2016 INDUCTEE - JOE PORTER
By David Elwell
Daily Sports Writer
The black hoodie that Joe Porter proudly wears honors two of his favorite teams.
On the front, it's the Decatur Rough Riders football team. On the back, it's the Decatur Nationals baseball team. Porter was a running back for the Rough Riders and an infielder for the Nationals. "We grew up playing ball all the time," Porter said. "After high school, we just kept playing as long as we could."If he had a hoodie for every football, basketball, baseball and softball team he played for, Porter could fill a closet."Don't forget about my three years in the 11th Airborne," Porter said. "That was the roughest physical training I ever went through. "They would make us jump out of a perfectly good airplane going 120 mph at 1,500 feet. Then we would have to walk back 20 miles to the post while carrying all our equipment. That wasn't easy."
Porter joined the Army after graduating from Decatur Negro High in 1953 where he starred in football and basketball for Coach "Bruiser" McKinney. The Decatur Negro High Tigers had great athletes and great rivals like Councill High in Huntsville and Trenholm High in Tuscumbia
"Before Coach McKinney came, we got hand-me-down equipment from Riverside High School," Porter said. "By the time it got to us, it wasn't much. Coach McKinney changed that."
McKinney came from Alabama A&M where the Bulldogs' football team ran from the Single-Wing. The blocking scheme for that formation changed Porter from a running back to a 114-pound blocking back. It was all about defense in basketball. Teammate Madison Romine dominated inside. He eventually played at Alabama A&M. "He was like our Michael Jordan," Porter said. "When the ball hit the backboard, we knew he would get the rebound. When we were on defense, the four of us would just starting running to the other end. "McKinney would not substitute unless he thought you weren't doing your job. If your man got six points, he would take you out. The other players on the bench kept up with it and would let him know when somebody had scored six. They knew that was their chance to get in the game."
After he left the Army, Porter returned to Decatur. He eventually learned welding at Calhoun Community College and later became a welding instructor there. Playing baseball and softball along with coaching football kept him on the field. In 1959, Porter suddenly found himself strapping on the gear for some more football. Some rival football players from Councill had called Decatur looking for an opponent for a charity football game to be played on Thanksgiving Day. The Elks Lodge in Huntsville was furnishing a car to be given away as an incentive to lure a large crowd. "They called us on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving," Porter said. "That's two days before the game. Of course, we weren't going to pass up a chance to play Councill again." Coach Lorenzo Jackson from Lakeside High let the team borrow the school's uniforms. One practice was held on Wednesday. Kenneth Reedus, who had spent time in Michigan and had seen some Canadian Football League games, suggested the name "Rough Riders" for the new team. The CFL is home to the Saskatchewan Roughriders "We went over there and beat them pretty good," Porter said. "They didn't score a point. We all thought it was a one-time deal, and that was it for our football team." But that next summer the Decatur Nationals were playing baseball in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Most of the players on the Nationals had played in the football game. Somebody told the Tullahoma players about it. "They said there was a semi-pro team in Columbia always looking for games," Porter said. "We had so much fun playing football together that we got in touch with the team in Columbia. Next thing you know, we're getting ready for a football season."The Rough Riders were unscored on for the first three seasons. The season opening home game played on Labor Day, became a community happening. Home games were played at what is now Leon Sheffield Elementary. The Rough Riders often had doubleheader weekends. "We would play a home game on Saturday night and play a road game on Sunday afternoon," Porter said. As the wins piled up, word spread about the Decatur Rough Riders. In 1965, a team from Butler in south Alabama came to Decatur."We didn't know anything about them," Porter said. "They came into town on two Trailways buses. Leading the buses was a white 1965 Cadillac. Turns out the team had players from Ole Miss and Southern Miss. They were up 18-6 at halftime. We won 28-24."
The Rough Riders played their last game in 1966 and finished with a 66-2 record. Both losses were to Tennessee State coached by the legendary "Big John" Merritt. Porter, Reedus and Louis Coger were the only original team members still playing at the end. "We were getting older and some of the guys were getting better jobs and didn't have time to play," Porter said. "And some people got complacent and didn't want to play anymore." The Rough Riders were considered a semi-pro team. The definition of a semi-professional athlete is "one for whom sports is not a full-time occupation. They are not amateurs because they receive payment from their team, but at a much lower rate than a full-time professional athlete." "I played for almost seven seasons and got a total of $3," Porter said. "The only reason we got any money was because we threatened not to play one game if we didn't get paid. You know, it didn't really matter. We didn't play for the money." Today, the Rough Riders gather for reunions at Labor Day and Christmas. Their numbers are shrinking. Just fourteen team members are still alive. Porter is proud to share plans for a small park in Northeast Decatur that will be called Rough Rider Park. A plaque will explain what the football team was all about. "We played because we loved playing ball," Porter said. "That's what it was all about."