Members of the Robert E. Lee football team began loading onto buses Friday morning of Nov. 22, 1963, in preparation for the 115-mile drive north to Texarkana.
In a few hours, the Rebels, as they were known then, would take part in the most anticipated game in the short history of Robert E. Lee High School. Created in 1958, the best Lee had been able to do on the gridiron was go 5-5.
But the 1963 Rebels were in the midst of a 9-0 season and coming off a 20-6 victory over Lufkin. All Lee needed was a win or a tie in its District 8-4A finale at Texas High and the league title and playoff berth was a reality.
According to a pregame story by Tom Ledet in that morning’s Tyler Morning Telegraph: “It all comes to a head tonight … in a game that will decide the title holder.”
It had been raining for days, but the skies brightened up that morning as coaches and players loaded up and headed out.
Midway through the trip came news that no one wanted to believe.
President John F. Kennedy, who was visiting Dallas that same day, had been shot. By the time Lee arrived in Texarkana, the news was the worst anyone could imagine.
Kennedy was dead.
Billy Hall, recently inducted into the Tyler ISD Athletic Hall of Fame for his years as a Lee coach and later TISD athletic director, was a math teacher at Lee during that time.
“As a result of that assassination, there wasn’t a whole lot of life in anyone, to tell you the truth,” Hall said. “I remember I was back in the office and just like as if it was yesterday I can see that bus (with the team) going up Red Raider Drive and getting on the loop. And somewhere in (the middle of that trip) was when the assassination occurred.”
The Lee team stepped off the bus at Texarkana and was greeted with a quagmire of a field. The Rebels had accumulated twice as many offensive yards that season as Texas High, so Texas High coach Watty Meyers decided to make things difficult, running the sprinklers, along with the rainy week.
Not that Lee was in any mood to play the game on even the best field conditions.
Ashley Bracken was a junior right tackle for the ’63 team. Before passing away in 2004, Bracken gave his account to the Tyler Morning Telegraph a year earlier for its 40th anniversary story.
“That was like a death in the family,” Bracken said. “When I got to Texas High, I didn’t want to hit a snake. Mentally I was deflated. … The concept of Camelot was appreciated by young kids. We knew we were living in a special time. (Before then), the thought of (Kennedy) being shot and killed would be inconceivable.”
The game kicked off and the Rebels powered through the grime and got on the board first, courtesy of Eric Wilcox. The Lee running back churned out 108 yards in the first quarter and capped it with a touchdown run. Donnie Gibbs kicked the PAT and Lee led 7-0.
The Tigers answered in the second quarter on a touchdown run by quarterback Melvin Bateman, but a misfire on the two-point conversion try gave Lee a 7-6 lead at halftime.
Bateman found the end zone again in the third quarter after a time-consuming drive to give Texas High a 12-7 lead.
Electing to go for the two-point try again, Bateman was rewarded when his wobbly pass — looking destined to be intercepted or knocked down by Gibbs — was tipped and fluttered into the arms of Ronand Deavors for a 14-7 Texas High lead.
An interception by Texas High complicated REL’s problems, but the defense stood tall and stopped the Tigers nine yards away from its goal line to get the ball back.
Still, the Rebels needed a tie to secure the district title. Lee began to drive toward that much-needed touchdown. A facemask penalty moved Lee deep into Tigers territory late in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers defensive front stiffened there, yielding seven yards on Lee’s first three plays. On fourth-and-3, Wilcox took the handoff and was stopped for no gain.
Ledet said it best in his game story that appeared on Saturday, Nov 23: “For all practical purposes, the game was over for Lee, though the Rebels did run one more series of plays.”
“I grieved over that for years,” Bracken said in 2003 of the loss. “You can’t turn the clock back. But we thought we were going to go all the way.”
Added Hall, “They went up to Texarkana and played, and played hard and it was a tough defeat.”
The loss left a three-way tie for the district title among Lee, Lufkin and Texas High with a coin flip to determine who would represent 8-4A in the playoffs. Texas High won the flip and lost to eventual state champion Garland.
Osborne “Oz” Amburg was the head coach of the ’63 Lee team, but never again experienced a season like that and was replaced after his 1965 team finished 1-9.
Fifty years later, the 1963 squad is still the only Lee team to finish a season with less than two losses.
In 2000, Mike Owens led the Red Raiders to a 10-1 regular season before finishing 10-2.