which had also won in 2015 — had to return their championship over rules violations. Whitehaven also won in 2012 and Austin East in 2001.

"We do have predominantly Black high schools who have success," said TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress. "There are a lot of tremendous athletes in those schools and they do win a lot of games. But the TSSAA doesn't base success on championships. We don't look at it that way."

Beyond that, the number of predominantly Black schools has declined over the years through zoning. Fewer than 8 percent of the TSSAA's 374 schools that play football are predominantly Black. Only three Chattanooga schools would fall in that category — Howard, Brainerd and Tyner, and even Howard is now more than 40 percent Hispanic.

Yet ask Wayne Turner — who coached Tyner to that 1997 championship — the biggest problem facing predominantly Black schools in Hamilton County and he'll instantly reply, "There are too doggone many schools. We're spread too thin. We need fewer schools, bigger schools to compete for championships."

That's not the only problem, of course.

Turner said merely having his players at practice on a regular basis could be challenging because they often had transportation issues.

"A lot of times you had to get them to and from school because they had no way to get there otherwise," he said. "These are problems that probably don't exist in the private schools or the wealthier public schools."

Private schools are also a problem for many inner-city schools.

"I know we lost a lot of good athletes to the private schools," said Turner, who left Tyner at the close of the 2020 football season. "I don't blame the kids and I don't blame the private schools, but it definitely makes it tougher to compete."

It didn't seem that way in the fall of 1966 following that win by Howard over Central and its legendary coach Red Etter, who would later win a mythical national championship at Baylor.

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Red Etter / Staff file photo

Howard coach Chubby James had built a dynasty prior to desegregation, piling up no fewer than five undefeated seasons through the late 195os and early 1960s. And Etter seemed to sense his Pounders were in trouble before the game began, telling one of the local papers: "The honeymoon has got to end sometime. They have a lot of speed. Probably more than we have."

Late in the fourth quarter, his fears came true as Hustlin' Tigers quarterback Fred Shropshire hit Perry Hicks from 30 yards out to tie the game before Kitchen's conversion run made Howard the unlikely winner.

"When Central came out for warmups before the game, they looked like pros," recalled Cook. "Nobody gave us a chance. But once the game began we realized they were bigger but we were faster and that was the difference. That's how we blocked their extra point early in the game."

Fifty-five years later, Cook says he only thinks about that moment when he runs into old teammates, and at least 10 of them have passed away.

He also says he watched the impact of zoning first-hand when he drove a city school bus after retiring from the Navy to help care for his mother.

"I used to pick up Tommy "Freight Train" Taylor (who later starred at UCLA) right in front of the Howard campus and drive him to City High," said Cook. "Zoning changed everything here in Chattanooga."

Still, that win over Central brought joy to the large Howard fan base for months thereafter.

"They made us feel so great after that win," Cook said. "Whenever we were in a restaurant, there was always somebody wanting to buy us something. We made so many people so happy."

For each of the 18 teams vying for those nine BlueCross Bowl trophies this weekend at Finley Stadium, that part of high school football will never change. The winners will make so many people so happy for years to come, regardless of the color of their skin.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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