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Friday, April 19, 2024

Thanksgiving Day Traditions Past: High School Football and Turkey Day


Standing proudly behind the new, state-of-the art football stadium at North Little Rock High school is the original building that was built by the WPA. And just as things change and never stay the same, so is the storied tradition of the Thanksgiving Day game with North Little Rock and Little Rock Catholic High School.

If you grew up in the greater Little Rock area, or, were just a fan of good high school football, you were well aware of two big high school games that were played every year on Thanksgiving Day: NLR vs. Catholic, and Little Rock Central vs. Little Rock Hall. As a kid who grew up and went to school in North Little Rock, my memories are vivid to this day of the traditional Turkey Day game with Catholic.

Although the images in my head stand out in vivid memories cast in high definition color, I was taken back recently when I began to research a game that took place 45 years from this Thanksgiving between the Wildcats and the Rockets. First of all, if you search the internet, there is not much there that documents the 1975 clash between the two schools. And most strikingly, the images that I did find were of the season with just one image from the Thanksgiving Day game. The images looked like ghosts from the past, and suddenly it hit me, that was a long time ago!

So if you will forgive me for a few minutes, I will take you down memory lane a bit. The Catholic High vs. NLR Thanksgiving Day rivalry took place from 1958-1978. Catholic played their home games at War Memorial Stadiium in Little Rock, and the Wildcats played at Wildcats Stadium on the campus of NLR High School. The rivalry and Thanksgiving Day tradition ended in 1978 when Catholic dropped in enrollment and classification. It was an ending that was coming for several years. It was thought that Catholic wanted to end the rivalry sooner, but NLR wanted to keep playing the series. The change in classification became the natural break to end the series.

But as a first semester junior at NLR (was named Ole Main High School back then) the 1975 Wildcats were one of my most favorite teams. In the 1970s, Ole Main High School was a large high school of students in grades 10-12. Their true rival was cross-town NLR Northeast High School. That was the game that fans truly wanted to see. Northeast week was always full of “extracurricular activities” around town as students from both schools would play pranks on each other’s campus. What made the 1975 season so special was that Ole Main defeated both of their rivals, Catholic and Northeast, and both were won at the last second by the most unlikely of heroes on the team, John Bannert. Bannert was the field goal kicker for Ole Main, and was, as most kickers seem to be, a bit aloof from the team. He was an excellent student, and a great kicker, but that was as close to being a football player as anyone had seen of John.

The 1975 season for Ole Main had started out with great promise. But with an early season-ending injury to its star quarterback, Ronnie Anderson, the team began a chain reaction of one crucial injury after another until the season finally came to an end on Thanksgiving Day. The team won five games that season, which was a testament to how good they could have been. Narrowly losing at Little Rock Central by the score of 10-0 was an example of how frustrating the season had become with the loss of several starters throughout the season.

Quarterback Ronnie Anderson (17), photographed here running the ball against Fort Smith Southside, was an early-day dual threat quarterback who never realized his potential due to a career-ending knee injury against Jonesboro (Photo Credit: NLR High School Yearbook, 1976)

Anderson was the team’s true leader, and his injury devastated the Wildcats. So loved was Anderson by the coaches and the players, the team presented Anderson with the game ball from the victory over Northeast, although junior Chuck Tomlinson played quarterback against Northeast, not Anderson.

Ole Main coach Henry Hawk presents the Northeast game ball to injured quarterback Ronnie Anderson (Photo Credit: NLR High School Yearbook, 1976)

On the last play of the game with Northeast, it was the unlikely hero, John Bannert, who kicked a field goal that barely cleared the cross bar to defeat the Chargers that night. So improbable of a kick, the only photo of that play that has been found depicts the celebration after the kick; John is nowhere to be seen in the photo. After the play, Wildcats players on the field goal team, and wearing white away jerseys in their own stadium, led a celebration of the win where students and fans stormed the field afterwards.

Wearing white visiting team jerseys in their own stadium, Wildcats Dennis Strom (81), Mike Claussen (48) and others celebrate John Bannert’s last second field goal to defeat the Northeast Chargers in 1975. The two schools played their home games at Wildcats Stadium and alternated being the home team each year. (Photo Credit: NLR High School Yearbook, 1976)

As Thanksgiving approached, it was clear that the Wildcats were not going to be in the playoffs that year. In fact, playoff football was something NLR was used to, so the season was very disappointing for many. Just three seasons earlier, under the guidance of then head football coach Ken Stephens, the Wildcats won the 1972 state football championship. So it had not been that far removed from having won it all, and now, the Wildcats were struggling just to finish the season.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day, 1975. It is a bright, clear, crisp day, and the Wildcats and the Rockets were set to kickoff at 10 a.m. Its funny what you remember, but one of my most vivid memories is meeting the rest of the team at 6 a.m. at a little diner near the stadium where the team had their pregame breakfast. It was cold and dark, and the players looked like they were sleep walking through the serving line. But these are the times that you remember; the time spent with the team, when it is just you and your team. You never forget those times.

The game was a low-scoring contest. It would not go down as the most memorable in high school football history. In fact, the game was tied 6-6 with neither team able to sustain drives on offense. Finally, NLR had the last possession of the game and struggled to make just enough yardage to give their kicker, who had won the Northeast game on a last second field goal, an opportunity to again win a rivalry game for the Wildcats. Then it happened; a bit of controversy that some people still talk about today.

NLR Ole Main kicker John Bannert (13) kicks against Catholic High School on Thanksgiving Day 1975. Photo Credit: NLR High School Yearbook, 1976

John had this quirk that he usually missed the first kick he attempted. Back in 1975, kickers did not have nets that they kicked into to warm-up on the sidelines before they entered the game. But if John could kick one first, he would be much more likely to make the second kick.

Knowing this, Ole Main coach Henry Hawk called time out and sent Bannert and the field goal team on to attempt what would be the game winning field goal. Then an interesting thing happened. John and his holder turned around and faced their own goal posts and Bannert proceeded to take a practice kick in the opposite direction during the time out. It seemed harmless at the time, but it was critical to John’s confidence and likelihood of making the field goal attempt when play would resume. The Catholic High coaches went crazy over Bannert’s “practice swing”, but at the time, there was no rule against it. So NLR was not penalized, and Bannert would get his opportunity to win the game.

I don’t have to tell you, but John Bannert, once again, kicked the game winning field goal on Turkey Day to defeat Little Rock Catholic 9-6 on that bright and crisp day in 1975…45 years ago this week. I have heard some mention a “John Bannert rule” that may exist today, prohibiting kickers from taking practice kicks on the field. And frankly, I don’t know if such rule exists. Perhaps a coach out there can tell me and our readers.

But on that glorious day in 1975, John Bannert was the hero in a long-standing series between the two schools. Arkansas congressman French Hill was a student at Catholic that year, and many others have gone on to have great careers. But some, like John Bannert, have faded into the past. So John, this story is for you.

From me and my family, I wish all of our readers out there a very Happy Thanksgiving Day.

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Jim Best
Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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