Like a quarterback drilling pass after pass, Merl Code fires off names of the Greenville athletes he played against during high school in the 1960s. They all went on to make their marks in professional football as the NFL slowly moved the ball down the desegregation field.
Code’s voice rises like the litigator he is as he recalls his former gridiron opponents: J.D. Smith, who later played for the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys; Bill Thompson, Denver Broncos; Roy Kirksey, New York Jets; and Willie Belton, Atlanta Falcons.
“I played against all of them,” says Code, a lawyer at Ogletree Deakins and the first African American municipal court judge and first African American president of the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce. “I played all these guys in high school.”
As it turned out, he faced off against them in college, too. Code grew up in Seneca, where he played for Blue Ridge High School until graduating in 1966. A cornerback at North Carolina A&T, Code found himself opposite many of them again in college.
Smith and Thompson played for Sterling High School, the all-black school that closed in 1970. Belton and Kirksey played at Washington High. Smith went on to the Aggies, while the others became standouts at University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“At the time, Maryland State had the largest and probably one of the best football teams in the country, but it was segregated,” he says. “It was hard to explain how much talent each of those teams had. If you remember, segregation put us all together; it did not allow us to go but to black schools, so you had some extraordinary talent all compiled in black schools.”
What happened to all those talented athletes who never made it to the pros?
“They got jobs,” he says, “went into high school coaching, went into the service.”
That’s what happened to Richard Kerns, who was a track star and football player for the Sterling Tigers. After winning a scholarship to Allen University, an HBCU in Columbia, he was drafted into the Army. In 1966, stationed in Nuremburg, Germany, he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.2 seconds, a tenth-second off the record at the time.
He later founded the Quick Striders Track Club here and, now 79, he recalls the doors that remained closed to black athletes in 1960s Greenville. But they all kept running, he says.
“We wanted to run against the whites, but we couldn’t. We felt that we were much better, much faster than they were,” he says. “We offered to run against them in the street. Matter of fact, we ran against some fellas, the white boys, and we would beat ’em.”
Featured photo: J.E. Beck High School basketball team, late 1960s. Provided by Piedmont Athletic Association Hall of Fame