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Brother's death inspired Stevenson to integrate LHS
Feb 22, 2013 3:45 pm
By ANDY REED firstname.lastname@example.org
Loharrel Stevenson had a decision to make in 1966: Which high school would he attend. He had a couple of options. He could join his neighborhood friends at the all-black Wilson County High School. Or he could go to Lebanon High, whose doors had until recent years been closed to people of his skin color. Had he followed the easy way, succumbed to peer pressure, he could have gone to the school on East Market Street where all his friends and relatives before him had attended. But this decision wasn’t about Loharrel Stevenson. "My brother, private first class Billy Stevenson, died in 1966," Loharrel Stevenson recounted. "He wanted to come to Lebanon High School. But at that time, the people here didn’t think it was a good time.
It was back during the Civil Rights Era. People were getting bombed, Martin Luther King died. It was a lot of racial stuff. But my brother wanted to come, him and his cousin, Charlie McAdoo, wanted to come here and play football and basketball, but they wouldn’t let them."
Loharrel called his big brother "the Michael Jordan of his day.
"He was a lot better than I was," Loharrel said. "If he had lived, I would probably try to do the things that he could do. I remember him and I've never seen this in the NBA, college or high school - ever.
"He was a muscular, looks like Superman. His legs were big, big calves and big chest."
Stevenson said he would sneak out of his Inman Court house when his brother was asleep to go play basketball on Market Street. When his mother learned he was missing, she sent Billy to get him.
"All the boys would tease me, 'Here comes your big brother, Loharrel'," Stevenson said with a laugh. "He was 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. I knew I couldn't whoop him so I just bent my head down and went on home. We had that a lot."
After playing for the Wilson County High Trojans, Billy Stevenson joined the Army and became a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne.
"He loved to jump out of airplanes," Loharrel recalled. "That shows you the difference between brothers. He loved jumping out of airplanes, I had no desire to do that. That was not me."
Billy Stevenson hadn't been away from home long before he was killed in Vietnam. But his athletic exploits were well known to the coaches at Lebanon High School. Football coach Clifton Tribble, basketball coach Hester Gibbs and baseball's Brent Foster made their way over to Inman Court to visit Loharrel.
"When they came, they were very professional with their ties on," Stevenson said. "People wanted to know what was going on. They thought they were selling insurance.
"But they came to recruit me."
And Loharrel Stevenson faced perhaps the biggest decision to date of his young life – Wilson County or Lebanon. He had no shortage of advice from his friends. But his conscience weighed in, too.
"I was hearing from people in the neighborhood, the black neighborhood," Stevenson said. "They didn’t want me to go. They were calling me Uncle Tom and everything. But I remember HE wanted to go, so I decided to come.
"It was time. We were going over there to integrate the school."
Stevenson wasn't the first African-American to attend LHS. A black boy and girl broke the racial barrier in the fall of 1961, according to Eddie Callis, who was a senior that year.
He wasn't even the first black athlete. Kenneth Head played for the Blue Devils in the mid-'60s. Head played for Stevenson's uncle, Eugene Stevenson, at Fisk University.
But Stevenson still found some resistance to his presence at LHS.
"They came to [Tribble] – and some coaches would fold under pressure at times. Coach Tribble would not fold," Stevenson said. "Coach Tribble is not only a great coach, but a great man. They came to him, the players did, and said ‘If you let Stevenson, using the N word, play, we’re not going to play’. I don’t know how many there were, but there was a group. “Clifton looked at them and said ‘Boys, don’t let the door knob hit you on the [rear] on the way out’. I have all the respect for him. He’s just a wonderful, not a coach, but a wonderful man."
Then there was the episode with the returning starting fullback, which was Stevenson's position, who refused to play with Loharrel on the team. Tribble had the pair stand at each goal line, walk toward each other and shake hands at the 50-yard line. The encumbent fullback, who is now deceased, reached the 50 where Stevenson extended his hand. The other player walked right past him and kept on going, quitting the team.
"It didn't bother me because I was here because my brother's dead," Stevenson said. "That's all that matters that I do a good job and honor his name.
"Years later, I ran into [him] and we talked. He apologized to me... But I never held a grudge because of stuff like that... I never hated him for that. That never bothered me. I was there to play football."
Stevenson said his first encounter with racism came on a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., to watch Tennessee and Syracuse play in the Gator Bowl. Some of the Blue Devils wanted to shoot some pool. Stevenson reluctantly agreed. But the facility wouldn't allow him to shoot.
"Hester and Tribble said, 'We're out of here'," Stevenson said.
The coaches had his back in the LHS hallways as well, serving as his guardian angels, though he wasn't aware of it at the time.
"I was going down the halls with my books and my girlfriend sometimes," he explained. "I'd look behind me and Coach Tribble was back behind me. He smiled. Then, [later] I'd look back and Hester would be back there. Foster, Coach [Ray] Byrd would be back there... [Principal] Barry Sutton, he was a boxer and you didn't want to deal with him, you didn't want to get them upset. They were watching my back all the time.
"I didn't know it and they didn't let me know it... It kind of makes me tear up thinking they were watching my back."
By his senior year, other blacks had joined Stevenson on the Blue Devils. He and John Robinson was the area's first integrated backfield. But many of their rivals were still all white.
"Sometimes I'd be in a football stadium, even after Dr. Martin Luther King died, I'd be the only black thing in the whole stadium," Stevenson said. "Three-thousand people. I'm down there catching punts.
"Then I'm thinking, 'My brother wanted me to do this so I'm going to go on and do it'. If somebody wanted to kill me, I would have been an easy target."
Being an LHS football player in the 1960s was something akin to being a small-town celebrity. A Blue Devil player was a big star within the hallways and classrooms, and Stevenson enjoyed, though somewhat flabbergasted by it, the attention.
"Football here is EVERYTHING," Stevenson said. "Basketball is good. But if you wear a football jersey with your stripes and stuff on, you're almost like a god here. They just bow down to you. It's the way when I was here.
"I had guys coming and wanting to tote my books. It don't make sense, crazy. They wanted to tote my books, just be around you. It kind of bothered me but I didn't want to hurt nobody's feelings. They toted my books and my wife's [then-girlfriend Mary Jane Patton] books... I said, 'You don't have to do that'. And they said, 'We don't care'.
"Billy Sellars was a hero. If you were on the football team, you got everything. Everybody looks up to you. When you come into the library and you're a football player, everybody just gets quiet. They stop talking. They'd be whispering, 'That's Stevenson, that's Billy Sellars'."
By his senior season, he was the star, though he wasn't above being disciplined by Tribble when need be. Tribble suspended Stevenson for a half against Springfield after he was caught breaking curfew while trying to visit his future wife.
"I was upset, but I knew I was wrong," Stevenson said. "People had money bet on the game, and they were giving Tribble [grief].
"Tribble was stone-faced. He wasn't going to [put him in the game]."
The star running back doubled as a defensive end, from where he chased down Cookeville's Mack Brown [the University of Texas coach] at the end of a long run and tackled him so hard, he had to go to the hospital. The type of hit, the hook, is illegal now.
"I wasn't trying to hurt him," Stevenson said of the play which started with a missed assignment by a teammate which opened the lane for Brown. "I was mad I had to run so far.
"We're friends now."
When football season was over, Stevenson played for Gibbs' Blue Devil basketball team. He said he was the first freshman to score a varsity point at Lebanon. He began his career as a guard, moved to wing and finished as a post.
Lebanon went 26-0, believed to be the Blue Devils' only undefeated regular season in basketball, his junior year, then won its first-ever region championship his senior year, '69. The Blue Devils didn't win another region title until 1995.
Stevenson was the object of a recruiting battle between then-Ohio Valley Conference rivals Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. Western offered him the chance to play football and basketball.
But Mary Jane was going to MTSU and, after getting married in the summer of 1969, they integrated the married student housing on the Murfreesboro campus and he became the first African-American Blue Raider on scholarship. But he wasn't the only black scholarship [there was already a non-scholarship minority on the team] player for long.
"They were waiting to see what I was going to do," said Stevenson, who became an All-Ohio Valley Conference performer as a freshman defensive end. He underwent knee surgery as a sophomore before finishing his career.
"Those were some good old fun days," Stevenson recalled of his MTSU career.
Loharrel and Mary Jane raised six children who have produced 13 grandchildren. He spent 24 years working at the Nissan plant in Smyrna. The years spent standing on concrete took their toll on his hip, which has been operated on.
He got back into sports in the 1990s as an assistant coach at Cumberland under Herschel Moore, coaching receivers, linebackers and the defensive line over the years. He developed two All-America defensive linemen - James Massengile and Heath Springer - with the Bulldogs.
At age 62, Loharrel is well into his second career, which is another name for retirement.
"I've had enough of Nissan," he said. "I'd rather coach football or basketball."
Mary Jane died in 2011 after 42 years of marriage. Loharrel, now 62, spends his days coaching young people and watching a grandson, Deante Miller, play point guard for Wilson Central.
"I've had a wonderful life," Stevenson said. "If I died tomorrow, I've had a wonderful life."