Atwood hosted decades of Thanksgiving sports dramas: ice, snow, mud, diversity, dancing
By Lawrence R. Gustin
Editor’s note: Gustin, a Flint native, writer and much-published historian of Flint’s automotive past, agreed to contribute this reminiscence of Atwood Stadium – including the almost 50-year-long series of Thanksgiving Day contests between Flint Central and Flint Northern high schools. In a second piece coming in December, he will describe his attempts to track down and preserve game films from those peak Atwood years.
For folks of a certain age, the recent rebirth of Atwood Stadium likely revives memories of the greatest sports tradition in Flint history – Thanksgiving games between Flint Central and Northern high schools.
The games began in 1928, the first at Central, the second at Northern and starting in 1930 at newly built Atwood. They ran through 1976, when they were finally moved from Thanksgiving. It had been a great run, but attendance was declining, two more local high schools blunted the rivalry and there was the flight to suburbia, as well as state tournament scheduling problems.
But for most of those years, especially the 1940s and ’50s, the numbers were unbelievable by today’s standards. Football attendance of 3,000 at Atwood today is respectable. But in earlier decades, crowds of 18,000 were routine and twice the count topped 20,000!
For many years, Atwood was one of the centers of action in Flint, rivaled only by the IMA Auditorium, also built in 1929. The stadium held campaign visits by Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, a world featherweight title fight with champ Willie Pep knocking out Flint’s Jock Leslie, a national high school band concert led by John Philip Sousa, exhibitions by the Detroit Tigers and Lions, a World War II armaments demonstration for civil defense workers, rock concerts, Flint’s centennial celebration featuring Dinah Shore and so much more.
But for consistent popularity, nothing rivaled Thanksgiving games between Central and Northern.
An unforgettable 1950 game
As a child, I had been taken by my parents to a couple of the Flint games in the late 1940s. But the first I distinctly remember was the best attended – and many say best – of them all. It was held in 1950 before a record crowd of 20,600 and had long been sold out.
An Atwood event sold out? Even with bleachers all around, the place was filled to the brim. I got in, at age 13, as a Boy Scout usher. My seat on that cold, windy and snowy day was a concrete step.
It was a great game. Northern was favored but Central scored quickly after recovering a fumble. Northern came back with two touchdowns. Very late, Central quarterback Dwight Etherington raced 38 yards to score and Lacey Bernard kicked the point to create a 13-13 tie. I was happy my underdog Central Indians would finish with a tie.
But then something happened that to me was unbelievable. On the first play after Central’s ensuing kickoff, with only 2:45 left, Northern star Leroy Bolden sprinted 79 yards to score – the longest run from scrimmage in Thanksgiving history and no doubt the most spectacular.
I felt devastated watching that run. Northern won, 20-13. The Flint Journal’s Dante Levi took arguably the most famous sports photo in Flint history, Bolden running all alone through snow flurries and appearing to glance at the big stadium clock displaying the 13-13 score and the sweeping minute hand.
That 1950 game continued a long series of confrontations between the two schools. Going back to the beginning, in 1928 and 1929 Northern won the first two, 7-0 at Central, then 6-0 at Northern on Frank Mitoraj’s field goals.
My dad, a Northern student at the time, said it was so cold he watched through a button hole in his coat.
The action moved to Atwood in ’30 and Northern won again, 18-0.
Houston a pathfinding Northern coach
Guy Houston, the Vikings’ coach, was on his way to becoming the first high school member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. His use of minorities was described as putting Flint on the national map. Before he was through, he would lead Northern to 10 undefeated seasons and 12 Saginaw Valley Conference titles in 24 years.
Central finally got a score and a win, 6-0, in ’31 when Sherwood Moore, 15, intercepted a pass and ran 81 yards. The Indians won 19-13 in ’32, unbeaten state co-champs, but in ’33 it was Northern that was unbeaten behind Fred Trosko’s three TDs against Central. Northern won again in ’34 and ’35, extending its undefeated record to 25 in three seasons.
Northern’s 32-0 win in 1940 was the final for the school’s “Wonder Boys” – Len Sweet, Ed Krupa and cousins Bob and Dick Holloway – who combined in 36 straight basketball triumphs and 28 consecutive football victories.
The ’41 game introduced Central’s sensational junior, Lynn Chandnois, who scored twice in a stunning 13-0 victory before a record 17,460. The Vikings retaliated in ’42, winning 19-0 for their fifth undefeated, untied season. Chandnois was surprisingly outshone by Northern’s versatile Bill Hamilton, who scored twice, passed for the other TD and outrushed Chandnois, 67 yards to 32. Chandnois did prove he was faster, however, catching up with Hamilton and tackling him on a 58-yard run.
Even after stellar careers at Michigan State and in the NFL, Chandnois remembered. When I showed him a video of the play in 2009, he laughed and said, “I never told Bill, but I had the angle on him.”’
Replacing cleats with tennis shoes on ice
There’s room here for only a few more highlights. Central’s Norm Jones raced 93 yards with the opening kickoff as the Indians won in ’43. In ’47, Central completed its first perfect season in 22 years as coach Howard Auer quickly replaced cleats with tennis shoes, providing his players with good footing on an icy field and a 20-6 win.
Among strong performers: Central guard Don Coleman, an All-American at Michigan State and the first player there to have his number retired. In 1975 he was named to the National Football League Foundation Hall of Fame. In 1949, 11 inches of snow were dumped on Atwood, but Northern’s Bolden scored twice and fellow star Ellis Duckett, who didn’t score but played very well, still won the Valley scoring title.
I’ve mentioned Bolden’s long run and the record crowd of 20,600 in 1950, but I thought the ’53 game was more exciting. In the third period, Northern was awarded a controversial safety, but the Vikings trailed until, in the last minute, Art Johnson broke loose on fourth down to score (Johnson would eventually be the grandfather of 2009 Flint Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram). Central made a frenzied comeback attempt.
A desperation pass by Charles Thrash intended for Joe Quarles ricocheted into the hands of Larry Catlin, who fell on the Northern one as the game ended, Northern winning 15-13. In 1956 Northern won 20-8 in for another perfect season, but Central triumphed in a blowout, 51-0, in 1958 under coach Bill Doolittle. Flint Journal sports editor Doug Mintline called it “the Tribe’s greatest victory in history.”
Rain, mud, astroturf, dancing
Atwood’s playing surface, which often turned to mud by mid-game, was so muddy in 1967 that Journal reporter Len Hoyes called it the “worst field conditions in series history.” It became known as the “Mud Bowl.” That led to a drive to cover the field with AstroTurf, donated by the Mott Foundation, the following year (and this year to fund a safer synthetic playing surface).
In a 6-2 Northern victory in the Mud Bowl, William Wallace ran for the touchdown but his antics (in a more conservative period), including dancing and gesturing at Central players and fans, were criticized by some. The ’68 game was played in a driving rain. Wrote Hoyes: “Without the AstroTurf …someone may have drowned.” Central won, 26-19.
The finale in 1976 ended 7-6 for Central in the series’ only overtime. Central’s Frank Nagy scored a TD and Jody Smith booted the winning extra point. Northern answered with a TD but when it went for a two-point conversion, Central’s David Gibson batted down a pass that looked like it might connect. That ended the Thanksgiving series.
Many ghosts haunt Atwood
In 1977, however, a “Nostalgia Bowl” was created by the Flint Journal to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the series.
As Flint Journal sports writer Doug Mintline wrote: “There are ghosts haunting Atwood Stadium, so many participants being involved in those 49 years, that a chance to hobble through it once more, just for sentimental reasons, sounds interesting.”
It did for Russ Reynolds, anyway. He was a star at Northern and played in the 1928 and ’29 games. In 1977, he suited up one more time, probably one of the very few players ever to see Thanksgiving action in all three of the series’ venues – Central, Northern and Atwood Stadium.
Lawrence R. Gustin’s career as a writer and historian offers too many high point to count. He wrote the award-winning first biographies of General Motors found Billy Durant and Buick founder David Buick. He created the Flint Journal Centennial Picture History of Flint in three editions for the U.S. bicentennial. He began the drive to save the Durant-Dort Carriage Company office building as Flint’s only National Historic Landmark and wrote the inscriptions for Joe Rundell’s statues of Flint auto pioneers. He retired in 2005 after 21 years as assistant director of Buick public relations. That followed 23 years as a reporter and editor at the Flint Journal, during which he covered the Apollo 11 launch of man to the moon, the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, and many others. He and his wife Rose Mary, both Flint natives, now live in Oakland County and have two sons and five grandchildren.