There are a long set of lines outside of Melrose Stadium in the heart of Orange Mound on homecoming night for football. The first quarter is winding down. The home side of the field is not completely full yet, but only because several people are walking around mingling; some are still in line waiting to get in. Most programs would be happy with the turnout, but not the Golden Wildcats’ faithful. “It’s not bad,” says Joel Jackson (Melrose ’68). “But it’s not what it used to be.”
Not so long ago tailgating in Orange Mound was quite the scene. The games stopped traffic at David and Park, the stadium’s intersecting streets. David Street, in particular, felt like a one-way. There was grilling or some type of merchandise exchange, it seemed, at every other house, which made it nearly impossible for anyone walking up to the stadium gate to not purchase something, or at the minimum inquirer about what was for sale. The street looked like a mini-version of Barbecue Fest. Police officers were needed to direct traffic. The lines to enter games spilled over into the street. Drivers, who were only concerned with getting home, blew horns in frustration. Hands of fans, some young, some old, clutched the stadiums’ metal wired fence. Maybe they couldn’t afford a ticket, or maybe they just liked the outside view.
Inside the fence was also a spirited scene, with Melrose fans packing the home side of the field, and giving the visitors a run for their money on the other side as well. Even high school kids not interested in football attended, fulfilling their social obligation by walking around the field acknowledging classmates. The older fans, the alumni, they would run into someone they haven’t seen in some time and then into someone they hadn’t seen since the last home game. The weather had no effect on the tailgating or the attendance. It wasn’t so long ago. What changed?
Ask some Melrose supporters and they may tell you it was a conspiracy. Local government may disagree. Regardless of the motive, Shelby County Health Department and Memphis & Shelby County Code Enforcement started to enforce laws requiring permits for the street venders, effectively ending business for several moonlighters. “That took away a lot,” says Cedrick Wooten (Melrose ’87). The losing also hurt. The program that made several trips to the state finals in the ‘90s and early part of the new century fell on hard times by the end of the decade. There were no signs of it getting better either. The lowest point was going winless in 2012. It obviously chased away the casual fan, but not the Melrose faithful.
The faithful don’t just bleed gold, their bones crack it out. Homecoming night offers the proof. The game is part of the Melrose Class of 1981 reunion activities. Across the street from the field at the Orange Mound Community Center, Class of ’81 is having a ball prior to the game. To the theme of 70s music being played by former Melrose student and resident DJ Kenneth Benson, people are dancing. Vincent Burnett is giving away hot dogs and hamburgers to whoever wants them. “It’s all about donations,” Burnett (Melrose ’81) says. “Everyone donates. The grills, the food, the drinks, it’s all about giving back to the neighborhood.” He sums up the reunion as, “Nothing but love.” Adolphis Shipp is one of the cooks. He is also a proud Melrose alum. His classmates called him Boney back in the day. And the name still fits. “Sausage, corn, turkey leg,” he offers. “What do you need?”
Not every tailgater attended Melrose. But those that did not are still somehow closely connected to the program. On the edge of the Community Center’s property near the sidewalk, Terry Wood has the grill going. It’s been his spot for nearly 20 years. If not for the size of his grill and all the onlookers with a fence-eyed view of the game, he would have the ideal position to cook and watch the game at the same time. His bologna, chicken, ribs, smoked sausages, and tamales come at a price. But for him it’s not about the extra money. “I’m a people person,” he claims. His game preparations begin at 6:00 am. He’s not a Melrose graduate, but his son Anthony is. “He played (football) at Melrose,” he proudly says of his son. “Number seven. Running back. He’s up there now,” he says pointing at the press box area. “He calls the game now.”
Adjacent to Wood is Alicia Smith, selling soul food. Like Wood, she did not attend Melrose, but her kids did. “All of my kids graduated from Melrose,” says Smith. “And all three graduated,” including Blarrington Ellis who is co-piloting his mother’s post on homecoming night. “There’s no better hood than Orange Mound,” Ellis (Melrose ’10) claims. Ellis reflects back on his teams making the “pride walk.” The pride walk starts at the school’s locker room, then through the park next to the school, crossing over Pendleton and then east on Enterprise to the stadium. The trip is nearly a half mile long. Residents will step out of their homes to wave, greet the team, share encouraging words prior to home games. “There’s not a better feeling than making that walk and seeing everybody waving at you going down the street, everybody loving on you, wanting you to do good,” Ellis says.
Fans, both inside and outside the stadium, show support for the team by wearing Melrose paraphernalia, mostly shirts and hats. Many of them can thank Joel Jackson, the “shirt man,” and his wife Algenner. They set up shop just a few feet away from the entrance of the stadium, catching spectator’s eyes on their way to their seats. The Jacksons’ shop, Melrose Place, is located on Park, directly north of the stadium and east of the community center. On game days they operate it from the trunk of an SUV. After 15 years they’ve finally decided to raise the price on t-shirts, from $10 to $12 to keep up with the cost of production. The hoodies are the most popular item.
The saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Jackson can attest. “I wanted a Melrose shirt,” he says of how his side business started. “Me and three of my brothers went rolling around looking for a Melrose shirt but couldn’t find one. So we made three shirts and people would ask ‘where did you get that shirt?’” He knew he was on to something. Jackson, who makes his living in Real Estate, doesn’t make much of a profit selling the Melrose apparel. “We do it because we made a commitment to do it,” he says. Their merchandise is approved by the Shelby County Schools.
It also helps that Melrose principals have always encouraged the Jacksons. Years ago Jackson tried to get out of the shirt-making business because he was tired of the politics. There were too many forces trying to put an end to his little venture. Former Melrose Principal LaVaughn Bridges talked him out of giving it up. “He thought it was important for the kids to see it,” says Jackson. “He asked me to keep it going. He just wanted me to make sure I was true to the school colors.”
As Jackson is detailing the meeting, Bridges’ replacement, former Melrose principal Leviticus Pointer walks by Jackson’s make-shift shop wearing a Melrose letterman’s jacket. Jackson sells those too. “I had to be here” Pointer (Melrose ’89) says of his attendance at the homecoming game. “Even though I was done wrong,” he says of being ousted as principal last year after a school audit revealed financial inconsistencies and possibly fraud. His willingness to come out and support the program, under the circumstances, speaks volumes about the loyalty the alumni base has for the school.
Current and first year Melrose Principal Mark Neal used to witness it from afar, but now he’s experiencing it up close and personal. He did not attend Melrose but left Millington Central to come to Orange Mound. “They’ve been very supportive,” he says of Melrose graduates and the Melrose Alumni Association in particular. “It’s a model for what every alumni association should be about. It’s about helping students. It embodies the spirit of fellowship, neighborhood and networking.”
Neal is one of many with a car parked at Melrose Saturday morning. Vehicles are lined-up on both sides of Haynes Street in front of the school for the Scholarship Breakfast being held in the school’s cafeteria. Approximately 300 people attend the breakfast. The alumni association President Denise Williams Greene (Melrose ’83) is present. The Vice-President Cedrick Wooten is also there. Vladimir Bradley (Melrose’88), Alan Scruggs (Melrose ’64), and Jesse Wilburn (Melrose ’54) are an example as to the time span represented at the breakfast.
The gathering marks the end of a busy week for the alumni association and caps off two-years of fundraising. Thursday was the coronation. A prep rally was held Friday afternoon. Later there was the game and afterwards members of the alumni met up at Cynthia Place in Midtown. If the weekend’s outings were as successful as the previous one, Melrose Alumni Association Wooten estimates the organization would have netted nearly $5,000 in scholarship funds to be awarded to college bound students.
If anyone knows the importance of the scholarship fund it’s Wooten. He was a recipient after he graduated from Melrose. The fund helped him pay tuition at LeMoyne-Owen College. Wooten, who now practices family law in Memphis, says paying it forward is not the only reason he keeps close ties with his former school. “Everything I am starts here with this school and this community,” he explains. “It was and is such a nurturing environment. These people are like my parents, my family. It’s been like that all my life. Unconditional love. The only thing they ask is that we respect the people before us. See we want our young people to understand that someone paved the way for you.”
Those steps have taken former Melrose students all across the United States, to the point where they’ve formed alumni chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit, with Dallas in the works. “But home will always be here,” says Wooten, referring to Memphis.
Those still living in the city are put to work by the alumni association. “Every game a different class is responsible for feeding the (football) team,” says Wooten, “We feed the players, the coaches, and the cheerleaders before every game.”
This is nothing new for third year Melrose football coach Earl Woods. He played for the school from ’98 to ’02. That part has always remained consistent. What he would like to see change is the atmosphere at games. “Don’t get me wrong it’s great,” he says. “But it’s not what it used to be. But it’s getting back there. I had a guy walk up to me at the game the other night and tell me that.” The program is also getting back to winning regularly under Woods’ leadership. In 2013 the team finished the season 8-4 and made it to the second round of the playoffs. This year’s team is off to a 6-2 start.
Regardless of the success or lack of it on the field, something never changes. “The spirit never left,” says Jackson. “This school, this team is the unifying force in this community.” And on homecoming night it showed.
You can follow Jamie Griffin on twitter @flyerpreps.