Escambia High School unrest did not slow MLB pipeline

Bruce Jenner

On July 30, 1976, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, Bruce Jenner set a world record of 8,618 points to become Team USA’s ninth decathlon champion.


March 8 – Freddie Prinze Jr.
March 22 – Reese Witherspoon
March 24 – Peyton Manning
April 6 – Candace Cameron Bure
April 18 – Melissa Joan Hart
April 20 – Joey Lawrence
April 25 – Tim Duncan
May 31 – Colin Farrell
June 18 – Blake Shelton
July 9 – Fred Savage
July 19 – Benedict Cumberbatch
Sept. 18 – Ronaldo
Oct. 4 – Alicia Silverstone

Jan. 10 – Howlin’ Wolf
Jan. 12 – Agatha Christie
Feb. 12 – Sal Mineo
April 9 – Phil Ochs
May 3 – Ernie Nevers
June 6 – J. Paul Getty
July 29 – Mickey Cohen
Aug. 28 – Anissa Jones
Sept. 10 – Dalton Trumbo
Nov. 29 – Godfrey Cambridge
Dec. 20 – Richard J. Daley

Off the fields of play, 1976 had its share of fireworks

It’s been 45 years since the Bicentennial celebration. The country put Watergate in the rearview; the Jimmy Carter-Walter Mondale ticket beat incumbent Gerald Ford and running mate Bob Dole.

Apple Computer and Microsoft were incorporated in 1976 (and the idea of Bill Gates “chipping” citizens with a vaccine was … as outlandish an idea then as it today).

I was 9 years old in ’76, and I remember the news reports about Karen Ann Quinlan. What did not hit our news was the Feb. 5 riot at Escambia {Fla.) High School. (The story ran at the bottom of The Pensacola Journal.)

Forcibly desegregated in 1969, EHS was formerly an all-white school. In ’72, Black students rioted at a home football game; Escambia’s mascot was modeled after Colonel Reb of Ole Miss, and the band played Dixie.

Blacks and other students continued to protest the mascot, school song, and use of the Confederate Flag, which was flown at school events and games, until the end of the 1972-73 school year. They argued the imagery was insensitive to Black people.

On July 24, 1973, a U.S. District Court ruling deemed the symbols as “racially irritating” and barred their use at the school level (Augustus v. School Board of Escambia County, 361 F. Supp. 383, 1973).

The next school year, “Raiders” was chosen as the new nickname for Escambia’s athletic teams. However, throughout 1974, the Escambia County School District appealed the U.S. District Court decision. On Jan. 25, 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school board, overturning the injunction and decreeing that the school board should be in charge of the matter (Augustus v. School Board of Escambia County, 507 F.2d 152, 1975).

On Feb. 4, 1976, an impromptu school election was held; students were allowed to vote to either keep the name as “Raiders” or change back to “Rebels.” The students who preferred “Rebels” failed to secure a three-fourths majority needed to win the ballot.

The next day, a four-hour riot ensued. Four students were shot, and 26 students were injured. Students smashed windows and trophy cases during the fighting.

It was estimated that three-quarters of the 2,523 students who attended Escambia High were involved in the riot. In the aftermath, crosses were burned on many school board members’ yards. One member, who was Black, was specifically targeted; a gunshot went through his window. A human relations board member, as well as a state legislator, had their homes torched.

The Florida National Guard patrolled the school until the end of the year. In the fall of 1976, students chose the name “Gators” after a second ballot was deemed necessary. The nickname has been used for EHS’s athletic teams since, without incident.

Kevin Saucier

Three future MLB players were at Escambia during the turbulent post-integration time:

• Dennis Lewallyn, a 1971 graduate of Escambia High, was picked eighth overall by the Dodgers in the ’72 MLB January Draft-Secondary Phase from Chipola College.

• Preston Hanna graduated from EHS in 1972. Hanna spent eight years in the majors, mostly with Atlanta.

• Kevin Saucier graduated from Escambia in 1974. He was 15-11 with 19 saves and a 3.31 ERA in 139 games.

The left-hander made his big league debut in 1978 with Philadelphia. He was traded twice during the 1980 offseason – first to Texas on Nov. 19 and then to Detroit on Dec. 10. In two seasons with the Tigers, he posted a 7-3 ledger with 18 saves and a 2.32 ERA across 69 appearances.

A shoulder injury cut short Saucier’s career. He retired in 1983, walking away from Triple-A Richmond at 26 years old. Citing his lack of control, Saucier said, “Sometimes I was afraid I was going to kill somebody. It’s really a lot of pressure on you when you’re out there and you don’t know where the ball is going to go.”

Today, Escambia High has 11,785 students; minority enrollment is 56%. The school’s graduation rate is 80%.

Other EHS notable athletes include golfer Joe Durant. A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, he graduated in 1982.

The Escambia Class of 2003 boasts of three WWE champions:  Joe Anoa’i (Roman Reigns) and tag team brothers Jonathan and Joshua Fatu (Jimmy and Jey Uso).

Ten-year NFL lineman Ahtyba Rubin (2004) and Heisman Trophy runner-up Trent Richardson (2009) also graduated from EHS.

However, the most famous Escambia High athlete is Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith (Class of 1987). He holds the league records for career rushing yards (18,355) and rushing touchdowns  (164). He won three Super Bowl titles with Dallas.