LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) – Two members of the 1964 Rosenwald basketball team surprised their former coach with a visit to his house and a special gift to honor him on Saturday.
Samuel Fitts and David Lee Jones Sr. brought their former coach, Leon Miller, a custom quilted blanket with pictures of every player from the 1964 team.
Miller was thrilled with the gift and said that even though it was a surprise, he could recognize his former Bulldog players from anywhere.
“It means a lot to me,” Miller said, “It means a lot to me to talk to a player from Rosenwald that I coached at that time. And especially when he walked up, and he kept walking an I said now who is that, and the closer he got I just said Fitts, because I could tell from that, he didn’t even pull off his mask, that’s how close we were to players and everything, we had unity, and I’ll tell you this is a happy moment for me in my life, I will never forget this day.”
During their visit, the coach and his players recalled one story in particular, from over a half-century ago, that they would never forget.
“He called me into his office and said, I have a game scheduled for you in Selma, Alabama,” Miller said. “And I said okay, and I went back to practice and told the kids, that we’re going to Selma, Alabama.”
The Bulldogs were used to making long road trips at that time, but the 200 mile trek to Selma in early March of 1965, was like none they had ever taken before.
“I was kind of lost, and I stopped,” Miller said. “And when I got out of the bus, two Alabama state troopers walked up to me and said, ‘Boy what you want?’ And I told them what I wanted, and they said follow me. But we did not know, that was the day before the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.”
In retrospect, the team found out that they had arrived in Selma during one of the most significant moments of the Civil Rights Movement. But at the time, one of the Rosenwald players, David Lee Jones Sr., said they were completely in the dark.
“It was hard for even the students to wrap their minds around that when we came back the next day telling them about what was going on,” Jones said. “Because here in Florida, here in the state of Florida, we had no idea what was going on.”
The Bulldogs ended up playing their game as scheduled, but after it was over, Miler said the all-black team from Panama City, Florida, played witness to history
“We played that night, and we walked across the street somewhere to eat, and on the way back, gunfire erupted,” Miller said. “I said David you all get down on the floor, get down, get down, and they was trying to peep and see I said get down. And so I took off, and when we got across the bridge out of Selma I said thank God, we crossed the bridge.”
The Rosenwald basketball team made it safely back to the Panhandle that March, and 56 years later, two of the players in the back of the bus were able to remind their coach what he meant to their lives.
“He’s just a nice gentleman,” Jones said. “And we would like to do something for him today to let him know that we’re thinking about him.”
Coach Miller said that today was a special moment with his players and that he’ll cherish their gift for the rest of his life.