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Mike London column: Gilmore was an all-star in 1946

With joy in his heart and a black J.C. Price High letter-sweater covering his broad back, Steve Gilmore boarded a northbound Southern Railway train on Monday, Dec. 2, 1946.

The halfback’s destination was Greensboro, site of the state’s first Shrine Bowl for black players.

Rarely talked about, the “Black Shrine Bowl” thrived until the traditional Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas opened its doors to African American players in 1966.

The ferocious contest in which Gilmore competed in 1946 — North Carolina’s black all-stars against their Virginia counterparts — was barely mentioned in newspapers across the state.

“But, oh, it was beautiful,” said the 78-year-old Gilmore, a smile creasing his face. “We wore white jerseys with blue letters, and Memorial Stadium was packed.”

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Riding the train to Greensboro, Gilmore had ample opportunity to reflect on where he’d come from.

He was “raised strict” by a minister father who would lay down his bible and grab a stick when necessary.

There were nice playgrounds in Salisbury where blacks weren’t allowed, but Gilmore didn’t sulk. He made himself into a running back dodging trees in the woods.

“I’d run right at a tree full-blast, then spin to the right — then I’d run at the next tree full-blast and spin to the left,” Gilmore said. “That’s how I got so good at running the football.”

Price football teams traveled in moving vans as far as Asheville and carved out a dynasty before Gilmore put on a Red Devils uniform for the first time.

Price coach S.W. Lancaster (183-50-15 in 29 seasons) had high expectations for his 1946 team and gave it the ultimate test right off — an exhibition against the 24-year-old veterans from Price’s unscored-upon 1940 state champions.

Gilmore and his teammates survived that encounter, but they lost to Morganton Olive Hill 13-0 in their first official game.

But then Price’s defense settled in, and the Red Devils allowed only 19 points the rest of the season.

Price drubbed Asheboro’s Randolph Training School 92-0 for its first win, and Gilmore laughed like a teenager when asked about the margin of victory.

The next three games were struggles — 6-0 over Hickory, a 0-0 tie with arch-rival Lexington Dunbar and a 7-0 win against High Point William Penn.

“We had a defense nobody could score on,” Gilmore said. “I was a linebacker, and I always believed I was best on defense. I was a ballhawk. Wherever the ball went, I was there.”

Gilmore scored twice in a 58-0 rout of Rock Hill Scott. Then Price QB Fletcher Jones led an 18-6 win over Winston-Salem Atkins.

Price concluded an 8-1-1 regular season with tight victories over Thomasville and Belmont Reid. Gilmore scored the deciding touchdown against Reid.

An 8-1-1 record was just fair for Lancaster, who was “Prof” to his players.

“Every summer, Prof would go to a football camp in Connecticut, and he’d always bring back something new,” Gilmore said. “He was a good coach and kept us a step ahead of everyone. He worked us hard. When I went to the Shrine Bowl I was in the best shape of my life. I could sprint the whole field and not get tired.”

Price’s 1946 season was unexpectedly extended when it was challenged by Lexington Dunbar to settle that early-season tie in a fund-raising contest to buy uniforms for the bands.

The rematch took place on Thanksgiving, and Price overwhelmed Dunbar 20-0. Dunbar never crossed midfield, and Bobby Milton blocked two Dunbar punts. Jones threw two touchdown passes — one to Gilmore.

“Prof” submitted the names of several Price players, but only Gilmore, who couldn’t be brought down by one tackler and could punt 60 yards, was chosen to play against the Virginia all-stars.

Gilmore can’t recall his Shrine Bowl coach’s name, only that he was from Durham Hillside.

“I don’t know who picked that team, but a lot of players were from Durham,” Gilmore said. “I didn’t blame them for trying to get their own players scholarships, but there were fellows from Asheville and Gastonia and Lexington that we needed.”

Gilmore and a teammate from Charlotte’s Second Ward were the only area players. Gilmore can’t recall the Charlottean’s name, but he would love to make contact with him.

The Shrine players bunked at the YMCA on Washington Street, but anyone who thought it would be a vacation was mistaken.

“They woke us up at 5 a.m. to do calisthenics in the dark and cold that first day,” Gilmore said. “We walked to the stadium, then went 15 laps around the field.”

Same thing day after day.

But Gilmore kept smiling. His thoughts were on Saturday. He knew running the ball against Virginia would be the best day of his life.

But fate clipped Gilmore on the opening kickoff when one of his team’s guards was injured, and his coach informed Gilmore he’d be moved to guard. He’d played guard some at Price, but the news broke his heart.

“Guard? That about killed me to death because I wanted to run,” Gilmore said. “My dream was to run.”

Instead, he blocked.

“That was a big fellow across from me,” Gilmore said. “But I did a pretty good job on him.”

Gilmore was moved to halfback late when North Carolina was trying desperately to score, but the game ended in a 12-12 draw.

The “Black Shrine Bowl” evolved into an annual East-West affair involving only North Carolina players, but that 1946 ground-breaker was something special.

It was also Gilmore’s last football hurrah.

Things were different in 1946. That’s the year Jackie Robinson made his pro baseball debut with the Montreal Royals. It’s also the year Penn State canceled its football game at Miami after Miami made it clear Penn State’s two black players were not welcome.

College options were limited, so Gilmore went to work for the same railroad that hauled him to Greensboro. He gave Southern Railway and Norfolk Southern 42 years of loyal service.

Gilmore and his childhood sweetheart, Allie, were married in 1949 and raised eight children.

Steve Gilmore Jr. was captain of Salisbury’s 1978 football team. He played at Winston-Salem State and coaches now at Williamston.

Gilmore’s numerous grandchildren include Mitch Ellis, the record-breaking North Rowan and Catawba quarterback who now coaches at R.J. Reynolds.

“Football was the best time of my life, but every last one of the kids was no problem at all, and I’m proud of that as anything,” Gilmore said. “I never let myself brag until I got old, but we must have did some things right.”

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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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