Brunswick native Willie Simmons used to walk past Glynn Academy every day on his way to school at all-black Risley Annex.
It was the early ‘60s, and though the federal government declared formal segregation illegal in the 1950s, it was still strong in practice throughout the country. The walk to school could be grueling on some of the hotter days in the bookends of the school year. But it was all fun to Risley students, said Simmons. They all grew up and played sports together in inner-city Brunswick and the neighborhood was theirs.
“You know how they say, ‘You’re on the wrong side of the (railroad) tracks?’ There was no wrong side of the tracks, because the tracks ran right down through the ‘hood,” Simmons said. “There were some things that shouldn’t have been, but we all dealt with it.”
Former members of Simmons’ graduating class at Risley would transfer to Glynn Academy and become the first non-white students to earn their diplomas at the then-180 year old school. A few went on the be doctors, lawyers and teachers.
Simmons was a Risley Tiger from start to finish. Part of the reason he stayed was his loyalty to his teammates and coaches on the Risley football team.
The Tigers practiced on the same field Glynn Academy’s current football team has practiced on this spring while the Red Terrors’ home athletics complex is being renovated.
Earlier this week, Glynn Academy head coach Rocky Hidalgo reached out to John Williams, director of campus ministries at The Gathering Place, to find some former Risley football players to speak to his team about the history of Risley Annex and provide some inspiration for the youngsters.
“I made a phone call to a friend of mine, Michael Thomas, and he referred me to Mr. Simmons,” Williams said. “He told me, ‘If you can get him out there, he’ll inspire them.’”
Risley’s field has changed in the past 50 years. There’s now grass where there used to be just dirt. There’s now a concrete track surrounding the field, and light towers. The Risley players affectionately nicknamed the field, “the pit.”
On Wednesday, Simmons and fellow Risley alumni Bill Way and Clifford Jackson took turns telling their stories to the team that listened from one knee. First, Simmons’ moral was about perseverance. He talked about Risley’s small team of 40 players. Sometimes the opposing teams’ running backs out-weighed Risley’s linemen. But they were a small team with a big heart, he said.
Way, who is still involved in the Risley alumni association, spoke about fortitude. After his time at Risley, Way joined the Marine corps and served from 1965 to 1969. Way suffered from heart problems due to exposure to agent orange, a chemical in the incendiary weapon napalm, which required open heart surgery after his service. Immediately after the surgery, he suffered hemorrhaging which meant surgeons would actually disconnect his heart, he said, to repair the ruptures and save his life. Way awoke from a comma some time later with a new lease on life.
“That’s when I found out there is a God, because people don’t survive double trauma within eight-hours of each other,” he said. “I came through that, but the reason I did — like I told the kids — is through God’s grace and fortitude, which I learned on the football field.”
Jackson, described by Simmons as a man a few words, moved to New York after graduating from Risley and returned to his hometown only a few years ago. Wednesday was his first time back on the Risley practice field in almost 50 years, he said. The smallest of the three alumni, Simmons called Jackson Risley’s Marshawn Lynch.
Although they were contacted on relatively short notice, just a day before Hidalgo set aside time in practice for them to speak to the team, it didn’t take long for the men to decide what they would say. It took longer, Simmons said, to organize all of his thoughts into a coherent speech.
Ultimately, all the men answered the call to inspire the Red Terrors for the same reason: fond memories of their school, despite that its very existence carried dark undertones that shed light on some of the gravest details of America’s history.
Through it all, football was always there.
“Some of us have a lot of blood still out on this field, it’s just under this grass,” Way said. “You look back at what you were taught; even though it was a segregated system, and our we had hand-me-down books, our instructors took special care in us.”