Football returns to Rollins
Racing down a well-worn patch of football field on the west side of Eatonville, Michael Cardwell leaps into the cloudless sky just in time to catch a pigskin bullet launched from quarterback Jeff Hoblick’s right hand seconds earlier.
“We’re still doing simple drills, but we’re doing well,” Hoblick said.
This bland moment in the searing spring heat on a wide-open practice field could be happening in thousands of places across America, but for one difference.
The Tars’ strikingly tall and lean wide receiver doesn’t realize it, but he just might be making history. Rollins College hasn’t had a football team in more than 60 years. The last time the team played on the gridiron was 1949. The last time a black man played in a Rollins football uniform is never.
Rollins’ football team’s demise came almost as suddenly as its new beginning. Started in 1904, the team came together from a random group of just 11 players, according to Rollins’ history archives. Within four years, they were the best team in the state.
They continued to be a prolific force in college football until the sudden departure of legendary coach Jack McDowall, who helmed the team from 1929 to 1949. Then after the fall of 1949, McDowall walked away. The team tried to play a spring season in 1950, but discovered that the school, strapped for cash, had sold off all the uniforms.
In an instant, the team vanished from the football field, just before black athletes nationwide began breaking the color barrier.
Quietly making history
And so, as Cardwell’s shirtless body drops back down to Earth, ball in hand, his long strides land as casual footfalls in history, and he doesn’t even seem to notice what he and a few of his teammates have done.
Cardwell is a black receiver, who just caught a pass from a white quarterback. And Rollins may have just taken a giant leap toward becoming the last team in the history of college football to finally break the color barrier.
But that moment doesn’t even register a whisper on the field. There’s no fanfare along the stands. Not yet. But it’s building.
Ask Hoblick, Cardwell or any of the other players what their team inspiration is, and you’ll hear a handful answer, “Remember the Titans” in unison. There’s no hint of irony there. Look in their eyes and they honestly don't care, bypassing an era of turbulence and emerging back on the football field amid a camaraderie decades in the making.
"Remember the Titans" may be their inspiration, but they’re talking about a team’s resurrection, not race.
In the acclaimed 2000 film, T.C. Williams High School battled issues with unity after an influential coach left and the team was handed over to a new head coach, a black man. The team had to put aside racial differences and come together to become champions. That season, they never lost a game.
Reuniting two communities
But there’s no Hollywood pretension motivating these would-be Tars players on a sunny Sunday afternoon, though their quarterback understands the importance. He’s not hoping to just unite a school behind a team. He’s hoping to reunite two communities.
Hoblick, who’s built like a quarterback and can still throw a spiral more than 50 yards, might seem familiar to Winter Park residents. Two years ago, he strapped on the Winter Park Wildcats’ orange and black for the last time. On the varsity football team, he remembers the packed stands, the cheering fans. When he arrived at Rollins, something was missing.
“They used to have Rollins banners hanging in the streets of Winter Park,” Hoblick said. “Now Rollins and Winter Park are different worlds.
“My freshman year, I didn’t have anything that made me feel like a Rollins Tar. Most kids’ first college experience is going to a football game.
"This isn’t about me," he said. "It’s about Rollins. It’s going to change the whole school.”
But for many players, they just wanted a chance they may not have ever had, or that any Rollins student had. Not since McDowall left the team after the 1949 season. Not since the team photos were still in black and white.
“I just wanted to play football,” Cardwell said. A basketball player in high school, he’d been promised a shot at the gridiron by a coach, but had never gotten a chance to strap on a helmet.
A brutal past
Incidentally, neither had the last Rollins team to walk onto the playing field. The pre-integration era was a far more brutal time in football, when players wore “helmets,” which were little more than thickly padded leather hats, and rudimentary shoulder pads. Absent modern safety equipment to cushion the blow, a violent hit could turn deadly.
And in the early days of racial integration in college football, which lagged behind pro sports, violent hits sometimes carried racial motives.
In his book “College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy” published in October 2000, author John Sayle Watterson wrote of the infamous “Johnny Bright Incident” that changed college football forever.
“In 1951 the apparent progress in the upper South and border states suffered a setback when Johnny Bright, an African-American running back for Drake, was severely injured in what was most certainly a racial episode,” Watterson wrote.
Bright, who had been a star running back for Drake University, was one of the most prominent black players in college football. Oklahoma A&M players had expressed displeasure with having to play a team that allowed black players. That resentment culminated in the early minutes of the game, when Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith, in a full run, slammed his forearm into Bright’s jaw long after Bright had handed off the ball.
The resulting pain, combined with being knocked unconscious three times in similar hits by Smith, eventually sidelined Bright, but not before he had rushed for 70 yards in seven minutes on the field.
Bright left the field with a broken jaw, the result of repeated crushing blows to the face. It had to be wired shut for most of the remainder of the season.
Changing football history
The photo series capturing the violent hits won a Pulitzer Prize for Des Moines Register cameramen John Robinson and Don Ultang in 1952, making the cover of Life Magazine.
In the ensuing national uproar, the NCAA began mandating plastic helmets and facemasks for players, to prevent injuries like the ones sustained by Bright.
Neither Smith nor Oklahoma A&M were ever punished for the incident, but that moment pushed the issue into the national spotlight, Watterson wrote.
Not long afterward, the NCAA mandated integration in sports. Since then, black players have regularly played alongside white players since before the advent of the Super Bowl.
In the meantime, Rollins has since fully integrated in the classroom and in all its existing sports, though that took time as well.
“There was no black student at Rollins until the mid-1960s,” Rollins historian Julian Chambliss said. “And there was no black student in a graduating class until the 1970s.”
Now it's the football team's turn to finally take its first step into the modern era.
“The fact that they ended the program in 1950 means that they missed the entire integration era,” Chambliss said. “The irony of them integrating the team is that it doesn’t even register anymore.”
Plotting a comeback
In some ways, the Tars are still only tiptoeing in. Rollins Football Club President Jeff Hoblick is starting the team at the club level. They won’t be playing the University of Florida anytime soon. Not like they used to back in the leatherhead days, when the Tars won the state championship in 1908.
But optimism is already growing for that big moment in October when the Tars kick off in their first game since just after World War II ended.
“People almost didn’t believe us when we told them we were bringing back the football team,” Hoblick said. “People didn’t take us seriously. Now that we’ve got players, and founding members, they do.”
And that confidence continues to build, even if the team doesn’t have a uniform yet. Even if they don’t have a head coach yet. Even if they technically don’t even have a home field.
Eatonville’s Hungerford Field, where Rollins’ lacrosse teams play, has been their practice field for the last two months, as Hoblick, along with his brother Greg, have scrambled to cobble together a group of regular players now numbering a few more than 20.
They come from everywhere, some with little football experience. At a Sunday practice, you’ll see players in Rollins lacrosse, crew and swimming T-shirts. The closest they get to a uniform is a pair of cleats, some dusted off from their high school days.
“We’ll take who we can get right now,” Hoblick said, though he said 60 percent of the team’s players have played football at least at the high school level.
And in many ways Rollins’ revived football team mirrors the past. Take a photo of them in black and white and you’ll see the same lack of helmets at practice, no pads either — just a small group of young men who want to play a game.
If the team were to hit the field today, many of the players would have to play both ways in order to fill out skeletonian 11-man defensive and offensive rosters. But that roster is growing too.
“Every practice, we’ll see someone new,” Hoblick said. And with every new player, his dream comes a bit closer to reality.
Some of the players have higher hopes than others, as their visions of a revived football program drift months and years down the road, to the day when it all becomes real.
His shirt soaked with sweat along the sidelines, player Nick Vasone said he’s hoping the Tars become a full-fledged team one day.
“As long as we keep playing hard, we can get into the NCAA,” he said.
Chambliss said he’s cautiously optimistic about the team’s chances considering the difficulty the team had before it disappeared nearly 62 years ago.
“It’s a lot easier to have a lot of other sports instead of a football team,” Chambliss said. “But it resonates with Southern culture. I know there’s a huge appeal.
“They have a lot of hurdles they have to overcome," he said. "But stranger things have happened.”
Rollins College’s new football club is still looking for players and sponsors. For more information on how to join or donate to the Rollins Football Club, visit rollinsfootball.webstarts.com