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AHSFHS Article Series

   The best of the best in Alabama High   
  School Football over the past 100 seasons.

The History of High School Football in Alabama

There are few things as exciting as an October Friday night at the local high school football stadium. The teams dressed out in their colors going through their pre-game drills. Fans with there seat cushions and pom-poms. The aroma of the concessions with popcorn, boiled peanuts and soft drinks fills the air. The color guard and their presentation of the colors before the game and the bands halftime show to entertain the crowd all are things seen every Friday night. The cheerleaders with their latest cheers are working hard to get the home crowd into the game.


Some schools recently have taken the sport to another level. Hoover and their ‘Two a Days’ MTV show. Accusations of recruiting among private and even some public schools are common. In north Georgia there are teams with stadium jumbotrons for instant replays and contacts with Reebok for uniforms and equipment. Cushioned seats with reserved parking for season pass holders are becoming more prevalent. Budgets that exceed six figures are becoming the norm among the largest schools.


Well, football games in Alabama was not always this way. Long before lights and press boxes the game was played with little fanfare. The first intercollegiate game played in the south occurred in 1892 between Auburn and Georgia. More than 8,000 fans turned out for the event.


Not long afterwards the first high school programs were organized in Birmingham. One of the first high school teams in the state was Birmingham High School, which today is better known as Phillips. Football would remain obscure for many years with less than a dozen teams playing the sport for the next 30 years. Some of the first schools to field teams were Birmingham, Sidney Lanier, Albertville, Sylacauga, Barton Academy and Oneonta.


By 1917 the number of schools would increase to more than 30 including Thomasville, Jackson, U.M.S., Escambia County, Grove Hill, Scottsboro, Bridgeport, Guntersville, Gurley, Athens, Blountsville, Hartselle and Auburn. It was common for colleges, B teams, club or athletic association teams, freshman teams and fraternity teams (and sometimes junior college teams) to play high school teams.


            The game played in the 1920s is far from what is enjoyed today. Most games were played with few, if any, spectators. Many teams played with equipment handed down from Universities or played with borrowed gear from other schools. Some schools disbanded their program for lack of money to replace needed equipment.


Coaches worked alone with only the assistance of the occasional volunteer. Their duties would include everything from getting a field ready for play to cleaning the uniforms. We do not have to wonder why most coaches rarely held the position more than a year or two. Scheduling could be a disaster before modern communication.


The biggest problem in the early years was getting enough players to field a team and keeping them healthy long enough to finish a season. Jerry Clower once said that he played in the first football game he ever saw. This probably occurred often in the early years.


Before the time of free substitution, players were restricted from reentering the game if the came out for almost any reason. Many games were played entirely with the starting eleven playing on both sides of the ball every down. Sometimes this was necessary because of the limited number of reserves. Teams were required to begin a game with eleven players but could finish with as few as nine on the field if injuries became a factor. There were some forfeitures when teams could not get nine healthy bodies to the line of scrimmage.


Another option for schools with only a few male students would have been six-man football. Several leagues existed until the early 1950s when the sport gave way to the conventional game. One such league existed in Mobile County with teams from Theodore, Baker, Semmes, Alba, Tanner Williams and Grand Bay having participated. The league finally ended in 1952 when most of the schools chose to field eleven man teams.


Often scheduling would be done during the season. On one occasion Fairhope and Atmore were to play with each thinking it was an away game. Upon arriving at the visitors’ field they discovered the error. To solve the problem the teams agreed to meet half way in Bay Minette and played the game that afternoon.  It was not uncommon for schedules to change during the season and games to be postponed or cancelled due to rain and bad weather. Coaches would pick up games or even drop them in accordance with the fortunes of that particular year. Sometimes, a school would cancel a game if it feared a rout.


It was likely that some of the scheduled games never actually took place. In those days, a school would optimistically announce that it planned to field a football team, only to have injuries or a small turnout cause the team to end its season early or never start it at all. Also, it was not uncommon, even into the 1920s, for a school to accidentally schedule two games the same weekend, usually because of misunderstandings on one side or the other. Signed contracts were not always the rule.


Schools would schedule games against anyone willing to suit up against them including YMCA teams, alumni teams and town teams. Some schools would hold annual rivalry games on Thanksgiving and Armistice Day. Foley and Bay Minette played on Armistice Day, November 11th, during the 1920s and 30s no matter what day of the week it fell. They would sometimes turn around and play another game two or three days later. Murphy and U.M.S. played for years on Thanksgiving morning.


Games were played in the afternoons because of the lack of lighted fields. The first lights would not be installed until the late 1930s. The playing surface would consist of dirt much more than turf grass.


Newspaper coverage was sparse at best. Daily newspapers like the Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery papers would cover the major schools with little, if any, notice paid to the smaller schools and outlying communities. The weekly edition of the local newspaper would report on home games with barely a mention of games played out of town. 


            In 1921 the Alabama High School Athletic Association was organized by the schools to control and promote their athletic programs. The AHSAA would unite the teams under one set of rules and guidelines. Some of the early problems were age limits, required equipment and officials. Some players were known to have gone to fight in WWI then return to finish school and play football well past their 21st birthday. The wearing of helmets and padding was left to the discretion of the players and coaches. Officials were often fans called upon to keep the peace because rules were vague and rarely enforced with penalties. Officials would stand by, let them play and break up fights.


            The actual game barely resembled the game of today. There were very few if any forward passes. Teams would run a buck play for the point after touchdown rather than attempt a risky point after kick. The huddle was non existent. Until the 1920s teams would line up immediately after the ball was downed, waiting for it to be snapped on a pre-arranged signal.


Part one of the history of football in Alabama takes us up to the formation of the AHSAA in 1921. Part two will pick up here and take us through WWII.

Great Moments in Alabama High School Football History

Clay County shutout an amazing eleven opponents in 1996. The Panthers outscored their opponents 613-42 finishing the season 15-0.