Friday football Fever: London’s Legend: James Bridges
James Bridges’ parents were dead set against him going out for football at J.C. Price High.
Bridges was too light and the sport was too rough. Maybe he should stick with basketball.
But Bridges insisted and persisted and football started him down a road that led to friendships and championships. It also led to two halls of fame and a rewarding career in education.
Now 73 and living in Greensboro, Bridges traces his transformation from boy to man to his decision to play football for the legendary “Prof” ó S.W. Lancaster.
“My parents were sure I’d get hurt because I didn’t weigh much when I first went out ó oh, 135 pounds,” Bridges said. “I had to convince ’em I should play. Then I had to convince Coach I could play. I did and then my parents said, ‘Well, OK.’ ”
J.C. Price, Salisbury’s school for black students from 1922-1969, began winning 80 percent of its football games when Lancaster started coaching the team in 1936.
Price’s 1940 team shut out 11 straight opponents and crushed Raleigh for the state championship.
Lancaster’s 1943 team had a perfect record but didn’t get to play for a state title because of World War II restrictions.
In his last great run from 1950-52, Lancaster’s teams were 22-1-2.
The Red Devils struggled to scoreless ties in 1951 with Lexington Dunbar and West Charlotte.
The lone loss in three seasons was a 14-0 setback at Raleigh Washington in the 1950 state-championship game. Those were powerful Price clubs, led by legends George Alexander, Roy “Chew Tobacco” Burney, Ted “Shakey” Bush and Ernest “Mister Touchdown” McCray, but Bridges was determined to make his mark.
Bridges learned the ropes and learned the plays. Lots of power sweeps, but slick stuff too. Lancaster would throw in ahead-of-his-time offensive wrinkles ó shotgun, inside reverses, tackle eligibles, flea-flickers, even the occasional “Statue of Liberty.”On defense, the Red Devils weren’t tricky, just fast and furious. There were five shutouts in 1951, six more in 1952.
Bridges accepted his role of blocking and tackling, made the depth chart and eventually earned a starting assignment at end.
“On the 1952 championship team, William Hickman was our quarterback and Ernest McCray and George Alexander carried the ball,” Bridges said. “I got to envy those guys a little bit.”
Lancaster turned out a lot of great football players. He turned out even more doctors and teachers.
“Prof was very, very serious about the game of football and when you went out there for him you went on the field knowing you had a job to do,” Bridges said. “He taught us things a lot of us weren’t ready for, but they were things we needed to know. He taught us to survive, but mostly he taught us to be gentlemen. If you weren’t a gentlemen, you couldn’t play for him.
“Prof’s wife taught me English. Prof taught me P.E. and football and life.”
Bridges usually saved his best for Lexington Dunbar, Price’s fiercest rival in that era.
In 1952, Bridges played on Lancaster’s last super team, the squad that went 9-0 and edged Tarboro W.A. Patillo 13-7 for a 2A state title for black schools in the cold of late November. It remains one of the storied games in Price history because Hickman, the star quarterback, was ejected after he made an overly enthusiastic hit on defense.
Jimmy Holmes, a reserve who had never played in a varsity game, was wearing a toboggan and freezing to death when Lancaster tapped him on the shoulder. Holmes directed the final drive. McCray carried the mail. Alexander scored the winning touchdown.
“The coach from Lexington had gone up to Tarboro, I believe, and he knew us very well, but we beat them,” Bridges said. “I am proud to this day I was on that last championship team. There were so many great fellows on that team that got scholarships. McCray went to North Carolina College (now N.C. Central). Hickman went to Benedict. Alexander went to New Jersey. I went to Livingstone.”
Bridges is modest about his playing days at Livingstone, but the Blue Bears had winning teams under coach Edward Mitchell, and Bridges was a huge part of it. He was a rock of a man by then, and he played both ways at center and linebacker. The Bears’ biggest rivals were Norfolk State and Morristown.
“Well, I remember Morristown because I got knocked out cold one game,” Bridges said. “Just making the snap, I got knocked out cold. But I was back the next week.
“The game I remember best is winning against Norfolk State because we had one of ours up there. My Price teammate, Roy Burney, was at Norfolk State. We traveled up there and slept at the YMCA. Roy was a great player. I had to tackle him a few times, but I didn’t mind it much.”
Bridges graduated from Livingstone in 1958 and was serving in a U.S. Army artillery unit stationed in Germany shortly after that.
“What was my rank? Well what’s the lowest rank they have?” Bridges said with a chuckle.
PFC Bridges spent a lot of his time in Germany working as a director in the army’s education center.
That experience led to a teaching job in New Jersey shortly after he was discharged, and he returned to North Carolina when he was offered a coaching and teaching post at old Brawley High in Scotland Neck.
He got closer to home as a coach at Kannapolis’ Carver High in the 1960s, where he began the Blue Eagles’ track program.
He also taught and coached at Price, and then at Salisbury, after integration closed the doors at Price. He also spent time at Livingstone.
“When I was at Price, James Pemberton from Price was coaching the team at Dunbar, over in East Spencer,” Bridges said. “I knew James well and we enjoyed messing with each other. Another good rivalry.”Bridges earned a masters in education from North Carolina A&T in 1971 and became assistant dean of adult education at Guilford Tech. It was a groundbreaking post for a black educator.Bridges became a fixture in Greensboro and was vital in expanding the city’s recreation programs to include all its citizens.
Back home in Salisbury, he was never forgotten.
Livingstone tabbed Bridges for induction into its Hall of Fame in 2004.
There’s been a recent revival in interest in Price’s athletic heritage and men such as John Mackey, Fred Evans and Rufus Little got a Price Hall of Fame started in 2007. Bridges was inducted last December, joining many teammates from the 1950-52 dynasty. Burney, Bush, Holmes and McCray were among the honorees.
“Both of those hall things were a big surprise, but I was happy about it,” Bridges said. “You never forget the people you played with and the people you taught, and it’s always nice when they remember you. I don’t get back to Salisbury that much, but I’m never there more than a minute when I hear someone holler, ‘Hey, Coach.’ ”
Bridges’ three daughters are college graduates, but so far no grandchildren.
“The girls tell me they haven’t been able to find a man as good as Daddy,” he said with a laugh.
Bridges has enjoyed a great life. It turned down the right road when he insisted on playing football.
“It’s still good to know I was part of something great at Price,” he said. “Those were the good ol’ days.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.