Thrilling era of Shaw football ends with the 1957-'58 season

BY SAMMY WAY
Sumter Item Archivist
Posted 1/27/19

The concluding segment of the Shaw Air Force Base football program covers the 1957-'58 season. The Commanders experienced a number of changes including playing on a different field and a new head coach. The team's level of play reached new heights …

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Thrilling era of Shaw football ends with the 1957-'58 season

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The concluding segment of the Shaw Air Force Base football program covers the 1957-'58 season. The Commanders experienced a number of changes including playing on a different field and a new head coach. The team's level of play reached new heights before the decision to discontinue the program was made.

The 1957 season began on a solemn note as Coach Bill McDonald announced he was resigning his coaching responsibilities to return to college and complete his degree in education. He and his family had decided to relocate to North Carolina after graduation. Shaw announced that the football team would move to a new playing field directly behind the NCO Club. This new facility featured 14 new sections of bleachers acquired from Fort Jackson, which decided to drop its football program. The new field was expanded and could seat 6,000 fans.

The Commanders announced their '57 schedule featuring six home games. The team was led by Bobby Gene Vinson, "who assumed coaching duties after a highly successful football career at West Point." Coach Vinson noted that Shaw would feature a new backfield combination consisting of Albert Long (UNC) at quarterback and Don (Skeeter) Lewis (Texas Tech) at halfback. Shaw's first game of the new season was against the Norfolk, Virginia, Tars, led by All-American Quarterback George Welsh, formerly of the Naval Academy.

Fans were reminded that "the old field adjoining Highway 76 would not be used for games. This field was located directly under the landing strip used by jet aircraft, and the new location would cut down on noise created by the planes."

In their opening game, the Shaw Commanders dispatched the Norfolk Tars 19-6 before 6,500 fans and immediately began preparations to face the highly touted Fort Lee Travelers. Coach Vinson announced that Arthur Merrill would assume quarterback duties for the Shaw 11, and this was the only change in his starting lineup. The Fort Lee team challenged the Shaw 11 before losing 7-0. Shaw lost Skeeter Lewis to a broken thumb (in practice), sidelining him for four weeks, and Albert Long was reinstated at the quarterback position. The "Commanders" defeated the Pensacola Goshawks 23-7 in their next game and began preparations to play the Sewart Air Force Base team which was returning to service ball. The Shaw Commanders defeated the inexperienced but stubborn Sewart Air Base team 27-0 before a crowd estimated at 5,000 fans. Jim Campagna led the team to victory by gaining 86 yards on 10 carries and scoring the first of four touchdowns.

The Shaw team tumbled from the ranks of the unbeaten in their fifth game, losing to the powerful Bolling Generals 28-0, "whose host of All-Americans proved impossible to stop." The team next faced the Camp Lejeune Marines, who ventured to Shaw for the contest. The Commanders defeated the Marines in a hard-fought contest by the score 26-21 and in their next game were forced to come from behind, scoring a 7-7 tie against a powerful Hamilton Air Force Base team from California. Following their heartbreaking tie with Hamilton, Shaw was scheduled to play the undefeated Fort Dix Burrows located in New Jersey. The powerful Burrows lineup featured nine nationally known professional players. Shaw played inspired ball but lost 20-13 in a close contest against Fort Dix, with the outcome in doubt until very late in the game. This loss gave the Commanders a record of 5 wins, 2 losses and 1 tie in eight contests. Shaw's next scheduled game had them facing Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Shaw won a see-saw game 26-20, which featured numerous passes. In their final game, Shaw faced Fort Hood at home and dropped a 13-0 contest in sub-freezing temperatures and high winds. There were less than 100 spectators braving the arctic conditions to cheer on their team.

Following the season, it was announced that four players on the Shaw Commanders team were selected for the All-Air Force squad. Lt. Samuel (Pete) Brown, center, and 1st Lt. Richard Cole, tackle, were on the first team while making the second team were 1st Lt. Gilbert Gonzales, fullback, and 2nd Lt. Larry Jones, at guard. It was also announced that Lt. Richard Cole had signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Professional Football League coached by Bud Grant.

Before the beginning of the 1958 season, Shaw Air Force Base announced that the facility would not field a team in the fall. The reason for discontinuing the gridiron program was given as "operational commitments and manpower limitations." This ended one of the most thrilling eras in the athletic history of Shaw and the Sumter community.