Reflections Rising from My History with Arizona Football

by on September 13, 2021 · 2 comments

in From the Soul, Sports

by Ernie McCray

I’d been anticipating the football game between the University of Arizona Wildcats, my hometown team, and the San Diego State Aztecs, my adopted town’s team.

My alma mater got creamed: 38 to 14.

Oh, well, if they’ve got to lose to somebody it might as well be to a team I almost love as much as I do them.

But I didn’t come to appreciate Aztec football until I moved to San Diego in 1962 as a 24 year-old.

U of A football, on the other hand, is a part of my DNA, meaning my development as a human being.

When I was a boy growing up in Tucson, on the Saturdays the football team played, I would begin the day, before the light of day, cursing my alarm clock and wiping the sleep from my eyes before catching the “cotton picking” bus, a few blocks away, for the ride to the Marana cotton fields where I would earn money to see the game with my friends later that day.

We would sit in the “Knothole” section for kids for a lot less than the grownups had to pay, leaving us enough do-re-me to buy milkshakes (always butterscotch for me) at the Dairy Queen on our way home which, fortunately for us, wasn’t faraway.

I remember falling asleep like a dead person at the end of such a day.

Those were great moments for us in our early years, trying to find our way in a town where on our way to and from Arizona Stadium we passed cafes where we

couldn’t eat and streets where we couldn’t live, where the police looked at us as though we were a menace to society.

But, at the football games, we could step away from that world for a while as some of the players back then were our first heroes in life.

I can still see skinny-legged Eddie Wolgast shake and bake and zig and zag and change gears as he ran here and there, taking the ball to the house for a TD.

I’m forever proud that his picture is next to mine in the University of Arizona Sports Hall of Fame, players of two different games.

I mention that to say that such an honor is something I couldn’t have imagined when I was a lad, as I had no concept of halls of fame of any kind, let alone being in one.

There was so much that I hadn’t thought about at the time, not even the notion that someday I could play for the U of A.

Why would I entertain such a dream, based on a lot of goings on in Tucson, race-wise?

That changed, however, in 1949, when I was eleven years old and Fred Batiste, a neighbor of mine, became the school’s first Black football player.

From the moment he stepped on the gridiron showing off his blinding speed and expertise both offensively and defensively, I couldn’t get a picture of me in an Arizona football or basketball uniform out of my mind.

I just needed to see it.

And I can’t help but think how times have changed drastically over decades and years, as the Cats fielded a plethora of players of color who went up against a like number on the Aztec team and when the game was over a number of them were dancing and high fiving, having a great time, while others left for the locker room with their heads bowed.

But that’s what equality is all about, everybody having an opportunity to take part in things, to win or lose, no matter the tone of their skin.

It’s so heartening seeing a world where now Black children and other children of color can see themselves doing anything and everything.

Without even thinking.

Visions of a better world can come via a variety of means.

From football even.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shirley Sprinkles September 19, 2021 at 6:21 pm

I have fond memories of the Saturday cotton-picking bus, and the fun we kids had being far away from our parents and chores for an entire day—let alone earning 5 bucks to spend as we wanted! What a hoot! I wasn’t much of a knot-hole fan like you and my brother, but the opportunity for boy-watching was great! Thanks for the memories. I went home in the opposite direction—missed the Dairy Queen treats.


david b September 19, 2021 at 7:26 pm

Yeah Ernie… I remember that DQ….. when I was going To Roskruge Jr Hi.
Right there on fourth ave I think….
When I was in Hi school at THS I worked at Joe’s Gulf Oil station on North Stone Ave and we had a contract maintaining those ‘cottt’n picking’ (Labor Contractor) buses… Good thing I learned to do brakes and oil changes or your trips to the fields may have been more exciting… Ha Ha

BTW… Many years later after flunking Chemistry at U of AZ, I was to Matriculate at SDSU… during the Coryell years… after my time in the Navy…. Graduated in 1972… at age 35.. Better late than never…. : )

It was good to see them get the win Saturday…

Dave B
ThS Class of ’56
Spring Valley…

PS. My wife Maria worked with a ‘Dr Sprinkles’ at Gossmont hospital in the 80’s.. Any relation ?


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