The wind was light but the chill in the evening air was noticeable. By game time the temperature had fallen from a high of 42 degrees during the day to 35 degrees prior to the kickoff of the football game between the Sidney Yellow Jackets and the Greenville Green Wave.
November 4, 1955 was the last home game and the eighth of the nine games played by both teams during the season. It was Parents Night. For the 48 Sidney football team members and the managers and cheerleaders, it was a pre-game event at the 36 year old Julia Lamb Stadium that had become a tradition prior to the final home game.
The stadium was named in honor of a widowed woman who donated the land to the school district for the purpose of having a place for youth to forever have playground activities. The field was first used for Sidney High School football games in 1919. The stadium was constructed years later and dedicated in 1936. It was funded and constructed as a Works Progress Administration project and sponsored by the Football Mothers Club.
The stadium was unique. It was situated at the bottom of a slight hill sandwiched between the three story dark brick Sidney High School towering above the spacious home stands on the west side and the steep banks above the Miami River just feet behind the visitors green painted wooden bleachers and tennis courts. A black cinder running track surrounded
the field. State Route 47 nipped the southern edge of the enclosure.
The school would place canvas coverings over the fence that separated the stadium from the sidewalk each fall. This would limit persons from watching the game for free. The football team drew large crowds. It was the thing to do on a Friday night in the fall in Sidney, Ohio. The industrial town of around 14,000 loved its high school football.
With one win and six losses, Sidney was not having a great season. Head coach Wayne Gibson, who would depart for Miami University the following spring, had a solid team but faced a very tough schedule. Winter weather was soon to set in and the young gridiron warriors in black, orange and white were soon to move on to the next sports season.
The Sidney football team had several sets of brothers during the 1955 season. The eldest of the Cable, Wildermuth, and Roberts boys were all key players. The three Spanglers, John, Phil and Jim, would begin a family legacy of presence on the team that became legendary.
Jim, a senior, was a co-captain along with big Bob Zimpher. “Hod” as he was affectionately called, was a strapping 6-foot-3, 210-pound lineman that Ohio State University’s young head coach, Woody Hayes, prized as a recruit. Hayes would later speak at the Sidney Football Banquet to advance his attempts to recruit Zimpher. The Sidney star would sign with Bowling Green and go into the education field where he eventually became a school superintendent in northwest Ohio.
My father, Nelson Earl Roberts, was a senior on the team. A stout and tough 5-9, 170-pound offensive and defensive end, he was a three year starter. He had coal black hair neatly trimmed in a crew cut style. His jaw line and nose were thick. So were his legs, shoulders, chest and arms. His maternal grandfather wall full-blooded Indian. He was built tough and he played that way. “Comrade Nel, mean as hell,” was a yell from the student section when his name was called after a tackle. He began his sophomore year as a quarterback but his skills were far more suited to an end. His interest in so many sports helped him become a much sought after official in baseball, softball and basketball in his post-high school years. He later got deeply involved in wrestling.
Younger brother, Richard Ralph Roberts was not a skilled athlete. He was a grinder. The red-headed young man was two years in age behind older brother. He was a center on offense and played tackle on defense. He was also a very good straight-on kicker. He would later play semi-pro football after a stint in the military. He also became a boxer, taking second at heavyweight in the Ohio Gold Gloves Tournament.
Although younger, “Dick” as he was known, was already bigger than Nelson and he would remain that way all his years. His demeanor was not as serious as Nelson’s. He was fun-loving and highly social. The Roberts family lived on the west side of Sidney. A World War II housing development with several units all joined in narrow bands of block buildings was the place of their residence. It had the appearance of a military compound. It was far from upscale. Some might have considered it on the “wrong side of the tracks.”
Their father, Tom Roberts, worked for General Highway Express as an over-the-road truck driver. He commuted back and forth between Sidney and Syracuse, New York. He was gone much of the time during the work week. His sons were a close resemblance to him in appearance and spirit. Tom was a tough man.
Raised on the streets of Cincinnati, he had been a mechanic for bootleggers and served in the Army in World War II during the taking of Saipan. He would spend an entire work career as a highly regarded driver for numerous trucking companies.
The mother, Mae Roberts, worked in a garment factory in Piqua, Ohio. She was very involved in the Football Mothers Club serving as an officer during the 1955 season. She was stout of build as well with dark brown hair. She maintained an impeccably clean home with fresh fruit in a glass bowl always available to her children.
A grandmother, Tom’s mom, lived with the family. A younger sister, Phyliss, was the third child of Tom and Mae Roberts. All six lived in the tiny quarters in the place called “Buckeye Terrace.”
Nelson and Dick shared the same bedroom. Each was very willing to prank the other. The brothers were close as children and they remained close throughout life. The players dressed in the concrete walled locker room just off the cinder track to the north side of the stadium. It was a smallish area but sufficient to adequately prepare for a game. The Roberts boys arrived together as usual. Nelson had the responsibility to transport little brother. A pre-game meal furnished by the Football Moms was held at the newly built Whittier Elementary School located on the north side of the town, just over a mile from Julia Lamb Stadium. Sidney High School had no cafeteria.
Game time was an hour away. It was already 7 p.m. and Nelson Roberts put on a football uniform for the last time. His season had gone well. He would earn All-MVL and All-District Honors from the Dayton Daily News. Options to go to college were available. He was a working man and he was in love. These would keep him firmly entrenched in Sidney until his last day of life. He worked as a taxi cab driver while in high school. His career work would be in two factories.
After graduating, he went to work less than 500 yards away from the high school at a grain auger business called Hawthorne-Seving. He would work six years there until a better opportunity presented itself in Troy, Ohio at the welding company, Hobart Brothers. He worked there for 28 years while raising four children.
Geraldine Faye Heaton was his gal. They met as freshmen and remained a couple throughout high school and were married in October of the same year they graduated in 1956. Geri never missed a game or event of Nelson’s. Many Friday nights the Heaton family car was filled with giddy high school girls heading to a football game with her father at the wheel.
Dick Roberts would move away after graduating to live just across from Cincinnati in Northern Kentucky throughout his adult life. Like his father, he was called to be a truck driver. He raised six children and showed that same faithfulness to the love of his life that his brother showed.
The pre-game festivities were about to start. Nelson and Dick Roberts, numbers 40 and 41, respectively, stood in line on the home side with the other team members along the sideline. They were put in numerical order with the managers next followed by the energized cheerleaders.
The parents gathered in the north end zone. Tom Roberts was a devoted family man. He raised his sons to be tough. He taught them the importance of hard work. His travels to and from the New York destination supported the family. His frequent absence was accepted. It was a lifestyle in which they functioned just fine. Dad left early Wednesday morning prior to his children awakening for school. He was driving to Syracuse by daybreak with plans on getting home for the Parents Night. He would have to drive hard and be spared any mechanical problems or dock issues in order to make it
back in time.
Nelson and Dick stood there in full uniform in the late fall chill along with their teammates looking for their mom and dad. They lined up on the sideline nearest the home side bleachers. The PA announcer began his progression of citing the names of the players and their parents. He began, “Pete Deal, number 10. Son of Mr. Harold Deal.”
The parents and players would meet in the middle of the field at the 50 yard line with the player escorting his mother back to the sideline along with the father. “Brothers John, Phil and Jim Spangler, numbers 11, 30 and 42. Sons of Mr. and Mrs. Jim Spangler,” were called out next.
The Roberts brothers were well down the line. They stepped a few feet toward the 50 yard line as each player before them was announced. Peering across the field to where the parents stood they finally caught sight of their mother. Her hair was neatly styled. Her dress was visible extending just below her overcoat. She was recognizable to the Roberts brothers; however there appeared a mysterious man standing beside her. They whispered to each other, “Who is the guy next to
Their hearts sank. “Pop” as they loved to call their father, was not with their mother. He must have not made it back in time from Syracuse. There was a bit of anxiousness followed by a bit of bitterness. The finely dressed man beside Mae Roberts was dignified and sharp looking. Who was it?
The felt hat and navy blue trench coat with crisp looking neatly pressed trousers was no giveaway as to the identity of the man standing shoulder to shoulder with their mother.
“Dick Denman, number 39. Son of Mr. and Mrs. Emerson Denman,” was called.
“Nelson and Dick Roberts, sons of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Roberts,” was then barked over the loud speaker. The brothers walked forward toward their mother and the well-suited gentleman with her. As they came closer, the identity of
the man surprised even them.
“Pop”, aka Tom Roberts, had arrived home earlier in the day. He went directly to the men’s clothing section at the local department store downtown. It was just two blocks from the stadium. He purchased a suit, coat, shirt, and tie to go with the new trench coat. He was the sharpest dressed man for Parents Night at Julia Lamb Stadium on the evening of November 4, 1955.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t win the game but did end with a victory the following Friday at Fairborn.
The Roberts family spoke of this story for many, many years. It was always shared with pride and love. We never bored hearing this story. It is now passed along to the Sidney community in the hope that it rekindles some special memories for other Yellow Jacket families.
Dan Roberts is a 1977 Sidney High School graduate and a retired teacher, coach, and administrator, most recently the Superintendent of the Miami Trace district in Central Ohio. Just recently, Dan and his wife met former SHS head coach Wayne Gibson who enjoys good health at age 93 in Oxford, Ohio. This story was edited and coordinated by Sidney Daily News contributor Dave Ross.