Mitchell Fleas remember gridiron glory, coach who shaped them
The offense was explosive and had the ability to score from anywhere on the gridiron. The defense allowed only one touchdown in two years.
The players were so talented that one of them used the unorthodox style of dropkicking extra-point attempts.
The year was 1953, and the team was proving to be one of the most dominant in Charleston history. But this squad didn’t compete at the college or high school levels. It consisted of 10- and 11-year-old boys who competed in the Charleston playground “Flea” league.
The Mitchell Fleas were head and shoulders above the other five playground teams on the Charleston peninsula and even had the chance to play in The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Their home base was Mitchell Playground, a two-acre park at 145 Fishburne St., which is in front of Mitchell Elementary School.
The team recently reunited to talk about the good times and to honor its coach, John Easterby, who went on to work at The Sportsman’s Shop for 56 years until he retired in 2011. They picked this year to reunite because it was the 60th anniversary of their final season together, and their coach is turning 80.
Former Fleas from as far away as Charlotte, Savannah and Atlanta attended the reunion, which was held on Sullivan’s Island.
The Fleas’ success might not have become reality if not for Easterby’s sleep habits.
“I attended Charleston High School and kind of slept through history class my senior year,” Easterby said. “I had to take the class again and needed a part-time job. I heard they needed help at Mitchell Playground.”
The rest was history. Easterby treated his young players as if they were in high school, practicing them two times a day in preparation for the season. The hard worked paid off. The team went 26-0 over two years and allowed a measly six points. Ten-year-old Leon Rowland had the ability to dropkick the football, a kicking style that seemingly died out after the 1920s and ’30s when the football was rounder than it is today.
The players wore sneakers and jeans and had their own shoulder pads. But when it came to helmets, they had to share.
“It wasn’t unusual for one player to come off the field and give his helmet to the player coming in,” said Robert “Rah Rah” Smith, who played running back for the Fleas. “The difference was the coaching. He just came in and took over. But playing for Johnny was more than just football. After the game, he would take us to this little store and buy us a Pepsi or Coke.”
The Fleas played all city playgrounds such as Hampton Park, Mall, Moultrie, and East Bay, as well as out-of-town teams. They played in the championship both years and were winners each time. The bowl games were played at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
“Playing in Johnson Hagood was like playing in the Super Bowl before there was a Super Bowl, said Johnny Weeks, who kept scrapbooks of the team’s accomplishments. “It wasn’t something we didn’t expect. It was something we won’t forget.”
Easterby taught the boys to be winners on the field and good citizens off the field.
“We all say he affected us positively,” Smith said. “We just needed leadership at a time when we could have gone the right way or the wrong way. All he wanted is for us to be on time and do things the right way. He stepped out of the box and helped us.”
Living members of the 1953 team in addition to Smith, Weeks and Rowland, include Jimmy Joseph, Tom Balliet, Jack Maull, Kenny Rhea, Ronal Varner, Jimmy Herndon, Thomas Dority, Carl Dear, Ernest Segaras, Gen Martin, Aaron Nettles, Peter Tezza, Bob Thackeray, Tubby Rowland, Leroy Rowland and Jimmy Mazyck.