SWIC's gridiron wasn't great

News-DemocratApril 1, 2014 

Q. When I tell people that Southwestern Illinois College once had a football team, they look at me as if I've had my bell rung by Mean Joe Greene too many times. Maybe they'll trust an authority like you.

-- Dan Lavin, of Belleville

A. I hope so, because your memory is still as sharp as Brett Favre's passing arm used to be.

Although I have not found how it started or why it died, I can tell you that Belleville Junior College (as it was known then) battled to a 4-14 record in three seasons. And, perhaps more interesting, those old Dutchmen teams included such later prominent local sports figures as Urban Baum and John Wehmeier.

In the summer of 1957, Coach Emery Carter and his assistant, Jerry Rybicki, were given a month to whip 35 eager athletes into shape, only half of whom had prior gridiron experience, according to the school's 1958 yearbook. Those were the days when the school held many of its classes in wooden buildings behind Belleville Township High School. Of course, the coach was a little raw, too.

"He coached basketball and football," said Robert Teahan, of Fairview Heights, who played right end on that first squad and later was a 6-21/2 center on the basketball team. "God love him, but he'd didn't know anything about them."

Size wasn't going to be the team's strength, either. Despite 214-pound guard Bill Schaumleffel and 205-pound tackle Otis Blackard, the line averaged 183 and the backfield just 169. But they did have the "brain" of quarterback Dennis Sexton and the beef of Baum, their leading tackler.

"They're better than I anticipated," Carter told the News-Democrat as the team prepared for its first game.

So on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1957, 300 students whooped it up at a pep rally as they prepared to plunk down their 40 cents to see their team that night. But the lack of experience and spotty defense led to a 27-6 loss to the Western Illinois University JV in the team's debut. The lone Belleville highlight was Sexton's 34-yard TD run in the first period to give Belleville a 6-0 lead.

Two more losses would follow -- 34-12 to Missouri Valley and 14-12 to the Southern Illinois University Carbondale JV -- before Belleville dominated Burlington, Iowa, 18-0 for their first win. But the season ended with a stomach-turning 32-2 loss to Scott Air Force Base.

"God, those guys were big!" said Teahan, who still remembers the team having its picture taken next to the Big Paul mining shovel at Peabody's River King Mine near Freeburg.

"They were men and a half! Our little running back (Charles Lonsdale) got his one leg twisted up around the back of head. Broke it something horrible. They had run the ambulance out there to the sidelines even before the game. It was sort of spooky."

But Sexton, who had scored six of the team's eight touchdowns and passed for another to Bill Sharp, and his "Cartermen" learned from the experience to put together a 3-3 year in 1958. After dropping a 30-18 opener to Missouri Valley, they buried Wentworth 58-8 before nipping Western Illinois 8-6 and SIUC 22-18.

But with injuries depleting the already small squad, Belleville was demolished in its final two games. Still, Sexton led the team in scoring and Baum in tackles, and they were again named co-captains. Baum later took over the wrestling program at Belleville East. Wehmeier, who would go on to become the wrestling coach and athletic director at Belleville West, played mostly defense for two years.

"I wasn't real good -- you know, not one of the stars," said Wehmeier, who has served as commissioner of the Southwestern Conference the past decade. "I know that's when they had the gym all torn up when they were building the annex on. And the locker room was a mess. We dressed in the hallways and things like that. The lockers were in the hallways rather than a room."

The Dutchmen then went 0-7 in 1959 as they failed to hold a 13-0 lead against Wentworth before being whipped by Western Illinois 50-6 and SIUC 50-0. A 27-0 loss to William Jewell on Nov. 5, 1959, would bring down the curtain on the program.

"I thought it would show that Belleville junior college was trying to build even back then," said Teahan, explaining why he entered his football letter in the upcoming Belleville Bicentennial history exhibit at the Schmidt Art Center at SWIC. "But for some the football program just pooped out."

One final sad note: Emery Carter and his wife, Etta, were among 144 people who died July 31, 1976, when a 20-foot-high flash flood roared down the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado after 12 inches of rain in four hours.

Today's trivia

Can you name the four U.S. state capitals named after English towns?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry reportedly was the first black actor to earn a million dollars and an on-screen credit. You may know him better by his stage name, Stepin Fetchit, who, although he took on the persona of the "laziest man in the world," was highly literate and wrote for the Chicago Defender. He died in 1985 at age 83.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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