None of the 9,000 fans who packed Saunders Stadium at Newport News High on Thanksgiving Day of 1970 knew it, but they were witnessing the end of an era - the final game in the storied football rivalry between the Newport News Typhoon and Hampton Crabbers.
No one could have known that Newport News Schools' grudging compliance nine months later with a federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare order to desegregate, would result in the transformation of Newport News High to Newport News Intermediate School (for grades 8-9).
The intermediate school has closed - the building is occupied by the Navy. The stadium is still there, but that's not much of a historic marker for the rivalry or its final game.
As the 2 p.m. kickoff approached on the cloudless and cool afternoon of Nov. 26, 1970, it seemed the state's oldest scholastic football rivalry, dating 72 games to 1903, would go on forever. And what seemed as clear that afternoon was that Hampton was going to win big.
William and Mary head football coach Jimmye Laycock, then a young assistant for Newport News, can "remember driving to the stadium and hearing on the radio that we were 35-point underdogs. I said 'Oh man!' "
That was a common reaction to the late Johnny Palmer's Crabbers, touted in one newspaper to be the "best football team ever in the state of Virginia." The Crabbers entered the game with a 27-game winning streak and a 9-0 record. They had outscored the opposition 408- 6.
In Alex Hill, the Crabbers featured a speedy running back who led the state in scoring with 25 touchdowns. The Crabbers also boasted a defense that had given up one touchdown all season - and that because the offense fumbled on its own 3 - as well as a young assistant named Mike Smith, whom Palmer called "the greatest coach on the Peninsula."
Along with everything else the Crabbers possessed, they owned the Typhoon, winning the previous seven meetings between the teams. The last four hadn't even been close, with the Crabbers winning by a combined total of 138-38.
So how was it that Newport News pulled off one of the biggest upsets in state high school football history that afternoon with a 16-7 triumph? How did the Typhoon, with an offensive line of first-year starters averaging a little more than 170 pounds per man, upset the mighty Crabbers? How did the Typhoon make a mockery of those shipyard betting cards that listed them as 30-point underdogs?
Fact is, the Typhoon wasn't nearly as bad as those shipyard bookies believed. In Willie Armstead, who went on to lead the Canadian Football League in receiving, and JoJo Bethea, who played point guard for Clemson in basketball, the Typhoon had two of the district's best athletes in their backfield.
The Typhoon did lose two of their first three games that season. But those losses were to respectable city rivals Huntington and Carver, at a time the line's inexperience and the Typhoon's lack of depth were still factors.
"We didn't have any depth," said Harlan Hott, who was a first-year coach for the Typhoon in 1970. "I remember we led Huntington in the fourth quarter of the season opener. But they had big numbers and Thad Madden, their coach, kept running wide receivers downfield all game to tire us out. They scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and came back to win."
Hott says that as the weather cooled, and the players became used to playing both ways, they started to win - six in a row going into the Hampton game. Hott's confident style inspired confidence in the underdogs.
"He was a great man," Typhoon Phil Allen said. "Every one of the players like him. He acted like the Hampton game was no big deal. We were so confident, that when Willie, JoJo and I spoke at the pep rally before the game, we said that we were going out there to win, not just show up."
For all his outward cool, Hott had prepared intensely for the Crabbers. Typhoon coaches scouted the Crabbers four consecutive weeks leading into the Turkey Day game. What they discovered, was that for all of the Crabbers success on the ground, they were not very prolific through the air.
So, the Typhoon coaches devised a 6-3 defense to thwart Hill and the Hampton running game. Hott says the defense was effectively a 6-5 - with all 11 men at the line of scrimmage - and that defensive backs Allen and Jimmy Swinton were to drop back into coverage if Hampton quarterback Peter Blount dropped back to pass.
"We had Bethea (a defensive back) play middle linebacker," said Jim Cavanaugh, a Newport News assistant coach, who now coaches the linebackers at Virginia Tech. "What we did was designed to free him up and let him make plays."
The defense worked like a charm. The Crabbers gained just 114 yards on the ground the game. Hill was stifled for a season-low 77 yards, fumbling the ball away on the first play from scrimmage.
That mistake was a harbinger of things to come for the Crabbers, who turned the ball over seven times in the game. Crabber guard Danny Mitchell, now an assistant coach for the Crabbers, recovered a Typhoon fumble on the second play of the game.
But the Crabbers fumbled it back on the next play, leading to Allen's 25-yard field goal that made it 3-0 with 6:49 to play in the first quarter. The 3-pointer was Allen's only one of the season.
"We had trouble just kicking extra points," Hott said. "That tells you what kind of day it was when we do something unusual like that."
Said Mitchell, "You could line Phil Allen up alone on the field today and he wouldn't make that field goal."
Following the kickoff, the Crabbers ran the ball twice, gaining just two yards to their own 13. On third down, Allen intercepted Blount's pass at the 36 and returned it to the Crabber 18. On fourth-and- 2 at the Crabber 10, Armstead (148 yards, 19 carries) darted up the middle through a gaping hole for a touchdown to give the Typhoon a stunning 10-0 lead.
The Crabbers retaliated with a 64-yard touchdown drive to make it 10-7. Hill, who ran 37 yards around left end to set up the score, sprinted 8 yards around right end for the TD. The Crabbers seized the momentum to drive to the Typhoon 5 on their next possession, paced by runs of 10 and 11 yards by Blount.
But on fourth down, a trio of Typhoon defenders stopped Hill at the line of scrimmage to end the threat. When Allen's 41-yard punt bottled the Crabbers back at their own 10 with less than 10 seconds to play in the half, it appeared the Typhoon would carry a three-point lead into the dressing room at halftime.
Then, perhaps for the only time in his life, Smith lost an argument. With time for just one play, Palmer called for a flair pass from Blount to Hill. Smith argued vehemently against the call until Palmer said, "I'm the head coach and I'm making the call."
Following the game, Palmer would admit the call was a "boo boo." As instructed, Blount, who faded into his own end zone, threw the pass to Hill. But Bethea leapt high in front of Hill to intercept the pass, returning the pick 25 yards for a touchdown to make it 16-7 as the half ended.
Neither team scored in the second half. Bethea thwarted the Crabbers' best drive of the second half with an interception at the 10, before Allen notched his second interception on Hampton's final series.
A minute later, Typhoon fans stormed the field in jubilation for what would be the final time in school history. The game and an era were over, but the legacy of that final contest lives on in different ways.
"That was the darkest day in football," Smith said. "I've never underestimated an opponent since that game."
Indeed, Smith hasn't. The next season, Palmer left to coach at E.C. Glass of Lynchburg; Smith took over as head man at Hampton. In the 30 years since, Smith's Hampton teams have won 319 games and 11 state titles.
For Newport News, the victory punctuated a glorious sports history that included a combined 40 state titles in boys football, basketball and track.
"We didn't have anything to lose that day and we played like it," Allen said.
"What it means is that we get to say we won the last Newport News-Hampton game. That says a lot."