Russell Hamm, Alton McCollough and the Golden Age of Darby Township Sports

Sports was a primary means of socialization for many Black boys coming of age in urban and suburban environments in the 1970s. I was blessed and privileged to live in Darby Township and be educated in the Southeast Delco School District. My parents moved from West Philly and enrolled me in Darby Township Elementary School for the 1971-1972 school year. Perfect timing… In the 2nd grade, I left Heston Elementary in West Philadelphia and was dropped into Darby Township, a nurturing, small-knit sports crazed small town of about 3,000 abutting the southwest border of Philadelphia.

It was largely through sports that young Black boys in Darby Township became familiar with and adapted themselves to the interpersonal relationships of their social world in Delaware County. Plainly stated, most of the time, we beat the shit down the legs of our county opponents, this was especially the case on the hardwood. Through athletic competition, Darby Township boys developed ideas about themselves and about those in the surrounding areas with whom they interacted. We understood that they had better facilities and more resources, we knew we had better players.

Often… Much better players…

Guys like the recently deceased Russell Hamm and Alton McCollough made guys like Geoff Arnold, David Crawford, Robert Carter, Carl Robinson and Roger Johnson believe that they could play against and beat best teams in Delaware County and beyond. Seriously… In the the mid to late 1970’s, Darby Township High School punched way above it’s weight class on Delaware County’s courts and fields.

So what… we were the last school in the region to play with metal fan shaped backboards and slightly bent rims… That was our shit… check rock…

Very rarely… However, did the opponents have better players… Almost never…

A year before we moved to Darby Township, my brother from another mother was the only athlete in Darby Township’s illustrious history to be named 1st-team All-Delco in both football and basketball. However, at that time, I didn’t have a clue about Chris Arnold… I didn’t know Darby Township existed… I hadn’t begun to pay attention to sports…

While Chris was crushing ’em, I was five years old in 1st grade at Heston Elementary in West Philly, rushing home to see Ultra Man and play with spinning tops. When I arrived in Darby Township a year later, Chris was gone, he was pursuing a CIAA Hall of Fame Football Career at Virginia State University.

Soon as I met my new next door neighbor Dean Jackson, sports became the center of my child hood existence. His older brother Jerome “Coke” Jackson was obsessed with basketball and his brother Darryl played football Darby Township. His father, Mr. Jack was a knowledgeable NFL and NBA fan. Dean and I constantly played or watched sports.

By the time I was in the 4th grade, I was fully embraced by the Darby Township village. By then, my brotherhood had expanded to include Dean and Geoff Arnold… My mother accepted him and his mother and father accepted me. That year, Chris was selected in the 10th round of the NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. Chris played Chris played two years in the WFL from 1974 to 1975 with some very good Birmingham teams. His rookie year, his Birmingham Americans defeated the Florida Blazers 22-21 in what was the World Football League’s first and last championship game before 32,376 fans at Legion Field.

For boys in Darby Township… Pro football was a reality… why not? Chris made it.

Back at the High School in fall of 1972, Russell Hamm was an electrifying dual threat Quarterback for the Eagles. During an era when there was a widespread belief that Blacks were incapable of playing the position, Russell was the very best QB in Delaware County.

Russell Hamm, Darby Township, All-Delco QB

Unfortuantely, I missed my chance to watch him play. I was eight years old and otherwise occupied… I heard of “Gap”… Russell’s nickname… The older guys in the neighborhood said “Gap is a bad boy.” I heard ‘em, but truth being told, I was with Dean and we way more concerned about jumping the creek, popping wheelies from pole to pole, playing “ruff and tumble” and “Utah” than watching high school football… It just hadn’t clicked for us yet. At least not at the high school level.

At that point, my football fandom was limited to religiously watching Monday night football for the halftime highlights, narrated by Howard Cosell. Week after week, O.J. would run over, through and around NFL defenders in rain, sleet and snow. I missed Gap’s exploits… ABC and Cosell made sure I saw O.J.’s. I would soon begin to pay closer attention.

When Darby Township boys moved from DTE to Studevan Middle school for the 5th grade there was, generally speaking, a shift from a “play stage” to a “game stage.” As we grew older, the boys shifted from noncompetitive games to athletic contests (such as footraces and basketball games). In the stage of competitive games, the boys encountered stricter rules and regulations. We learned how to play under the guidance and direction of caring and concerned adults. A middle school teacher, Mr. Kirkland, formed an ultra competitive Studevan intramural league… We played in the cafeteria on portable 9 foot baskets with fan backboards…

We kept stats… Accurate stats… I’m sure that helped us with basic math…

The Darby Township summer league “pee wee” Division also gave us an opportunity play and witness real structured basketball games. The Colts football club developed young football talent. By the time you hit Studevan Middle School, sports started getting real in Darby Township.

It’s 1975, I’m in the 5th grade and Darby Township HS wins it’s 2nd State Basketball Championship in seven years. This gets my full attention…. wait a minute… the whole town is getting on buses to go to basketball games… the girls are paying extra attention to the players… the newspapers are covering the games… Summer League is POPPIN’!

Fuck it… I’m a basketball player… I’m in… I’m gonna play at Darby Township High School too, I’m gonna make All-Delco and I’m gonna win a State Championship… Watch…

That was the plan… 5th grade… Why not?

Geoff’s other brother Pete Arnold, Mike Terrell and Richard McCollough led the Eagles as they knocked off Elk Lake, Forest City, Northwest Area and Rockwood in the state playoffs to capture the Class A title.

That’s what we did in Darby Township.

It’s 1977… I’m in the 7th grade and my last year at Studevan Middle. That year Darby Township HS coudn’t be beaten on the basketball court… led by a magnificently skilled junior All-Delco center, Alton McCollough, the Eagles ran the table… won every regular season game… Just stompin’ folk left and right…

Alton McCollough, (center) playing at Temple University

I’m 12 years old… Mike Gale, Bill Johnson, Dan Terrell and Fred Lee started alongside McCollough as undefeated Darby Township entered a playoff matchup matchup with Elk Lake. This Single ‘A’ playoff game drew a record crowd of 5,100 fans to the Scranton CYC. In an incredibly physical contest, Elk Lake benefited immensely from many trips from the foul line. Darby Township’s imposing frontline (Alton McCoullough 6’9″, Billy Johnson 6’7″ and Mike Gale 6’6″) was effectively neutralized by the referees as Stevenson converted an incredible 26 of his 30 attempts at the free throw line in an Elk Lake win. Maaaaan… They got robbed… I couldn’t wait to get to high school.

The next year, I’m in the building… Darby Township High School… Finally… Here we go…

Soon as I get there, the varsity football team runs the table… undefeated… Champs…

Now I’m watching up close… Keep in mind, Darby Township HS only had about 400 students and 200 boys… We all knew each other and we all knew each other’s families. I think that helped make the competition fierce. If you were the best in Darby Township that truly meant something, you were one of the better players in Delaware County.

In 1977, Walter Payton ran for an NFL leading 1,852 yards that year. But from the perspective of a 12 year old Darby Township boy, Payton would have been a top 3 running back at Darby Township High School. We had Cardell Baskerville and Vincent Clark. The way I saw it, Payton would have to split time in the Eagle backfield. Baskerville was named the best high school football player in Delaware County. He was a physically imposing power runner with exceptional straight-line speed. Every time he touched the rock, there was a sense that he could take it to the house. I’m an 8th grader, watching him make one cut and go downhill, running through tackles and running over defensive backs. I don’t think I ever saw a defender successfully bring him down with an arm tackle. No shot… absolutely no shot… You had to physically confront Baskerville and very few high schoolers were up to that task.

Baskerville, Vincent Clark, Gary Gadsen and William McCollough were so good, that the 8th and 9th grade boys believed they were HIGH MAJOR high school stars. Baskerville and Clark were good enough to play at Penn State or Oklahoma.

We didn’t see anyone better than the guys from ’round the way… Honestly, it wasn’t really close.

We couldn’t wait for our turn to dominate, be named All-Delco and win state championships… As Darby Township boys, it was our birthright. We had no idea that we were the poor, little Black school…

Fuck U talkin’ bout… We beat the shit down the legs of everybody… across the board.

As the days became shorter and fall turned into winter, basketballs started bouncing in the gym. For the 1977-78 season, adjustments had to be made. Mike Gale and Billy Johnson were playing in college. The starting backcourt, Danny Terrell and Fred Lee, transferred out of Darby Township… they weren’t really from 2-5 anyway…

Only Alton remained from the previous team that trashed Delaware County going undefeated in the regular season… Alton was more than enough. His brother William “Blub” McCollough and Lee Taliaferro would replace the carpetbagging Terrell and Lee in the backcourt. Two sophomore forwards, Kevin Gale and Deric Loury and a senior wing, Mark Carter, would emerge to play key roles in the front court. Alton led the Eagles team on a steady march through the state playoffs, defeating Forest City, St. Clair and Northwest Area before falling to Father Geibel in the State Championship game.

Tough loss, but we figured we’d be back again real soon…

More importantly, college coaches were beginning to make their way 801 West Ashland Avenue… I’m 13 and I see Alton commit to Temple University. Alton introduces a generation of Darby Township boys to Big 5 basketball. He went on to have a strong career at Temple, scoring over 1,000 points and pulling down 673 rebounds.

It’s hard to convey what Alton’s accomplishments meant to the boys coming behind him at Darby Township High School.

Alton… Slim… from down the Center… from the projects… He made it…

His Owl teammates became regular fixtures down the Center Court next to the projects. Neal Robinson and Kevin Broadnax, Temple Owls… Down the Center… Playing with and against Darby Township boys… All the time.

College and college sports became a very real pathway for Darby Township boys like me…

Alton McCollough indelibly stamped that into the minds of young middle and junior high school boys from Darby Township. For that, we are eternally grateful.

Soon, flowers began to bloom in Conway Park and the track and field season got underway. It should be noted that we did not have neither a track nor a field at Darby Township High School. Our track athletes ran the halls of the school, the community streets and occasionally borrowed the track facilities of neighboring schools to hone their craft.

It’s not that Darby Township High School had poor track and field facilities… We had NO track and field facilities.

Despite this substantial obstacle, Darby Township found itself competing in the 1978 State Class AA Track Championship meet.
No track…
No field…
No long jump pit…
No nothing…
Nonetheless, Darby Township expected to win…

How? Why?
Make it make sense… How was Darby Township, a school with neither track nor field, in position to win a state track and field championship?

Darby Township won because our very best like athletes like Chris Arnold, Russell Hamm, Cardell Baskerville and Alton McCollough could compete nationally. That being the case, we were definitely competitive in all Delaware County, district and state matchups.

In track and field, Darby Township was the the best because we had Ward Crump and the other schools didn’t. They had the nice weight room facilities and modern rubber tracks, but Township had Crump. The Eagle’s finest sprinter Ward Crump and running back Vincent Clark would be featured in Sports Illustrated a couple months apart from one another. About Crump, they wrote “As a senior, in 1978 Crump became the first athlete to win four gold medals at the state Class AA track meet. He won the 100-yard dash in 9.7, the 220 in 21.8 and anchored the winning 400-meter and mile relay teams.”

I repeat… Darby Township had no track and no field…

What Darby Township had was a bunch of really fast dudes and a really respected coach guiding the way. Speaking to reporters about Crump, a year earlier, in May 1977, Darby Township Track and Field Coach Alonzo Covert said, ”The beautiful thing about Ward is that he takes it all in stride… Everybody else is going bananas and other kids may have a tendency to get over-inflated, but not Ward. And he never once complained about what we asked him to do.”

As a junior, Crump won the District 100-yard dash (10.01), with teammate Ed “Sputnik” Bishop second, then, took the 220-yard dash (23.05), with Bishop fourth.

Ok… I’m 12 and my neighbors are running 10 flat 100s…

Covert had debated putting Crump in the 440, but decided to let him run with the two relay teams (880 and mile) – and he helped both to victory. “In the district meet, you go with your best and give it your best shot.”

Covert said, ”My assistant and the people I know told me we had a shot (for the district title) but not too many others around the district figured we could do it.”

Why would they? Darby Township had no track and no field, it was the poor little Black school.

Media reports noted that Darby Township suffered an early setback when – Sylvester Blandford, one of the favorites in the 330-yard intermediate hurdles, was disqualified for running out of his lane. But Blandford, a standout junior, came back to take second place in the 120-yard high hurdles and helped both the 880 and mile relay teams to victory. Leon Stiles, who qualified in both the 440 and 880, was in the unseeded heat of the 440.

“I talked it over and everybody agreed we should put him in the half-mile,” Covert said. “So, I said fine, he’ll run the quarter. He drew the first lane, ran a 50.8 by himself and that was good enough to win it.” Stiles later came back to help DT’s mile relay” team get home a winner. Vincent Clark, a sophomore, also ran with both winning relay teams.

As you can see, my ol’ heads set the bar incredibly high.

The 1970s was the golden age of Darby Township sports. Chris Arnold jumped out and dominated in football, basketball and track. Russell Hamm emerged as an All-Delco dual threat QB about 40 years before his time. Cardell Baskerville was one of greatest running backs of his era. Alton McCollough dominated Delaware County basketball for two seasons. Ward Crump literally won a state track and field championship by himself.

Chris Arnold, Birmingham Americans (WFL)

All of them are now gone… My neighborhood heroes are no longer with us…

Their legacy lives on. They showed us Darby Township boys are good as and probably better than anyone else. They were our athletic shining princes exemplifying the Golden Era of Darby Township sports.


7 responses

  1. This is a wonderful read.
    I lived in Darby. Township then.
    Can say I knew some of the poeple mentioned.
    There was alot of beautiful poeple in township & lots of talent too.
    I loved my township friends.
    Still do. God blessed me. Thank you for reminding me.🙏🍪❤

  2. What a wonderful article! Thank you.

    I’m 70 years old and grew up in Darby Township. I was a Darby Township Cheerleader and cheered for the Eagles! Growing up in this small community was the best! It shaped my life. It was a village.

  3. This was such a spot on tribute. It literally brought me to tears. Being a by stander of everything written above brought my childhood to life. Honesty when you were listening to Mr. Jack talk about sports. I was there with my best friend Dawn playing spades. Even remembering Chris as my substitute teacher when I was in eighth grade. Honestly we really didn’t know what we had in our community. What a blessing, what a blessing.

  4. “As a senior, in 1978 Crump became the first athlete to win four gold medals at the state Class AA track meet. He won the 100-yard dash in 9.7, the 220 in 21.8 and anchored the winning 400-meter and mile relay teams.”

    This is entirely plagiarized from SI “Faces in the Crowd” July 31 1979

    You’re like 60 years old and still stealing shit, lol.

    • Thx for the heads up… Thx for reading… This was hastily cobbled together from some of my old stuff to give the community and the families something positive to lean on in troubling times… Keep up the good work… I can’t afford an editor… I LOVE ur username…

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