After the Aggies and the Panthers first played in 1922, Alabama’s oldest continuously played high school football series appeared dead in the water the next year.
Although schedules were more suggestions than commitments back then, Clay County and Lineville were apparently supposed to play on Oct. 12 at Lineville, the Aggies’ first home game.
The Oct. 12 edition of the Lineville Headlight, the weekly newspaper serving the community at the time, carried on page 1 the announcement that the Aggies would play the Talladega “Silents”, at the time a frequently used reference to Alabama School for the Deaf.
After that came this bombshell.
“The game to have been played with Ashland (on Oct. 12) was called off Wednesday night when it was learned that Ashland did not wish to affiliate with the State High School Athletic Association to which most all the High Schools of the State belong. This reason for not affiliating lies in the fact that they have two members of their team who are not qualified to play according to the rules of the Association, one being a last year’s graduate and the other having played with another school this (year). We regret that the game had to be called off but we cannot play teams who are not lined up with the Association.”
None of that was well received across the creek in Ashland and brought a quick reply from Walter W. Gay, the first-year principal at Clay County High School. Gay’s response, in the form of an open letter, reached the Headlight in time for editor W.V. Pirkle to place it on page 1 of his Oct. 19 edition under the headline “Ashland’s Challenge To Lineville”.
Gay began his letter by stating that Lineville officials gave as their reason for canceling the game that by rule Association members could not play non-members. He followed with a query.
“We would like to know why the rules would not permit them to play (the) Ashland bunch who are not members of the Association, yet, every member of the team is a bona fide pupil of the high school, and these same rules would permit them to play the team of deaf mutes from Talladega who are also not members of the State Association. If it is a violation of the rules in one case we cannot understand why it is not in the other. We would also like to know how the Lineville bunch can play Roanoke on Friday of this week when that team also is not a member of the State Association.”
Lastly, Gay issued his challenge.
“We challenge Lineville for a game of clean athletics. If your rules will permit your playing other teams out of the Association, why not give us a game?”
Weekly papers of this era were typically four to eight pages in length. Most pages contained general interest stories produced elsewhere for many such local papers, serial novels and advertising. The front page, six columns wide for the Headlight, part of an inside page and a small part of the back page carried all the local news. Local stories typically were no more than two to four column inches. Editor Pirkle allowed Gay almost a full column. It was, in other words, a big deal.
The war of words was on and J. Guy Johnson, “Director of Athletics, State Secondary Agricultural School of Lineville”, wasted no time with his answer to Gay through the Headlight’s Oct. 26 edition.
Once again, almost a full column of page 1 was devoted to the subject. This time the headline read “The Foot Ball Controversy”.
Johnson opened his letter by declaring that Association rules did not allow a member “to play a game with any accredited high school in Alabama which is not a member.”
Later, he added, “The principal of the Clay County High school gave as his reason for not joining the Association that two of his men would not be eligible under the rules of the Association and that his team is built around these two players.”
Johnson went on to acknowledge that Alabama School for the Deaf was not an Association member but asserted because it was not classified as an “accredited” high school games with Association members were allowed. He then flatly stated that Roanoke “is a member.”
Johnson then closed with this jab.
“When the Clay County High School becomes a member of the State High School Athletic Association, the State Secondary Agricultural School at Lineville will meet it in any school sport; such contests to be governed by the rules of the Association.”
Right on cue, Gay was back in print in the Headlight of Nov. 2, still on page 1. Editor Pirkle, apparently recognizing a good headline when he saw one, stayed with “The Foot Ball Controversy” for the second week.
“I do not wish to continue a news paper (sic) controversy between the Clay County High School and the Secondary Agricultural School but it seems that some statements have been misquoted,” Gay began. “The article stated last week that I gave as my reasons for not joining the Association that two of my men would not be eligible under the rules of the Association and that my team was built around these two players. I did not make that statement or anything similar to it.”
Gay never used the word liar but the implication was clear.
Gay went on to say that he had discussed joining the Association with his athletic director a month before Lineville called of the Oct. 12 game and decided there was no good reason to join.
“We have only one man who would be ineligible and he is a bona fide student,” he stated.
Gay then referred to a communication he had received from Association president William J. Baird, dated October 26, 1923, in which Baird stated that he had been in correspondence with Roanoke about joining the Association but that Roanoke had not joined as yet. Baird also promised to inform Gay when Roanoke joined if Roanoke joined.
Gay’s letter ended, “When officials of the Clay County High school think it best we shall join the Association.”
“The Foot Ball Controversy” headline appeared in the Headlight for the third and final time on Nov. 9, as usual on page 1. Johnson didn’t mince any words.
“I have not made any statement that I wish to withdraw,” he wrote.
That’s wasn’t exactly calling Gay a liar but came awfully close. Johnson then referred to the Association’s rule on the eligibility of transfers, stating transfers are ineligible until reinstated by the Central Board of Control.
“If I am not badly mistaken this would have applied to two of the players of the Clay County High team,” he wrote, again as much as calling Gay a liar.
Johnson concluded, “As for Roanoke, I am positive she was a member of the Association the day we played them October 19th as Mr. James, Superintendent of Roanoke Schools, told me they had joined, and I am sure his word can be accepted at full value. If in doubt, wire Mr. James at Roanoke or Mr. Baird at Boyles.”
There was nothing regarding the “Controversy” in the Headlight on Nov. 16. It did acknowledge in typically short fashion that Columbiana had defeated Lineville 49-0 on Nov. 9.
Then, miraculously, in the Nov. 23 Headlight appeared a report by Mrs. W.H. McDaniel, the wife of Lineville’s principal, of a game played between Lineville and Clay County in Lineville (on Nov. 20) and won by Lineville 18-0. Mrs. McDaniel also reported that a second game between the Panthers and the Aggies would be played in Ashland on Nov. 28, the day before Thanksgiving. (Lineville won that game, too, 12-7.)
Did Clay County join decide the time had come to join the Association? Did Lineville decide the rule on playing non-members wasn’t quite so stringent?
Someone blinked or, perhaps, cooler heads grew tired of the quarrel and insisted. How the “Controversy” was resolved was never reported. Gay did not return to Clay County as principal the following school year. His replacement became the Ashland school’s fifth principal in five years. Johnson coached at Lineville one more year, including a scoreless tie with Clay County, before moving on.
However it happened, the rivalry was preserved, and that’s what ultimately mattered most.