Former high school football team receives championship rings 50 years after winning state title

"This occasion is more than about just winning a championship," one player said.

July 15, 2020, 5:33 PM

It's a journey that began with a group of teenage football players 50 years ago on a grass field in Perry, Georgia.

“Every piece of this grass out here, the team players planted by hand and watered by hand... This story was never told; how it happened, what happened and the reasons,” Carl Lumpkin, a former player, told ABC News' Deborah Roberts.

Today, the welcome sign in Perry reads, "Where Georgia Comes Together." But in 1969, this little town was well divided.

PHOTO: A sign in Perry, Ga., reads, "Where Georgia comes together," July 11, 2020.
A sign in Perry, Ga., reads, "Where Georgia comes together," July 11, 2020.
ABC News

For Roberts, this was a very personal assignment. A Perry native herself, Roberts grew up a child of segregation. Neighborhoods, schools and sports teams had all been divided by race.

Lawrence Clarington, another former player, knows it all too well. That division denied him and his former teammates a special honor.

“I’ve been crying all morning... I thought this day would never come,” Clarington said.

Clarington and his former teammates gathered last weekend to receive championship rings 50 years after they won a state football title.

For Houston High School, an all-black school in the Jim Crow South, the big victory was just a footnote in the local paper at the time they won.

“It was really just a game, a regular game to the community, it was more than [that] to the players,” Lumpkin said.

For decades, the buried history of their victory caused pain and anger.

“The wrong was we were not recognized by the school, the Board of Education, the city of Perry,” Clarington said.

Sometimes, the players said they would even hear people talking about how a different school won the first football championship in Perry.

"We always heard people say another school, Warner Robbins, had the first state championship... We are always quick to remind them we had the first state championship in Houston County,” Anthony Dorsey, a former player, said.

Segregation finally ended in Perry a month after Houston High won the championship. The students were integrated into Perry High School.

“We went back after Christmas break. ... The judge finally said you had to integrate the schools. ... They closed our school,” Dorsey said.

The sudden closure of their all-black school threatened years of history.

"The city bought the school. ... The trophy and everything in the school was thrown away,” Clarington told ABC News.

The team knew it had to preserve what little memories existed of their win.

“The trophies and everything that were in that school was thrown away. ... One of the fellas decided to go into the dumpster to get that trophy,” Lumpkin said.

For years that trophy was one of the few tangible memories of what these men accomplished in 1969.

But that's not the case anymore.

PHOTO: Lawrence Clarington holds up a ring at an event where members of the all-Black Houston High School football team finally received championship rings 50 years after winning the state title, in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
Lawrence Clarington holds up a ring at an event where members of the all-Black Houston High School football team finally received championship rings 50 years after winning the state title, in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
ABC News

When the team gathered over the weekend, one by one, each member of the team was given a ring they should have received decades ago.

For the team members, it was an incredibly sweet, special moment.

“They can’t believe this is happening... [They've been] looking for this day for years and they finally got it,” Clarington said.

So much time had passed, and not everyone who helped the football team achieve the victory could be present for the moment. The wife of their coach, Elijah Weatherspoon, accepted a ring and drawing on his behalf.

The team also reflected on how life has changed over the years.

“In order to get along in this world, you have to love one another ... respect one another,” Clarington said.

PHOTO: Lawrence Clarington talks to reporters about his experience as part of the all-Black Houston High School football team when it won the state title 50 years ago in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
Lawrence Clarington talks to reporters about his experience as part of the all-Black Houston High School football team when it won the state title 50 years ago in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
ABC News

Clarington met his wife, Tina, the same year they won. She's the sister of Deborah Roberts, making Clarington the brother-in-law to Roberts.

Roberts wanted to share this special moment with her family in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans.

The virus, however, was not going to stop a ceremony decades in the making.

“You guys have the most perseverance I have ever seen in my life,” Perry Mayor Randall Walker said to them.

Walker said he was honored to be in the audience -- in a community that he says has changed and grown.

“This is a reflection of what’s important; that everyone here is treated fairly and equitably,” he told ABC News.

The special rings, now with extra meaning as communities across the United States reckon with their past and struggle to confront racism and inequality.

PHOTO: Carl Lumpkin talks to reporters about his experience as part of the all-Black Houston High School football team when it won the state title 50 years ago in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
Carl Lumpkin talks to reporters about his experience as part of the all-Black Houston High School football team when it won the state title 50 years ago in Perry, Ga., July 11, 2020.
ABC News

“This occasion is more than about just winning a championship ... it’s more than about just winning rings,” Clarington said.

But for the teammates reunited again on this field of dreams, there is no anger.

“It was sweet. Nothing bitter about it. ... It was just sweet and humble,” Clarington said.

"This is what this is about: brothers working together as one and a community coming together as one,” Clarington added.

“Fifty years later, the grass is still here," Lumpkin said. "This is our grass."

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