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Book Report: Twelve Mighty Orphans
posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Thursday, July 29, 2010
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Profile of Hardy Brown
Fort Worth Stockyard Museum Mighty Mite Exhibit
Masonic Children & Family
Services of Texas Website
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