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Book Report: Twelve Mighty Orphans

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Thursday, July 29, 2010


In his 2007 book, Twelve Might Orphans, author Jim Dent tells the true story of the Masonic Orphanage football teams in Fort Worth, Texas during the 1920īs, 30īs and 40īs. The small school, and its even smaller players, became an inspiration to people all across the country during the time of the Great Depression.

Every successful team needs a winning coach, and for the Masonic Home orphans, that man was Harvey Nual "Rusty" Russell, who became a teacher and football coach at the school in 1927. Prior to his arrival at the orphanage, Russell was an up and coming high school football coach at Temple High School in Temple, Texas. Everyone thought he was crazy to take a job at an orphanage, but he felt it was the right thing to do at the time. Years later, Russell would also become the school's principal.


Prior to 1927, the Masonic football teams had only played as club teams, playing mostly pickup games in the area. Their equipment was virtually non-existent and they did not even own a football when Russell arrived. The team practiced with baking soda cans for footballs that were donated by Mrs. Russell. Even so, once Coach Russell took over the team, he decided that they should compete in the Class B Division of the Texas Interscholastic League. In their first game against Mineral Wells, Russell made a deal with the opposing coach that if the Masons won the game, they would get to keep one of the footballs. The Masonic players were so excited about the prospect of having their own football that they went out and won the game 34-14. That season, the team posted an unbelievable 8-2 record.


At the end of the season, they were asked to play an exhibition game against Sherman High School, which was a Class A school who wanted a tune-up game before the start of the Texas state high school playoffs. Sherman won the game 97-13, but the Masonic team was paid $250 to make the trip and play the game. That money became the foundation of the school's athletic budget, something it had never had before.

Officially, the team was known as the Fort Worth Masonic Home Masons, but Harry Holloman "Pop" Boone, a sportswriter for the Fort Worth Press, had nicknamed the team the Mighty Mites and the name stuck.


In 1932, the school moved up to the much tougher Division 7A. Some schools in the division had as many as 2,000 students while the Masonic Home had less than 150. They went undefeated in the regular season that year. In the first round of the playoffs the Mighty Mites defeated Woodrow Wilson High School from Dallas 40-7. Woodrow Wilson featured a quarterback named Davey O'Brien, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1938 while playing college football at TCU.

The Mighty Mites advanced all the way to the state championship game in 1932 and played Corsicana High School. The stadium in Corsicana, where the championship game was held, seated about 6,000 spectators. Temporary bleachers were set up that expanded the seating capacity to 12,000, but a crowd of around 18,000 drunken and rowdy fans packed the stadium. It was standing room only on the sidelines for many fans and it was so crowded that people were actually standing 10 yards onto the field while the game was going on.


Coach Russell feared for the safety of his team and tried to get the game postponed, but officials refused. Even after a section of the stands collapsed, injuring many people and sending one man to the hospital, the game was allowed to continue.

The Mighty Mites fielded only 12 players while Corsicana dressed 44. Many of the Masonic players became sick the night before the game, suffering from vomiting and diarrhea and were still sick the next day prior to the game. Some said that the team had been intentionally poisoned at a local steakhouse, but that was never proven.

The game ended in a scoreless tie, but, at the time, there was a tie-breaking rule that counted the number of times a team advanced inside its opponent's 20-yard line (known as penetrations). Corsicana had a 4-1 advantage and was therefore declared the winner. Many years later, the Texas Interscholastic League, which is now known as the University Interscholastic League, changed its interpretation of the 1932 state title game. Today the game is consider a tie, meaning that the Masonic Home and Corsicana were co-State Champions that year.


After losing the opening game of the 1934 season, a duck found its way onto the team's practice field and refused to leave. After taking the duck with them to the next game (and winning) he became the team's good luck charm and was nicknamed Mighty Duck. He sat on the bench for each game the rest of the season and the team won, or tied, as long as he was there. That was until they lost to Amarillo 3-0 in the state semi-final game. Upon returning to the Home, the duck became dinner.

The Mighty Mites also advanced to the state semi-final game in 1938, but once again came up short in the end, losing to Lubbock 13-6.

Life at the orphanage was not an easy one. There were daily fights and perhaps this was why the football team excelled on the field. There were a lot of pent up frustrations that were released on the football field, much to the dismay of the opposing teams. Most of the time, the Mighty Mites were outweighed by their opponents, but an imaginative passing game devised by Coach Russell, which was way ahead of its time in the 1920īs and 30īs, helped to give the orphans an advantage. The predominantly passing style of football was the forerunner of the spread offense of today. While most high school teams at the time had about a dozen plays in their playbooks, Coach Russell's playbook had over 700.


Year in and year out, the Mighty Mites dressed only 12 players. It might have been because that was all that would fit into the back of Old Blue, the run down pickup truck owned by the Home that coach Russell used to transport the team to all their games. The underdog team, wearing their familiar faded, hand me down uniforms, developed quite a following across the country during the Great Depression and stories of their exploits were carried nationally by the Associated Press. Coach Russell received telegrams on a daily basis from well wishers all over the country.

Fans in the Fort Worth area flocked to Friday night football games at the 5,000 seat La Grave Field where the Mighty Mites played their home games. But demand was so great to see the team play that they eventually outgrew their own stadium. In 1940, the city built a brand new stadium, Farrington Field, in downtown Fort Worth. It could seat 15,000 fans and became known as "The House the Orphans Built."

The team won the first eight games of the 1940 season, all by shutouts. Again, the team advanced to the state semi-finals but lost to Amarillo 14-7. Amarillo won the state title the following week.

For many years, some of the bigger high schools in Texas had been trying to hire Coach Russell away from the Masonic Home, but he always turned them down. However, in 1942 the coach at Highland Park in Dallas was called to active duty in the military midway through the season. Russell agreed to take over the Highland Park team for the remainder of the season, but he also coached to Mighty Mites as well since most of the two school's games fell on different days.

The Masonic Home dropped football after the 1942 season because there were not enough boys to field a team. The school did resume a football program after World War II, but it competed at the lower Class B Division and never regained the kind of notoriety that it had before.

Rusty Russell coached the Mighty Mites from 1927-1942 and had a record of 127-30-12 at the school. He coached at Highland Park from 1942-1944 and had a couple of players on his team who would go on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Doak Walker and Bobby Layne. Russell went on to be the offensive coordinator at Southern Methodist University. Walker also played at SMU and won the Heisman Trophy in 1948. He credited Coach Russell as the reason for his success. Walker even named his first son after his former coach, Russell Doak Walker.

Russell went on to be the head coach at SMU from 1950-1952. His own son, Rusty Russell, Jr. played quarterback for the team. Coach Russell was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.

A number of students from the Masonic Home football team went on to have great success in life after leaving the school. Dewitt Coulter (Class of 1943) went on to play college football at West Point. He played for legendary Army coach "Red" Blaik and was on the same team as two future Heisman Trophy winners, Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard. Coulter also went on to play in the NFL for the New York Giants as well as the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He was inducted into the Texas High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1970.

Miller Moseley (Class of 1938 Valedictorian) attended Texas Christian University and became a mathematician. He went on to work with Albert Einstein and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, which created the worldī' first atomic bomb.

Hardy Brown (Class of 1940) played college football at the University of Tulsa. He went on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All American Football Conference, a rival to the NFL, in 1948 and the AAFC Chicago Hornets in 1949. He also played in the NFL for the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers. He played in San Francisco for seven seasons and roomed with quarterback Y.A. Tittle. He also played briefly in the CFL for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and finished his playing career with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in 1960.

The Masonic Home closed its doors in 2005. Today, only a few artifacts remain of the place that helped shape the lives of so many Texas orphans for 106 years beginning in 1899. Some of those artifacts can be found in an exhibit at the Fort Worth Stockyard Museum.

Jim Dent is also the author of The Junction Boys, which is the story of legendary college football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant during his first summer of training camp as the head coach at Texas A&M.


Hardy Brown - Number 5 Most Feared Tackler in the NFL

(NFL Films) Profile of Hardy Brown

Fort Worth Stockyard Museum Mighty Mite Exhibit

Masonic Children & Family Services of Texas Website



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