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Norris High coach didn't see his players as black or white

The spring of 1970 was a time of great turmoil in our country. The Vietnam War was raging; many college campuses were filled with violent protests; and the civil rights movement resulted in tension as states, counties and cities prepared to desegregate their schools for the first time.

I was a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Laura Jones Junior High when all the boys received an invitation to attend a spring football practice at R.L. Norris High School, where we would attend school the next year.

In McDuffie County's desegregation plan, Norris would house grades seven through nine, and we would be coached by Calvin Sampson.

Coach Sampson had a great record of success as coach of the Norris Rams but had agreed to coach the eighth- and ninth-grade team in the fall of 1970.

I'll never forget loading a bus from Laura Jones to go to Norris on that first day of practice. At least 50 of us must have been crowded onto that bus, and we were filled with apprehension as we traveled for the first time to the all-black Norris High School.

We had no idea what to expect because few of us had ever been around any black kids, other than the few who attended the previously all-white schools under the Freedom of Choice Program. Our bus pulled to a stop in front of the Norris gym as school was getting out, and immediately a large man entered our bus and said, "I'm coach Sampson. Welcome to R.L. Norris, guys; come on in." We followed coach Sampson in and were issued equipment. We began a month of spring practice, and thanks to him, I can't ever remember feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. He molded us into a very good team that finished 9-1, losing our last game in a heartbreaker to Tutt Junior High, 12-8.

Coach Sampson never thought of us as black or white, only as his players. He treated all of us the same. He was tough, hard-nosed and fair. He made the process of school integration much easier in McDuffie County than it was in most places.

In my 26 years of coaching, I tried to be like coach Sampson: tough, hard-nosed and fair. In fact, I used a chant of his the entire time I coached at Thomson High as we would prepare to enter the second half of games. "We're gonna fight till we can't fight no more. When we can't fight no more, we're gonna lay down, bleed a while, get up and fight some more. One for all, all for one, all for the Dogs (Rams) and Thomson (Norris) High."

While teaching this period in my U.S. history classes, I would cite my own experiences of school integration and always credit coach Sampson with making that adjustment, for me and countless others, easier.

You see, I've been doubly blessed. I can not only count myself a Thomson High Bulldog, but thanks to Calvin Sampson I'm an R.L. Norris Ram.

John Barnett has played, observed and coached Thomson athletics for 45 years. Contact him at

Web posted on Thursday, April 14, 2011

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