Big nine reunion breakfast honors Jacksonville’s Mathew W. Gilbert High Panthers & Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High Panthers
Matthew W Gilbert High School State Champs, Class 1958: Saundra Morene, Bobbie Jones, Harold Jones, Selina Lee, Roosevelt Cross, Annie Bean, Herman Callendar, Leon Smith, James Murphy, Elaine Kitchings, Alice Sapp, Earl Kitchings, Jr., Louis Hill, Willie Haywood, John Bush Bobby Newsome, Robert Clark, Charles Waldon Jr., Redd Norman, Elaine Jackson, and Jesse Johnson.
By Charles Moseley
There was a time in the not so distant past before school desegregation outlawed racial division in our nation’s public school systems when two all Black high schools met on the gridiron to determine who the best in the state of Florida was.
Those schools ironically both were known as the Panthers. Dillard Comprehensive High represented the Panthers from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Mathew W. Gilbert High School represented the Panthers from Jacksonville, Fla. The championship game featured the Big Nine Conference Champions from North and South Conferences.
Unfortunately for the home team, the Panthers from Fort Lauderdale would come up short by a score of 14 to 7 in a hotly contested game, with the Panthers from Jacksonville capturing the state championship between the two top colored schools back in 1958.
Gilbert High would remain undefeated and cap off a perfect 11-0 season. Dillard would wind up with two losses that season, including one to the Bulls of Northwestern High School in Miami.
This past weekend, members from that historic championship Gilbert High team spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale as the host of the Dillard High School Panthers as part of the home team’s homecoming festivities. Part of those festivities included a Meet and Greet Breakfast for the teams at the local Elks Lodge No. 652 in Fort Lauderdale.
Al Battle Jr. is the executive director for the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Battle attended the breakfast on behalf of the City. Ironically both of this Jacksonville native’s parents attended Gilbert High. Battle’s father, Al Battle Sr., was head drum major. attle Jr.’s mother, Karlyn Velita Robinson, was head majorette in the Panther Band.
“Today was a celebration of history, a celebration of times which no longer exist. Jacksonville, Fla.’s historical Black high school, Mathew W. Gilbert, was able to come and share a moment with the team they played in the State of Florida high school Black football championship, Dillard High School.
“These two teams that battled, there’s a winner and a loser who came back together to celebrate that historic moment and sportsmanship and the tradition of high school football was a little bit different than it is today.”
“It is significant that we celebrate this event here at the Elks Lodge in Fort Lauderdale historically speaking, because we are doing something for our community, in our community. The things we are focusing on such as this event are designed to help focus on the revitalization of our community. It’s very important that we look at our communities as more than just a place to lay our heads, it should sustain us and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” said Rick Lewis, House Chairman of the Elks Lodge No. 652 in Fort Lauderdale.
Reverend Byron Mashack of the 15th Ave. Church of God addressed the breakfast gathering. The topic of his speech was entitled, “History Matters.” He emphasized the role history plays from a biblical and cultural perspective.
“History matters because it matters to God. History matters to God because it’s HIS-STORY. Because we are His creation and His children; our story is His story. In fact history is so important to God that He inspired men to write it down.”
Former Gilbert football players Bobby Newsome and Louis Hill were among a small contingent which traveled to Fort Lauderdale to celebrate their championship team’s historical win. Newsome is re-tired from a career with the Amtrak Railroad Company and Hill spent many years working with juvenile youth in northern Florida. They both said that what stood out beside the game was how well they were received by the families of the Dillard players who they stayed with before the game.
“Everyone was so nice to us back then. We couldn’t stay in hotels back then so we had to spend the night with the families of the Dillard players. The welcomed us and treated us real well,” said Louis.
Earl S. Kitchens was the head coach of the Gilbert Panthers. His son Earl Jr. represented his family during the weekend reunion which featured players and coaches who participated in that historical game for the first Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association State Championship.
“My participation with this event is to just represent my father who coach these men you see hear represented today and to continue honoring his legacy and that of the school.
As part of that process Kitchen is documenting the championship season when his father’s team went undefeated. Here is portion of Kitchen’s play by play of the winning touchdown in the “Battle of the Panthers” game in 1958, in his own words.
Hoping to catch the home team off-guard, Coach Kitchens felt his defense was winning that part of the game, and the time had come for a way to break the deadlock. He felt that his team was to have a strong chance of winning this game; he needed to surprise Dillard and catch them off guard, so he called a special play, one that his coaching foe would not expect, and perhaps had not seen. This winning play would come off as a result of a formation known as the “Penn State Spread”.
Knowing that having practiced this play to a point of being comfortable to call it now, he sent it in to his field general. Covering 34 yards, quarterback Oliver Joyce found halfback Willie Haywood out of the backfield, and the Panther line provided the needed blocks to allow Haywood to score. Joyce’s conversion kick gave the Gilbert team a seven point lead.
Prior to gaining the deciding advantage, Gilbert’s Coach Kitchens would tell his team that if they would score on this play, he promised that “Dillard would not score again.” Holding on to a seven point advantage, the visitors from Jacksonville would fight and scrap, holding Dillard scoreless in the remaining minutes of final quarter.
CELEBRATE!!!!! The Gilbert Panthers had completed the perfect season, and reveled in the fact of being the best there was in the state.
With a five hour ride ahead of them on that same two-lane US 1 Highway back to the eastside of Jacksonville, the victory made the journey well worth the eleven game season of “blood, sweat, and tears”.
Final Score Gilbert 14 Dillard 7.
Robert Green spent 35 years at Dillard High; 17 of those years Green served as the school’s athletic director. He was the assistant football coach in charge of running backs at Dillard in 1958.
“I remember Gilbert had a very talented quarterback by the name of Oliver Joyce. They ran what we called back then a “Statute of Liberty” play; that’s how they scored to win the game. It was an exciting time for Dillard to be a part of that game and to represent the Big Nine South during that championship era,” said Coach Green.
Former FAMU Rattler football player Frank Robinson was in his third year as a Dillard Panther assistant coach. The defensive coordinator felt he had put in quite a good defensive scheme against his up state opponent which was spearheaded by his star defensive lineman Sherman Brown.
“I was a defensive minded person, when they pulled that “Statute of Liberty “play to win the game that really caught me by surprise, other than that we had a pretty good game. “
Johnny Alexander was a sophomore back up split end for the Panthers who saw some action during the game when the Panther’s top wide receiver Leonard Stokes left the game due to injury. Alexander felt that Stokes’ injury may have impacted the final outcome of the game.
“I recalled that we had them down but they fought back and came from behind late in the game to pull out a victory. We were banged up pretty good. Leonard Stokes got injured during the game. He was one of the best receivers in the state of Florida at the time. I believe that if he would have been healthy we would have probably won the game. He was our fastest and strongest wide receiver and had great timing with our quarterback Robert Arnold.”
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