Fifty-seven years ago, the NFL’s Washington Redskins made the team’s first trip to North Carolina to play one of the state’s first professional football games. Since that day in 1954, the Redskins have played here twenty times and will return on October 23rd to play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a personal look back at that first game.
As a little kid growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s, my only real exposure to professional football came on Sunday afternoons at 2:00 in front of my parents’ TV set—a General Electric 14-inch black-and-white model. Thanks to Redskins’ owner George Preston Marshall’s Amoco–Redskins TV network, I could see all regular season Redskins games that were played east of the Mississippi River. Marshall thought of his Redskins as the “Team of the South,” since Washington was the NFL’s southernmost city. And Marshall took full advantage of that fact by drafting players like Charlie Justice from North Carolina, Harry Gilmer from Alabama, Harry Dowda from Wake Forest, and Billy Cox from Duke.
Then, during the final game of the 1953 season, a game between the Redskins and the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 13th, play-by-play announcer Mel Allen and analyst Jim Gibbons made an announcement that would change the North Carolina–Redskins perspective. Allen and Gibbons told the TV audience that the Redskins would be playing an exhibition game (they are called preseason games today) in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 11th of 1954. The game, sponsored by the North Carolina State University Wolfpack Club, would be a night contest against the Green Bay Packers. In the 1950s NFL exhibition games were very different from the preseason games of today. First string players often played the entire game and teams tried their best to win. The games were played in stadiums across the country and provided an opportunity for teams to show off in front of fans that would likely never get to see them in person otherwise.
During the next nine months, my friends and I looked forward to being able to see our favorite team for real. We had followed them for three years on TV, but none of us had ever seen them in person. I saved my allowance and came up with enough money for a ticket—it was four dollars. We talked one of our Sunday School teachers into driving us to Raleigh for the game.
The Redskins started off the ’54 season on August 6th in San Diego, then to Los Angeles . . . Sacramento . . . Detroit . . . Columbia, South Carolina, and then to Raleigh.
So on game day we loaded up a 1951 Buick in Asheboro and headed east to Raleigh—stopping at Raleigh’s S&W Cafeteria for a quick dinner. Much of the conversation centered around the game in Columbia the weekend before. The Redskins had lost to the Bears, but that didn’t matter. Former UNC All America Charlie Justice had made a 47- yard run for the Redskins late in the game; that’s what mattered. It also didn’t matter that the Packers were favored; we would get to see our football hero and that’s what mattered.
I remember walking into Riddick Stadium. There were only 22,000 seats, but to me the place looked huge. And through my binoculars, there on the field were the Washington Redskins warming up. Their burgundy and gold uniforms were spectacular. I had always pictured the team in black and white. Then I spotted #22 . . . he was walking over to the Packers’ side of the field to greet his UNC teammate Len Szafaryn who played for Green Bay. They chatted for several minutes and were joined by Clayton Tonnemaker, the Green Bay center who Justice had teamed with at the 1950 Chicago College-All Star Game.
Soon after the start of the game, it became obvious that the Packers were the better team, but that didn’t matter. My friends and I were there to see Charlie Justice, and he didn’t disappoint.
Early in the first half, he took a pitch-out from quarterback Jack Scarbath around the left side of the line . . . you could feel the excitement and hear whispers of “Choo Choo.” Bottled up, he cut back to his right. By now the crowd was on its feet. He went 20 yards to the Packers’ 11 yard line. As the TV sports guys say, “the crowd went wild.”
In the second half, Justice punted to Green Bay’s Al Carmichael who returned the punt 50 yards but was tackled by Justice at the Redskins’ 5 yard line . . . another standing ovation for the former Tar Heel.
In the fourth quarter, quarterback Al Dorrow hit Justice with a pass on a crossing pattern for an 11 yard pickup. As Justice dodged a would-be tackler near the Redskins’ sideline, a series of flash bulbs lit up the night. Hugh Morton’s Justice picture along with five others appeared on the front page of the Sports section of the Raleigh News and Observer on Sunday, September 12th.
[Editor’s note: The photographs that appear on the News and Observer microfilm in the North Carolina Collection do not show the photographs mentioned above. It’s likely, therefore, that the edition of the N&O sold in Asheboro was different edition. The edition on microfilm shows two uncredited photographs, one of which depicts Charlie Justice drinking water from a ladle. The photograph above did appear (although more tightly cropped) in the edition distributed in Asheboro, which Jack Hilliard clipped from the newspaper and he still has today.]
When the game ended, the Washington Redskins had come up way short on the scoreboard, but that didn’t matter to a group of kids from Asheboro, North Carolina. We had seen our hero up close and personal, and as was often the case, Justice stayed on the field long after the game and signed autographs. Charlie would say in a 1973 interview, he had no problem when kids ask for an autograph. “The problem,” said Justice, “is when they stop asking.” (Charlie never had that problem).
Forty-nine years later, on October 20th, 2003, at Charlie Justice’s memorial service in Asheville, Woody Durham, UNC’s voice of the Tar Heels, said: “There are folks in North Carolina who cannot commit to the Carolina Panthers, because Charlie Justice first made them Redskin fans.”
I guess I’m one of those fans.