Skip to main content
Original Issue


Despite the recent scandals in intercollegiate athletics, the belief that success in sports and excellence in academics are complementary isn't dead. Here, for example, is a high school that has staunchly upheld that ideal for all but a couple of its 53 years.

In the fall of 1957 Central High in Little Rock, Ark. won its 10th state football championship and extended its victory streak to 33 games. The following spring Central won its 20th Arkansas track and field championship in 22 years, and the theme of the senior prom was "Moonlight and Roses." All in all a typical year for an exceptional high school. Except for one thing: the soldiers from the 101st Airborne and the National Guard who'd been stationed in the halls to ensure that nine black students got to and from class safely each day. By year's end Central High had become a landmark in the history of the civil-rights movement.

The next fall Governor Orval Faubus and the citizens of Little Rock decided that having no school was better than allowing black kids to study with white ones, so the only public high school in Arkansas' largest city stood empty—no classes, no prom, no nothing. Except football. After all, the team was riding a hot streak, and what could be allowed to interfere with that?

Central High may remain a symbol of bigotry and callous indifference to racial equality in the rest of the U.S., but in Little Rock, citizens proudly point to it today as a model inner-city biracial school (56% of the 1,900 students are black). It consistently turns out Arkansas' top young scholars and athletes and places them in the nation's most selective colleges. These kids really produce: 24 state athletic championships since 1970; the nation's top high school newspaper in 1978; 14 National Merit semifinalists in 1980; SAT scores 46 points higher than the national average. No wonder 41 students from private schools transferred to Central last semester.

"During the '60s we were hell-bent to regain our excellence and to counter our image in the media," says Kaye Taylor, one of seven teachers who have been at the school since '57. "I often wonder whether we would have the spirit and quality we have today had we not gone through that critical period."

The consensus among Little Rockers is no. They know that you value something more when it has been lost for a while. More important, they believed that the school and its traditions were worth preserving. Since it opened in 1927. Central has been the pacesetter for secondary education in the state. No schoolhouse in the country had cost as much to build ($1.5 million), and soon after Central's completion, the National Association of Architects selected it as "the Most Beautiful High School in America."

From the beginning, students sensed that their school was special, and their achievements reflected that attitude. They also had another motive for excelling. "The teachers and coaches were very aware of the national image of Arkansas as being a backward, rural, partially uncivilized place," says Herbert Rule, Central '55, who's now a lawyer and member of the Little Rock school board. "They beat it into us that we were as good academically and athletically as any school in the nation. They made us feel the same pride that they did."

The most visible manifestation of that pride came on the playing field. Attending a Central game was and still is the thing to do on Friday night in Little Rock. In fact, says Rule. "The strong athletic tradition that the school had built over the years was a key reason the people never gave up on Central during the tough times. As a result, I can't think of another public high school in the country that has had a more felicitous integration of its teams and student body and more top-level performances in the classroom and on the athletic field by blacks as well as whites."

And girls as well as boys. Mary Madden is an llth-grader who has competed in three state championship meets in two sports (swimming and track). She's also tied for No. 1 in her class academically with a 4.0 average.

Examples of such outstanding student-athletes are legion in Central's history, and two of the most notable are senior Scott McCord and Roosevelt Thompson, who's now a freshman in the honors program at Yale. Both were all-state football selections, Thompson as a guard and McCord as a center; both took the toughest courses the school offers—calculus, honors English, the works. Roosevelt, who also was president of the student body and the highest scorer in the state on the National Merit exam, made no grade below an A in three years at Central. Scott, president of the National Honor Society chapter and a national award winner in Latin, has gotten one B. Roosevelt is black; Scott is white.

McCord was one of 10 all-staters on Central's unbeaten state championship team of last fall. At 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the smallest member of an offensive line that averaged 225. Several of McCord's teammates will sign with major football schools, but the grant-in-aid route holds no interest for him. "I think college should prepare you for what you're going to do the rest of your life," he says, "and I don't want to play professional football." What he'd like to do is give football a try at a place like Yale while taking premed.

Obviously, no school can have too many Scott McCords and Roosevelt Thompsons, and Central has had more than its share. It also has always had something that is becoming more and more difficult to find in schools—teachers and coaches dedicated to helping students get the most out of themselves. "Close contact with teachers outside the classroom is the rule rather than the exception at Central." says Roosevelt. "That's what makes it so strong in extracurricular areas—a faculty willing to get involved."

This is especially true of the athletic staff. "I have to give the Central coaches high marks for stimulating academic performance on the part of the kids," says Rule, who played three years of football at Central. "And it's a genuine stimulus, not a false front."

That stimulus has been more concentrated than ever this year. Last April the Little Rock school board raised the academic requirements for varsity athletes above the state minimum for all students.

Minimum eligibility rules are of no concern to boys like Scott and Roosevelt, but the lessons each believes he gleaned from participation in sports are. Scott cites the rewards of discipline and of finding out how to cope with various kinds of pressure. Roosevelt tells of learning to blend in with people of different skills and the importance of plain hard work and sacrifice.

"It wasn't until we won the state championship my junior year after having gone 6-6 the year before that I understood the difference hard work can make," he says. "Coach [Bernie] Cox always stressed that it was the key to being a winner, not just in football but anywhere."

In New Haven, Roosevelt, a prospective major in either history, economics or political science, has already become just that. While earning a starting berth on the Eli freshman football team and being a member of the Political Union, Athletes in Action, Black Athletes at Yale and the Calhoun College Council during his first semester, he continued to make outstanding grades. For the semester, he had a 3.75 average. "I feel I was as well prepared for the demands of Yale as anyone in my class," he says. "Central High may be a reminder of racial injustice, but it's also a beacon showing that a good education can be had in an integrated environment without violence."

Clearly, the kind of pride that Rule says his teachers and coaches "beat" into him is still alive and well.


Central's strong athletic tradition helped it overcome its disgrace.