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George Foussekis

McGuffey Elementary School, Lane High School
Interviewed by George Gilliam.

Full Transcript

GEORGE GILLIAM: [00:00:02] Kent Merritt said that people are still talking about your forearm.

GEORGE FOUSSEKIS:   [00:00:08] (laughs) You know, as you get older, things are embellished.  So.  Yeah. 

GG:  [00:00:16] They said you were savage.

LORENZO DICKERSON:  [00:00:25] We’re all set.

GF:  [00:00:25] I don’t think I played -- no, I was ahead of Kent.  He must have just heard the rumors going down the years, I guess. 

GG:  [00:00:40] Would you state your full name?

GF:  [00:00:42] My name is George Arthur Foussekis.

GG:  [00:00:45] And George, if I may call you --

GF:  [00:00:48] I like George.  George, yeah, good name.

GG:  [00:00:52] We have a monopoly on that name.

GF:  [00:00:53] There you go.  Good people.  Yeah.

GG:  [00:00:56] Football has been right at the center of your life.

GF:  [00:00:59] No [00:01:00] question.

GG:  [00:01:02] Could you, just starting with grade school, tell me about football and how it grew to be important to you and sort of what your takeaway --

GF:  [00:01:17] Okay.  (coughs) Well, like most things in life, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky.  I started my elementary school going to Clark Elementary School, and then they changed the border lines.  So I was maybe three or four blocks from Clark, but that was on the other side of Avon.  I lived in Belmont.  So I had to transfer to McGuffey, which was a lot of walk for me, so I hated it.  But at McGuffey, I met Gene Arnette, the late Gene Arnette, who became one of my best friends, and I met Joe Bingler, who was a phys ed teacher there.  [00:02:00] Joe Bingler was one of the best things that ever happened to me in life.  You know, you run across people in life who touch you, and influence your life.  He was the guy.  From McGuffey, I went to Lane at the same time Coach Bingler went to Lane as a teacher and coach.  At Lane, that was the eighth grade.  They had five years at the time, in Charlottesville.  My senior year at Lane, we won the state championship, and I think integration came in a couple years before that, maybe ’61, ’62, can’t be sure.  But I think sports played a big part in the transition.  At that time, [00:03:00] tremendous part.  I think Charlottesville at the time was a divided community.  We had a lot of pockets of resistance.  And then something happened which changed things, and it’s going to sound a little strange.  When the football team started winning games, and more people started talking about the football team, and less people started talking about integration.  And George, it was just -- those four months was like a magical time.  It was remarkable.  And the community got behind and supported the team.  I think previous to that, we may have had on a good night, 500 people come to a game.  But the more we started winning, we were getting seven, eight thousand people -- nine thousand people [00:04:00] at the ball games.  And I’m not quite sure what the reason was.  I think people needed something to get behind, pull together.  But Virginia was going through that deal.  They had the longest losing streak in the nation at that time.  And really the high school game was the only game in town.  If you weren’t there, I guarantee you you were listening on the radio.  And it was just fantastic.  And then this comes into play with the integration part.  George King -- and I think it was four males that transferred in from Burley -- George King who played football, Donald Martin who played basketball, French Jackson who played basketball, and Dupree Johnson, who played basketball.  So, but George was the first, first [00:05:00] African-American that actually played sports at Lane High School, I think.  And I remember him, of course, Gene and myself were captains, so we were a little bit cognizant of some things that could go wrong, so I remember watching him, and I gained a lot of respect for him, because he wasn’t that big.  He was probably five-nine, maybe 170 pounds, but he was tough.  Oh, he was tough as nails, and he had great effort.  And he became part of the family really quick, and we took care of one another.  And we didn’t care about race or color, only if you could help the football team win.  And actually George became a good friend.  We still email occasionally.  He still lives here in Charlottesville, but if it hadn’t been for sports, we wouldn’t have had the friendship, so. 

GG:  [00:06:00] So what happened after you left the comfortable confines of Charlottesville?  Where did you go?

GF:  [00:06:14] Well, there were four players that got scholarships from that state championship football team.  Gene Arnette went to Virginia, along with Brock Strickler.  Myself and Don Thacker went to Virginia Tech, and I have to add this, the two that went to Virginia Tech never lost to Virginia.  (laughs) I had to put that in.  Sorry for you Virginia fans out there. 

GG:  [00:06:38] This is why we edit.

GF:  [00:06:40] Yeah, there you go.  But then from there, I played at Virginia Tech, and then from there, I got a good break.  My college coach, Coach Claiborne, he was a prince of a man, he was like a father to me, he gave me an opportunity to go in and coach at the Tech, so I started my coaching [00:07:00] career at Virginia Tech.  And then, in coaching, if you don’t do good, you get fired, so we got fired in three years.  So from there, we were fortunate enough to go William and Mary, which Lou Holtz at the time was coaching there, so I had an opportunity to work for Lou Holtz, which was a great opportunity.  And then Coach Claiborne that year got the job at the University of Maryland, so I went back with him at University of Maryland and stayed there for 20-something years.  And I always came back for sports.  Of course, I was fortunate enough to recruit a lot of good players at Maryland from Charlottesville.  Walter White, who played for the Cardinals for a number of years.  Lloyd Burruss, the Wilson brothers, Mark and Eric.  Lloyd Eubanks, [00:08:00] who played there.  So really had some good players come to Maryland, and that makes coaching a lot easier.  So that’s why we were able to stay so long, we had good players.  Not coaching, good players. 

GG:  [00:08:16] And you went to Virginia Tech --

GF:  [00:08:19] Right.

GG:  [00:08:20] As a scholarship --

GF:  [00:08:20] Yes.

GG:  [00:08:22] -- athlete.  You started three out of four years.

GF:  [00:08:25] Yeah.  Freshman weren’t eligible at the time, right?  Sophomore, junior, senior, yeah.

GG:  [00:08:33] So where were your notions on race really developed?

GF:  [00:08:40] Well, I don’t think it was there, and I’ll tell you the reason, because Virginia Tech at the time wasn’t recruiting any Black athletes.  We played against Black players, but we didn’t have any on our team.  And my final year at Tech, we recruited our first Black athlete, a running back from over in Radford, Virginia.  And then I got [00:09:00] into coaching, and then naturally, there was a connection.  I mean, it was like a fathership, you know?  But that’s, yeah, that’s how I think it kind of evolved itself.

GG:  [00:09:18] 1962, before you were at CHS, Coach Theodose had two players, I think, that he really wanted, who were Black, and he went to the principal and the principal said, “You can’t have them.”

GF:  [00:09:42] Yeah, [I think you know where you’re going with this?] story, yeah.

GG:  [00:09:46] What did you think when you heard that story?

GF:  [00:09:49] I didn’t really hear that story ‘til later on.  I think, oh my God, I can’t think of his name.  Garwin DeBerry.  I think Garwin DeBerry, [00:10:00] who became the head football coach, he was an assistant at Lane for a while, he became the head football coach at Charlottesville.  He became a really good friend of mine.  I used to recruit there all the time, and he was a prince of a guy.  Really liked him.  And yeah, he was one of them.  I think they were handling things a little different back then, because I remember the first year, I think it was just like four people came in, and then the following year, maybe four people came in.  So they were gradually, you know, bringing transfers in from Burley, which I think was smart.  And I was gone at the time.  I think I was at Tech.  But I think in ’67, I heard that that’s when they closed Burley down, and it was a mass transfer in, and I think there was some tension there, because I think Burley wanted their own school, which I can understand, and same thing with Lane, so there was a little bit [00:11:00] of friction, but when I was there, there was no friction.  If there was any negativity, it basically came from the parents, because of the generational thing, more than the students.  I mean, George King, I mean, he was part of the family.  I mean, you didn’t see race or color.  Really didn’t. 

GG:  [00:11:23] How did the parents of students make their views known?

GF:  [00:11:32] You know, everybody’s got an opinion.  And I was in one of those hot spots in Belmont, you know.  There was some resistance there.  I can remember growing up, Sixth Street, I don’t know if you remember much about Sixth Street, but whites on one side of Sixth Street, Blacks on the other side.  The whites never crossed Sixth Street.  Go this way.  Blacks never came up into Belmont.  So that was the separation [00:12:00] there.  Like I said, it was a generational thing, and people didn’t know back then.  They didn’t think things through.  They just -- different world.  But yeah.

GG:  [00:12:14] Were there ever any outbursts of pushing or trash talk --

GF:  [00:12:22] No.  Trash talk wasn’t a big deal back then.  You just didn’t do it.  It wasn’t the thing to do then.  But like I said, Gene and I had kind of discussed, when we knew George was going to be on the football team, so we were pretty cognizant of making sure he was treated like everyone else, and there was never a situation where, you know, someone put a little extra      liquor in him, or treated him any different in practice.  I mean, like I said, he became part of the family.  We didn’t see race and we didn’t see color.

GG:  [00:12:54] How about after the games, when the team went out for team diner?

GF:  [00:12:58] I think after [00:13:00] the game, in most cases, you know, you have cliques.  People went their separate ways.  And this is going back a number of years, trying to think back through it, but we had big crowds.  At first, I don’t think many Blacks attended the games.  They were a little reluctant, and I can understand why.  You know?  Because they had their own team to support.  I mean, which they should.  I mean, that was the thing to do, because Burley had some really good teams too back in the day.  So I think, once more Blacks got on the team, I think more parents started showing up and more people wanted to kind of see what was going on there.  Started coming to the games.  And basketball, we had, like I said, on the team we had three African-Americans playing on the basketball [00:14:00], and Dupree Johnson was the best of the bunch.  I played center, so you can imagine me being the center, we didn’t have a really good basketball team.  (laughs) But I noticed a few Blacks there at the basketball games.  I think they were kind of coming out of curiosity, you know, more than anything else.  But again, there was a family tie.  Everything fit in and, again, it was just -- everyone was just friendly back then, and those four months, you ever see the movie Hoosiers?  It’s one of my favorite movies, with Gene Hackman, about a high school basketball team in Indiana, one of the smallest -- I don’t think they had 200 students -- and they won the state championship, beating teams that were integrated, and they had three and four thousand students.  I mean, it was an unbelievable story.  And I would watch this over and over, and I remember [00:15:00] there was a scene in there where the Hickory High School was the name of the school.  They had an away game.  And it was night, they were on the school bus, and it was night, they were driving to the away game, and behind the bus, it was all the cars lined up for miles, with the lights on, from their little town of Hickory, following their team.  And we had that same situation when we played Douglass Freeman.  They were undefeated, and we all knew this was going to probably be the game that decided the state championship.  One team was going to get it.  So I remember sitting there on the bus and I was tense and nervous and tight, and all of a sudden all of these Greyhounds start pulling up in the parking lot.  I said, “Oh my God, what’s going on?”  They were wrapped around the school.  And we left early.  But they tell me it was like 32 [00:16:00] buses heading down 250, of fans heading to Douglass Freeman.  And the guys in Hickory, they would get a free haircut on Saturdays.  Well, there was a little barber shop in Charlottesville off of Main Street.  I can’t remember the street, one of those little side things, a guy named Shifflet owned it.  That’s where I get my hair cut.  In the season, he was giving me free haircuts.  A lot of similarities in the Hickory story and our story.  And then there was a little place coming home, I would stop on Mondays.  I believe a Greek guy owned it, just a small little restaurant, they sold hot dogs and hamburgers.  He would give me two hot dogs and a Coke on Mondays and he wouldn’t charge me anything.  So I’d stop by there every Monday to get my hot dogs.  But everyone got involved in it.  I don’t think it was just the football part of it, because you aren’t going to jump from 500 [00:17:00] people to 9,000 people coming to games.  I think it was  a common goal.  People were trying to reconnect, and that was their goal, was the football team, they had a common goal.  They were proud of it, taking some pride in it.  Putting all the negativity away.  And I think sports have always brought people together.  9/11, good example.  People were really depressed.  What brought people back, baseball and the National Football league.  I think that was a big part of bringing people back, making them feel better about themselves.  So sports has always brought people together, and race makes no difference.  The best players are going to play in sports, and it’s not favoritism, you know.  You’re the best player, you play.  That’s the way it should be. 

GG:  [00:17:57] Talking about that transition, [00:18:00] in 1967, there are some Blacks who, even today, say that the transition was not handled very well.  That Blacks feel like their culture was just --

GF:  [00:18:17] Sure, I can see that.  Sure.  I can understand that.  And it probably was.  I mean, think of it.  I think of it myself.  I mean, what if I transferred into Burley and I was one of four people?  I mean, it’s a lot of eyes on me, and there were a lot of eyes on those four guys, and they had a little starch in their backbone.  I didn’t realize at the time, although I respected them, but as I’ve gotten older, I realized what they were going through.  And it took some guts to do that.  And I can -- I know how I would feel.  I mean, so, yeah.  They did it, and they were four great examples, too, because they were really good people.  And that was important.

GG:  [00:19:00] Were you satisfied, generally, with the training that you got at Virginia -- I’m sorry --

GF:  [00:19:12] Lane.

GG:  [00:19:14] In high school, to prepare you for the level of --

GF:  [00:19:19] No, no question there.  It’s not so much the talent level or anything.  It was -- you know, at that time, football was a different game.  They would go there and pound you and pound you.  I mean, coaches today would be sued if they treated you like they did back then.  I mean, coaches would come up and knock you down and -- I mean, it was, they would run people off.  My freshman year at Tech, it was like, I think we brought in 60 freshmen.  My senior year, of those 60, only nine of us survived.  And they had to run people off, because they [00:20:00] couldn’t carry 60 people every year, so they ran off a lot of good players.  And oh, God, I can hear those suitcases now going down those steps at nighttime, and I wanted to pack mine and go home.  I called one time and my mother said, “Ain’t no place for you back there.  You’d better stay there or you’re going to the service,” and I knew that.  So I sucked it up, but if I hadn’t had the training from Lane, because those practices at Lane High School was no day at the beach.  I remember a funny story about that when I had first started there in ninth grade, and I was thinking about moving up to varsity.  It was a Greek guy there named Johnny Bebas, was a teammate, and I was scared to death, you know?  (laughs) And Johnny used to always say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  Coach Theodose is Greek.  He’s going to take care of us Greeks, don’t worry about it.”  Nothing could have been further from the truth, I tell you.  [00:21:00] Those practices were no day at the beach.  I mean, I think he was tougher on me, in some ways, than anyone else.  I mean, he was -- and that’s -- I was used to that.  So I think that got me through at Virginia Tech. 

GG:  [00:21:19] Now you’re got your cards.  What --

GF:  [00:21:20] Well, I’ve kind of covered some of these things.  I told you about George King.  I’ve been speaking for a while.

[Extraneous material redacted.]

Gene and I always stayed in contact.  You know, I would call him every Christmas.  He would call me.  Birthdays, same deal.  The day before he died, I met him at Shadwell, we went to see Coach Theodose who was in a nursing home at the time.  He was having some problems, and we went over to see him, and I think David Sloan visited him too.  So we were out there, and we had a really good talk, and he took me back to Shadwell where my car was, and I got out and I said, “Gene, we’ve got to get together more.”  He said, “Yeah, tell you what.  Let’s get together Wednesday for dinner and hash out some things,” and I said, “Man, that would be great.”  Because he was leaving to fly down to Florida to play golf with some buddies.  And coming back on the plane, I think it stopped in Charlotte, he had a massive heart attack and died.  And I mean, that was the most shocking thing when I heard that.  [00:23:00] I mean, I just could not believe it. 

GG:  [00:23:04] There were lots of great people and stories --

GF:  [00:23:07] Oh, yeah, and you just wish you would have said more things, but you never know what’s going to happen, you know?  And like I told you, I think as I get older, I realize that time is the most valuable thing I got.  And you shouldn’t squander it.  You know, so that’s why we travel and do things and I don’t want to squander my time.

GG:  [00:23:28] We’re stretching time out.

GF:  [00:23:30] Oh, yeah, I got more -- more yesterdays than tomorrows, yeah.

GG:  [00:23:39] Lorenzo, do you have --

LD:  [00:23:40] Yeah, I have a couple.  I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about the Lane field and what that was like?  What did it look like?  What did it sound like when you were -- where was it located?

GF:  [00:23:59] Okay.  I think it’s parking [00:24:00] lot as we speak.  But in my senior year, we went to Willie Barnett who was the athletic director at the time.  He made a lot of money over those years too, gate receipts.  But it was like a dungeon, they called it, at the bottom of the -- I think it’s like a police station there or something, used to be a coach’s office.  But below that was our dressing rooms, and it was a dungeon.  Filthy, I mean, the shower didn’t work.  I mean, it was bad.  And we told Willie Barnett, if he would buy us red paint, the team would paint that locker room.  And he said, “Oh, yeah, I’ll do it.”  So he bought it, and it created a little bonding, esprit de corps among our team.  I can remember sitting there painting that locker room red, so that’s where we came out and walked down those steps, down into the bottom.  And they had permanent bleachers on one side, and temporary [00:25:00] on the other, and then the lights, you know, and the grass, you could -- Friday Night Lights, you know?  Oh, it was so exciting to see the fans and -- it was magical.  It really was.  But you wouldn’t know that now.  People go by there now, they see a parking lot.  All the memories that happened there, they faded in the wind, as you can say.  But so many good times happened there, and they’re long gone.  It’s kind of good, I guess, that you’re doing something like this that people can kind of go back and, years from now, and say, “Man, this is the way it was back then?”  You’ll never achieve that again in Charlottesville.  It’s a completely different town.

GG:  [00:25:48] Yes, and by getting the stories of people who were there -- we’re going to have between 50 and 60 of these interviews, these oral histories.

GF:  [00:26:00] Oh, I think that’s a great thing to do.  I may have saw something -- you might have been involved in this.  I was at Williamsburg and was going through the arts center there, and, oh my God, I don’t remember the guy’s name.  But he was a war hero in town, and his son -- Proffitt, yeah, Proffitt was his name.  And he did something I was shocked, going there watching about historical stuff, and they did a thing on him, because he won some medals in the war and stuff, and he’s been interviewed, and Chubby Proffitt played for us at -- on that football team.  I don’t know whether -- I said, maybe Lorenzo had been there.

GG:  [00:26:47] You know, any given question, if there are 50 people in the room, you’re going to get 50 different --

GF:  [00:26:52] Oh, yeah.  Lots of opinions, yeah.

GG:  [00:26:55] I think a lot of history, they don’t want to get into the subtleties of it --

GF:  [00:27:00] Yes.  Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  I’ve got to tell you -- yeah, I’ve got to tell you, you know, now, I wasn’t cognizant enough at the time, when I was younger.  You don’t think things like you should.  But there was a lot of animosity in the Black and white community.  It was mainly the fault of the white community, now that I look back on it, really.  It wasn’t even a question about it.  And they were different times.  And like I said, it was a generational thing.  The way your parents raised you and their thoughts carried into one generation or another.  And, like, Charlottesville, couldn’t imagine anything like that today.  But it was different.

LD:  [00:27:49] And you coming, so you grew up in Belmont?

GF:  [00:27:52] Grew up in Belmont.

LD:  [00:27:54] And then being at Lane, you were there during the time of the first Black players being on the team, [00:28:00] and then going to Virginia Tech and there being none on the team.  What was that experience like?

GF:  [00:28:06] Oh, it was -- well, I’ve got to be honest.  You know, growing up in Belmont, my best friend, he was going to Rock Hill.  That’s when they opened it.  That was one of the pockets of resistance.  They had started a private school, Rock Hill, you know.  And he was trying to talk me in to going to Rock Hill, and I remember I went to an event where, I think it was a former Virginia coach there or something, played at Virginia, he was going to be the football coach and he was giving his spiel about the team they were going to have and all this.  And so I was vacillating back and forth on it, but knew I was probably going to end up at Lane, but anyway, getting back to Joe Bingler, Joe Bingler was also my scoutmaster.  He was my elementary school teacher, my scoutmaster, my coach, he was everything to me.  He would give me a ride home.  He would always, “It’s not out of my way,” but it was out of his way, but he would give me a ride home from the scout meetings.  He pulled off one evening and I can remember it like yesterday, talking to me about the advantages of going to Lane High School, and I think that sealed the deal for me, and thank God I did that.  My whole life would have been changed.

GG:  [00:29:21] Rather than Rock Hill?

GF:  [00:29:22] Rather than Rock Hill.  My whole life would have been changed.  I wouldn’t have been sitting here today.  None of this would be going on.  But, oh, yeah.  It was a blessing that he was in my life, because he helped me in many ways, even at Lane.  Did I get off your question?

LD:  [00:29:42] You did.  You did.  I was curious, also, like, what was that like being -- so you were playing with Black players at Lane.  But then you go to college and there’s not, you know, the same. 

GF:  [00:29:55] You know, it came as a shock to me, really, because I had watched games on TV, [00:30:00] TV, didn’t have many games then, but it had some integrated teams and stuff.  And I just thought it was going to be an integrated team.  And then I realized that they weren’t recruiting Blacks.  And then they were really -- and I said, well, this is what the deal is.  I guess I’m going to have to -- but we played against teams that had Black players.  We would have been a whole lot better.  We had some good years, but we would have had some great years if we’d recruited some Blacks.  That’s why I got fired, to be honest with you.  Yeah, that’s why I got fired.  They weren’t recruiting Blacks.  But then they started recruiting Blacks, and they got really good fast.

GG:  [00:30:39] Do you have anything else?

GF:  [00:30:42] I don’t know if I can remember anything else.  (laughs) Trying to think of some -- maybe some stories or something, but no, you know, I just remember, it was probably one of the best years of my life.  Those four months was just -- [00:31:00] like I said, everybody was so friendly.  It just -- things changed in the town.  Like almost overnight.  And I got to think it was part of the winning, and then the number of fans who were showing up, and they weren’t just showing up all of a sudden because we were winning, I don’t think.  I would think there were other things getting involved there.  But it helped.  I think it was a big help, and it worked.

GG:  [00:31:26] Well, thank you.

GF:  [00:31:26] Thank you.  Lorenzo, thank you, buddy.

LD:  [00:31:30] Thank you.  I appreciate it.

GF:  [00:31:31] Paige, thank you.

PAIGE:    [00:31:33] Thank you for letting me listen.

[Extraneous material redacted.]