The Rockingham - Hamlet
by: Russ Lancaster
It is late fall, sometime in the 1950's. There has been excitement in the air all week long. Kirk Kirkley and his Krystal Ball have predicted a close game. The weather is cold and overcast. The talk in the City Barber Shop, Atkinson's Pool Room and the Colonial Store is all about what is going to happen Friday night. Hamlet is alive with the event of the year coming close.
So went the fall season each year in Hamlet from around 1929 or so until 1972. The Rockingham - Hamlet football game was an event nearly as big as Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was for the students, the graduates, the grammar school kids, the parents, the business owners and everyone else young and old. There would be bonfires, pep rallies sometimes even parades. The event would be talked about the entire week by the local radios stations, the budding TV stations and the two rival county newspapers... The Hamlet News Messenger and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Heck, you could even read about it in the big state newspapers like the Charlotte News, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh papers as well.
In the 1950's, when both teams were doing well (which was always), sometimes the banter between the two towns would begin as soon as the two schools resumed their new school years each fall rising to a crescendo the week before the big game. There were heroes already known and some yet to make their mark. There was gossip about fights that were going to happen before, during and after the game. Though this did sometimes happen, most of the battles were out on the gridiron and fair and square.
When the day of the game finally arrived, hope, anxiety, fear, defeat and victory would soon be felt by the entire county, depending on whom you were rooting for... The Rockets or the Red Rams. Sadly, for us Hamlet citizens, we would never beat Rockingham during the decade of the 1950's. But, that never took away our hope for next year and we took our lickings like men. If I remember correctly, we did tie them once or twice during the 1950's in games we should have won. Fate had a way of dealing defeat to our brave athletes.
The game was played alternately in Hamlet one year, Rockingham the next. The Red Rams always felt their best chance was playing at home even though the hearts of the two little towns in the Sandhills were less than six miles apart.
When played in Hamlet, the local citizens would begin trickling down to the football field hours before the game. It was walking distance from anywhere in Hamlet though some folks chose to drive their cars. Those who drove filled up the playground area at Hamlet High School as well as both sides of the street along Spring Street, Hamlet Avenue and Washington Avenue. From there they joined the rest of us who had chosen to walk.
We walked West on Spring Street past Earl Bradshaw's house on the left and turned right at the Altman house on the right. Down the dirt path we shuffled, past the tennis courts and up to the make shift booth to buy our tickets. It was cold and getting colder and we were bundled up tight with our thick coats and hats. From the ticket booth, we made our way through the narrow gate and onto the south side of the field where we picked our best spot to sit on the bleachers. Coach J.V. Pruitt had made us erect those wooden bleachers during one of his "Physical Ed" classes earlier each year.
The bleachers would be full long before the two teams came onto the field and shouting matches would begin with the Rockingham fans on one side and the Hamlet fans on the other. It depended on which side you sat as to which cheered the loudest. Those shouting at you always seemed louder than the side you were shouting with.
Your toes would seem frozen long before the kickoff and your voice would already be getting hoarse. The bleachers on both sides had by now overflowed onto the side lines and end zones. Though the combined population of the two towns was barely 10,000, there would be 10,000 or so that showed up to watch the game. Folks would come not only from Hamlet and Rockingham, but from the other schools and areas of the county. They would come from Rohanen. They would come from Ellerbe, from Black Bottom, from East Rockingham, from West End, from Ghio, from Gibson, from East Hamlet, from Steentown and even some from Laurel Hill and Aberdeen. This was a big event.
We would watch our heroes take the field.... heroes like Bert Stafford and Jerry Sims. Heroes like George Wooten and Sonny Garrison. And we would even have to admire the heroes from Rockingham as well like Ronnie Tuthill.
We would watch and cheer with our beautiful cheerleaders as they urged the crowd and the team on. We would marvel at the wonderful marching bands at half-time and always think ours was better than theirs.
There was always hope that Hamlet would be victorious until the final second had ticked off the clock most years but Hamlet was doomed to lose by either being outplayed, out coached or just plain luck a few times. But we held our heads high as we walked back to our cars or our homes and we replayed the game over and over along the way. If only....., if only.....
And then we would read all about the game the next day in the newspaper. We would see the stats and think... yeah, we should have won. But then we would also be reminded of the final score but the sadness would only last a day or so until we began thinking yet again... Wait 'til next year.
Those games went away from Richmond County with the consolidation of the county schools after 1972. It was sad for me to see the demise of both the Rockingham and Hamlet High Schools. It meant the end of the greatest event in the county after all those great years of great games. I'm sure our county and city officials thought they were doing the right thing and I know that Richmond Senior High School has a winning tradition in football. But, the kids of Hamlet have lost the unmatchable feeling of saying... I graduated from Hamlet High School.
It seems to me that that kind of pride was something that kept Hamlet (and Rockingham) special places to remember way back when. Oh, I still remember and still say with pride from whence I came.... Hamlet, North Carolina..... Hamlet High School... Home of the Red Rams.
And saying those things still swells my heart when I talk with someone else who can say the same but they mean little to those who were born too late.
So, I write this tale with the same intent of all the others I have written.... to keep the memory alive and pass it along to those who never had the chance to live those times and to remind those who did of how great it felt. And to say with pride one more time.....
I remember Hamlet.........
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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