1939: When two girls played in a high school football game

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Harbeson Field in the Florida Panhandle town of DeFuniak Springs was buzzing with anticipation on the night of Oct. 27, 1939. Certainly, the hometown Walton High School Braves were generating their usual excitement — coach Dwight “Ox” Clark was fielding another competitive football team that season — but there was some added excitement as the home squad prepared to face Blountstown.

For the first time in Florida, a girl would trot onto the field and play.

“Mystery Girl To Play With Braves Friday,” the DeFuniak Springs Breeze reported the day before the game.

“Madame X” actually turned out to be two girls — Phyllis Douglass and Lucile Caldwell. The pair wrote for “The Waltonian,” the high school page that appeared weekly in the Breeze. Caldwell was the assistant editor, while Douglas was a feature writer and president of the senior class.

As sportswriter Sonny Yates wrote in a front-page story for the DeFuniak Springs Herald on Dec. 8, 1993, Clark, in his early 30s, was looking for a way to boost attendance — not because Walton High had a bad team, but because the Braves were crushing their opponents. Two weeks before the Braves faced Blountstown, he recruited Douglass to kick extra points. Douglass convinced Clark to add a second girl — Caldwell — to enter the game and throw for an extra point.

Practice for the two girls was held at dusk under tight security after the varsity sessions behind a 7-foot fence. Clark swore the girls to secrecy, not to breathe a word, even to their parents or friends. After one week of practice, Douglass sprained her ankle. Clark had her ankle taped and made sure she kept practicing her kicks, bending back the toe of her high-top kicking shoe and taping it.

On the night of the game, Clark’s promotional work bore fruit, as the stands in Harbeson Field were packed with fans from northwest Florida and southeast Alabama. The Walton coach kept both girls hidden behind the stadium grandstand and dressed them in white uniforms (the other players were wearing home blues).

When Walton High scored early in the first quarter on a run by sophomore Clothz Gillis, Douglass trotted out to attempt the extra point, replacing Charles King Jr. in the lineup. The Defuniak Springs Breeze reported in 1939 that “the ball fell short of the goal,” while Yates wrote in 1993 that while the kick had the distance, “it bounded off the left upright.” Either way, the kick was no good, so Walton’s lead remained 6-0.

Clark had told his offensive linemen that they would be in “deep trouble” if any member of the Blountstown squad touched his kicker. The linemen did their jobs, even though Blountstown’s players were agitated at the sight of a girl suiting up to play.

When King scored Walton’s second touchdown later in the quarter, Clark put Caldwell into the game, replacing A.D. Cosson. She passed for the extra point (conversions by kick, pass or run all were worth one point in 1939), connecting with Gillis, and the Braves went on to win easily, 46-7.

Gillis had a stellar night, rushing for two touchdowns, catching an extra-point conversion, and throwing the touchdown pass that accounted for the Braves’ final points.

The story generated a smattering of national news, mostly as a brief to fill up the Sunday sections of newspapers. The Associated Press ran the story, but got the players’ duties mixed up (the wire service reported that Douglass threw the pass and Caldwell attempted the kick). The incorrect information led the AP to use the “blonde beats brunette” angle — although it turned out to be the other way around. The brunette (Caldwell) converted the point, while the blonde (Douglass) did not. Not that it was really a competition between the two friends.

It was just another night at the football field.

Back in Walton County, the DeFuniak Springs Breeze in its Nov. 2, 1939, edition, dutifully reported the game result, mentioning the appearances of Douglass and Caldwell but not really embellishing it. “The Waltonian,” however, added its own bit of cheeky commentary in the same edition of the paper: “You can’t tell us Lucile was worried when she played football the other night! Look who she had blocking for her. Did someone say it was ‘Butch’”?

“Butch” was James Rachels, who was part of the final scoring sequence. Gillis had thrown a pass to King, who lateraled to Rachels. Butch then lateraled to Mac Anderson, who ran for the touchdown.

Next to Douglass’ photo in Walton High’s 1940 yearbook, the “War Whoop,” is a list of her achievements, including senior class president, editor of the yearbook, Hallowe’en Queen, homeroom president, solo cornet for the band — and “Substitute Football Player.”

In 1943, Douglass would marry Archibald Nail Dawson Jr., a World War II Navy veteran who served two tours of duty as a fighter pilot in the Pacific aboard the USS Lexington. Dawson, the son of a prominent Lakewood, Ohio, doctor, would rise to the rank of lieutenant commander before resigning his commission after the war. The couple lived in DeFuniak Springs and then moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1949, where they raised a son and daughter. Archibald died on April 22, 1995, in a Fort Walton Beach hospital. Phyllis died in DeFuniak Springs on July 19, 2003.

Interestingly, Phyllis’ son, Scott Dawson, has been an referee in the National Football League since 2000. He generally was the umpire, and despite a long career, he has not been immune from injury. He lost two teeth and needed 14 stitches when he was sandwiched between two Miami Dolphins players in a Dec. 14, 2008, game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Caldwell would move to Jacksonville during World War II and do clerical work before meeting and marrying Floyd White Jr. She lived on Florida’s east coast until her death on April 6, 2002, in Melbourne.

Clothz Gillis enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and was killed aboard the USS Franklin off the coast of Honshu, Japan, on March 19, 1945. Gillis had risen to the post of Aviation Ordinance Man, Third Class. “Big Ben” was bombed by a low flying Japanese plane, and 800 members of the aircraft carrier’s crew were killed. The USS Franklin earned the distinction of being the most heavily damaged U.S. carrier to survive World War II. Gillis’ name is carved onto one of the walls at the Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii — more formally known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Charles King Jr., who was the vice president of Walton High’s junior class in 1939-40, would work for his father for many years, rising to vice president of the King Motor Center and Independent Oil Terminal in St. Andrew, a town located just west of downtown Panama City. He died on Feb. 25, 1998, in DeFuniak Springs.

James “Butch” Rachels also served in the Navy during World War II, and died on July 26, 2011, in the small Walton County town of Glendale.

A.D. Cosson — Augustus Daniel Cosson Jr. — also served during World War II. As a private first class in the 99th Division, Cosson was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart. He died on May 3, 1999, and is buried in DeFuniak Springs.

Before coming to Walton High, Dwight “Ox” Clark coached football at Pickens County (Ala.) High, where he went 1-3 in 1929. From 1930 through 1935, he coached at Oxford, where he went 26-10-5. After his 1939 promotional move, Clark coached at Walton High for one more season, resigning after posting a 9-1 mark in 1940. He then began a long career working for the St. Joe Paper Company. He, his wife Mildred and daughter Alice moved to Bay County and lived in the Panama City area for many years.

Memories of the Walton girls’ football exploits were rarely publicized, although Yates paid tribute to them in his 1993 article. In an email, Yates told me that he interviewed both women for his article. A photograph of Douglass that adorns Yates’ story shows her lacing up her sneakers to commemorate her history-making kick.

Walton High used a female kicker on a full-time basis in 1974, albeit for the Braves’ junior varsity, when “Dugie” Wiess handled the chores.

In 2012 Erin DiMeglio became the first female in Florida to line up at quarterback during a regular-season game. Playing for South Plantation High School, DiMeglio took two snaps and handed off late in the Paladins’ 31-14 victory against Nova High on Aug. 31, 2012. Three weeks later, on Sept. 21, 2012, she completed her first pass.

Douglass and Caldwell appear to be the first girls to play in a boys football game in Florida. I emailed Buddy Collings, the Orlando Sentinel sportswriter and longtime prep history guru in the state of Florida, and he had never documented an instance before 1939; in fact, he conceded he’d never heard of the Walton girls’ achievement.

Nationally, it gets a little fuzzier. Atmore, Ala., native Luverne “Toad” Wise (later Albert) reportedly handled kicking chores for Escambia High School during the 1939 and 1940 seasons — but only when the Blue Devils led by more than 20 points as specified by coach Andy Edington. So it could have happened for Wise when Escambia won its two of its first three games of 1939 by scores of 33-2 and 32-7; or in 1940, when the Blue Devils went 8-1 and won four games by 20 or more points.

By the way, Luverne got her nickname because of her freckles. She died in 1982.

I’ll leave the national debate for another time. For now, Walton High’s place in Florida high school football history seems secure.

The memories of that night in seventy-four years ago in a small Panhandle town may be dim now, and many who witnessed the game have since passed away, but Douglass and Caldwell got their points across.

Updated 10-27-2013 at 11:37 PM by bdangelo

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