Desegregation of public schools across the South divided some communities and caused turmoil, but according to former Morristown East standout Walt Bragg, he and his teammates put all of those types of distractions aside and came together to deliver to Morristown its only football state championship in 1969.
Bragg was the featured speaker at East’s annual preseason football banquet held Monday night and he recalled what made that title team 50 years ago so special. Tennessee schools were desegregated in the mid 1960s and Bragg said this placed students in “uncomfortable situations of receiving one another,” Despite that uneasiness, Bragg said members of the Hurricanes football team had a higher focus.
“It brought together a group of football players who were determined to be young men of standard,” Bragg said. “I remember during our freshman year when that group came together, there was just something special about that group. As I reflect back, winning the state championship was big but now as I look back, it represented much bigger things to our community. From the minute we came together, we were willing to break protocol, to break the code of conduct of the old man’s ways of not working together and not getting along to receiving one another with fellowship and that is exactly what we did. We shared each other’s interests and knew we had a platform for the world to see.”
Bragg was an offensive and defensive lineman at East, and after helping lead the Hurricanes to the 1969 state title, played football for legendary coach Bobby Bowden at West Virginia. After his playing days in college were completed, he returned to his alma mater where he served as head coach for 11 seasons. Bragg led the ‘Canes to the postseason seven times and is the only coach in East history to have a winning record against their crosstown rivals, Morristown West.
He said the 1969 team wanted to set their own path towards success. “We knew that to be great, we had to be different. We knew there had to be something that would distinguish us from other folks.”
Just as was the case 50 years ago, Bragg said negative influences in today’s society offer a lot of distractions but he challenged members of the East team to look past those.
“Just like back in 1966, today there are things going on in the community where it is very easy for a young man to get focused on the wrong things and to fashion himself after the wrong things,” Bragg said. “Our group didn’t do that. We knew the brand we were trying to establish was not going to be easy, but we didn’t stray away from our commitment and we continued together and stayed together the entire time we were at Morristown East High School. We did not separate because we knew we had a higher calling if we didn’t divide. That is what makes you a young man of standard.”
One of the keys to the success East enjoyed in the late 1960s was how they all got along with each other.
“Having great talent doesn’t necessarily make you a great team,” Bragg said. “I have coached and played on teams with less talent but with great chemistry. I think that is what made us successful in the championship game is that we had great chemistry. Everyone on that team cared for each other and loved each other. If you smacked one of us, the other one would probably cry. We were that close.”
Bragg had a word of encouragement as the Hurricanes prepare for the season opener against West next week.
“When you line up next week to play West, it doesn’t matter what side of the track you come from, it doesn’t matter what color you are,” Bragg said. “All that matters is what kind of character you will display, not just for one play but all night long.”
He concluded his remarks with a challenge to the players to conduct themselves in a noble and honorable way.
“No good thing will be withheld from those who think right, believe right, speak right and behave right,” Bragg said. “What you think and what you believe will affect what you say and how you will conduct yourself. You can win every battle if you just learn to do these things.”