Brawl was the final blow to junior college football in Belleville

News-DemocratApril 4, 2014 

What's the old sports joke? I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out?

Well, change hockey to football, and you have what took place at Belleville Township High School Stadium on Halloween night 1959. As it turned out, it may have been the final nail in the coffin of the Belleville Junior College football program.

I don't like to spread rumors, so I omitted this when I wrote about the J.C. football history earlier this week. Several people had asked me about a brawl after the final game, but all John Wehmeier could recall was that "something" happened.

Then on Friday, I struck the mother lode: Belleville native, former News-Democrat reporter and noted author Taylor Pensoneau. He gave me a colorful account of the bad blood that had been flowing between the Belleville and Burlington, Iowa, junior colleges for more than a year.

In fact, Pensoneau's short gridiron career is going to be part of his memoir, "Reporting on Life and People Along the Way," scheduled for released in June.

Like a local George Plimpton, Pensoneau, who started writing for the News-Democrat in high school, loved sports, especially football. At Belleville Township High School, though, he was a self-described "washout," playing only briefly in one game his junior year. When he came back as a senior, his coaches suggested he try cross country.

But after his freshman year at Belleville J.C., Pensoneau went to Colorado for a summer at a boys ranch and returned in "terrific" shape. He figured it would be his last chance to realize his dream on the gridiron. When first-string right end Kenny Wells was injured early in the first game of that 1959 season, his dream came true in spades.

"I went in and I never came out again," he said by telephone from his home in New Berlin. "I never came out even for 30 seconds the rest of the year. And I played both ways."

The closest Belleville came to winning that year was the third game of the season. They took a 13-0 lead before falling apart against Wentworth Military Academy 28-13. One can only imagine the frustration building after 50-6 and 50-0 losses to Western and Southern Illinois dropped the Dutchmen's record to 0-5.

So it was going to be no treat when Burlington came to town on Halloween. Pensoneau hadn't played the year before, but knew the bad feelings had started in 1958 when Burlington knocked off Belleville 33-13. That game, too, had ended in a fight, which the returning Dutchmen in 1959 remembered all too well.

"Even before the game started, one of our guys said, 'We're going to get those guys,'" said Pensoneau, who would tie the game 7-7 in the first quarter by snaring a pass from quarterback Bob Toenjes. "And it didn't matter what the outcome of the game was, we were going to pay 'em back. So as the game was ending, it broke out. Our guys swung first, and it turned into a melee."

That's when Pensoneau and the player who was covering him all night took a long look at each other.

"He said, 'Are we going to fight? I don't have anything against you,'" Pensoneau recalled. "And I said, 'I don't want to fight.' So we did not. We remained sort of apart from it."

But many teammates went at it tooth and nail to finish off a night that had started with a fight after the opening kickoff. Belleville right tackle Jim Pearson had been ejected.

"It got very rough," said Pensoneau, who still has a picture showing him in his number 70 jersey on the sidelines. "The linemen were all going at each other, rolling on the ground."

It took coaches and Civil Defense officials working as security to quell the free-for-all. Belleville J.C. wound up not only losing the game 29-7, but, after a 27-0 loss to William Jewell on Nov. 5, the football program as well.

"It was my private feeling at that time that it was," said Pensoneau when asked whether the fight led to the program's demise. "One, football's expensive. We lost all of our games. The brawl was an embarrassment.

"I think those things all added up. It wasn't very long after our last game when I opened up the News-Democrat that there was a big headline on the sports page, 'J.C. dropping football.'

"I was saddened by it, but it didn't surprise me, to be honest. But it was quite an experience. Many considered our team a laughing stock -- or a bunch of 'rummies.' But I was personally proud of it, which shows you how much stock I placed in it."

Sad coincidence: My sympathy to Kathy Lonsdale and family on the loss of her husband, Charles -- who is also part of my family since my maternal grandmother was Bertha Lonsdale.

It was rather eerie to write about Charles breaking his leg in the final Belleville J.C. football game of the 1957 season on the same day his obituary was published. But I remember my family visiting his father, George, who was a second- and, later, fourth-ward alderman in Belleville for 13 years.

Did a T-Bone Schwartz ever play on the Belleville J.C. football team? -- A.V., of Belleville

I don't know which one had the colorful nickname, but both a Terry Schwarz and Brad Schwartz played in 1958, according to the yearbook.

Today's trivia

How many permanent teeth does a healthy dog have?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: Brooke Shields was just 11 years old when she made her movie debut by being strangled in the 1976 slasher flick "Alice Sweet Alice."

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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