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Hero Unsung
The story behind the Fighting Hawk

by Kevin Hamilton
When the 2011 Iowa Park Hawk football team hits the field each Friday, if you look closely, you will notice a Fighting Hawk decal emblazoned on each of their helmets, against the backdrop of the outlined silhouette of Texas.

In the past two years, the same Fighting Hawk has also been fashioned on the front tiles in the atrium of Iowa Park High School, and most recently in black and white on the wall as you walk into the 41-year-old structure.

Have you ever wondered where that FightingHawk came from?

It first appeared in the season of 1969 through all 15 games when Iowa Park went undefeated and captured the Texas Class 2A state title with a convincing 31-14 win over Klein, a suburb of Houston.

In the years before that, Iowa Park’s Mean Green had a skull and crossbones on one side of their helmets, and a lightning rod on the other. After coaching changes in the mid-70s and early 80s, the Fighting Hawk was shelved for more modern artwork such as the “hawk wings”, similar to what you see on the helmets of the Philadelphia Eagles. Two seasons ago ... and the final one for Coach Chris Ellis ... the Fighting Hawk decal returned. Current coach Scott Ponder has retained that look to this day.

What brought the Fighting Hawk to life was, in fact, one of the players, one who to this day eptitomizes the tradition of an Iowa Park athlete ... one who was modest in his talents and disposition, loved a good laugh, worked hard to please his coaches, teammates and town, played each Friday night to the best of his abilities, and cherished the love of family and friends.

His name was Weldon Bradberry. He brought the Fighting Hawk to Iowa Park ... and this is his story.

Weldon Bradberry moved to Iowa Park in 1960 with his parents, S.J. “Pete” and Bettie, plus brother Jimmy and two sisters, Shirley and Evelyn. The journey to their home in the Wichita Valley Farms ... off of what is now Horseshoe Bend Road ... was driven by Pete’s job as an industrial engine mechanic, his expertise highly sought in the oil patch, taking the family to places from Cortez, Colorado, to Anson and Vernon before settling near Iowa Park.

The one-story home and barn on several acres was a perfect setting for Bettie to raise the kids, and a booming oil business in the area kept Pete a busy man. “Growing up in the Valley Farms, that was such a good time because you could kick your kids out the door and you didn’t have to worry about anybody doing something to them,” said Shirley in a recent interview. “We ran all over that country.”

For Weldon, that meant running with two close friends, Jerry Spruiell and Richard Lehman. “In grade school, when it was cold we played football at recess. And when it got warm, we played softball,” said Lehman. He remembers one time breaking a black softball bat of Weldon’s on the playground.

“Somewhere or another I broke his bat. We just taped that sucker back up and kept on playing.”

Sometimes, the play got a little rough.

“Weldon broke his jaw, and had it wired together,” said Lehman. “I think it was in the sixth grade. I went to see him at the hospital. I was a little kid. There was Weldon, drinking through a straw.”

“It was Gene Kincaid,” Shirley said. “The boys were playing kickball. Weldon went up, Gene went under, Weldon came down on his head, just shattering his jaw. I think it knocked poor Gene out. Nobody worried about him, because Weldon was spitting blood and Gene was out cold.”

Bettie added, “It broke his jaw in two places and his teeth on one side. Bless his heart, the ladies at the cafeteria babied him, taking care of him at school. They made sure he had something he could eat at lunch.”

Jimmy, three years Weldon’s senior, said “I always thought it was neat, because he liked mashed potatoes and gravy, and that’s what he ate.”

“After that,” said Shirley, “He had the straightest teeth in town.”

Yet another time, the kids were playing in the hayloft at the barn, swinging through the open doors with a rope. “You know us, we had to find something destructive to do,” joked Shirley. “We were jumping out, grabbing that rope and swinging. Well, Weldon missed it. When we got down there, Evelyn and I were kicking him going ‘I wonder if he is dead? Boy are we going to be in trouble.’

“He just got up, though. It just knocked the wind out of him.”

It wasn’t always sports that attracted the good-sized boy. Weldon also liked to doodle, and draw. And he liked to sing. “He was a very passionate person. And a very compassionate person,” said his mother.

“Mom still has the scrapbook from when he was just a little boy,” Shirley said of her brother. “We had Sports and Field and Outdoor Life. He had cut out all the animals he liked, and put them in the scrapbook so he could practice drawing them. And he did well.”

“If he hadn’t been doing so much doodling like that, he probably would have made better grades,” Bettie noted. “He wasn’t a straight-A student.”

As the years progressed, some of the antics by Weldon and his buddies became more elaborate. Spruiell remembers the three taking a pair of toy civil war pistols and improvising. “They were the ones where you put the granny sticker cap on and the cork ball in. You pulled the trigger and the hammer hit the cap and the cork shot out. Well, we emptied about 500 firecrackers,” he said, taking the powder to add kick. The boys used the rest of the powder when they built a cannon with machine shop equipment Spruiell had access to.

“I was never surpised with what any of them came up with,” said Bettie.
Jimmy added, “We were just normal kids. We weren’t stealing hubcaps. We weren’t vandalizing anything, except maybe shooting bb guns.”

“We fished the snot out of that tank at the Kirkland place,” Lehman offered.

“It kept us busy,” said Shirley.

Father Pete kept his two boys busy working the farm, putting in cotton at times, and alfalfa to bale. Jimmy did some work in the oilfields, too. Otherwise, it was plowing, baling, and hoeing. “We didn’t get paid for that!” Jimmy laughed.

“Working in the oilfield, I’m talking about something you could do to take money to town and spend. This was expected.”

Bettie concluded, “That was what kept them out of mischief.”

The love of outdoors for all the Bradberry kids was deepened by vacation trips to Colorado. On one particular trip, Pete took the kids up a mountain to a forest ranger lookout. Stationed there was a female ranger, who was delighted by their interest, especially that of 12-year-old Weldon.

She took them through the post, including the work area and living quarters, and let them view the surroundings through the telescope, all the time telling them about what it was like to work alone and the responsibilities of the job.

“When they came back down the mountain, Weldon said ‘That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up’,” said Bettie. “And he never lost his desire to be outdoors.”

“You always had to do something educational,” quipped Shirley of the outings her father took them on while on vacation. “We always went to Colorado and camped out. That’s another reason he (Weldon) was probably an outdoor fiend.

He liked it. I think he liked the solitude of it. While he was a cut up, he didn’t mind being alone either. I guess that’s from riding the tractor all day.

“Whatever we had to do, we did,” she continued. “That (work) was his training for two-a-days. Where we lived the land backed up to Stanley Williamson’s place ... and there was a side road that went down to an old oil well. That was his training, running up and down that road. We didn’t think anything about it.”

Added Spruiell, “He did want to be a park ranger. He loved the outdoors.

Anything you could do outside is what he liked to do. I will never forget that.”

As Weldon progressed into his high school years, by then he was a strapping 6-1, 180 pounds, and friends came easy. “He didn’t have a lot of fat on him,” said Shirley.

In sports, he excelled in football (offensive guard and defensive lineman), and in track (880-yard run). Weldon also loved choir, joining Darrell (Ryan) Dick’s A Cappella choir. He also sang in the choir at Faith Baptist Church.

Weldon apparently could also play the piano. The teachers in the special education wing at the high school said he would come by after to entertain the students.

“If he played a song, it was probably Chop Sticks!” said Shirley. She added Weldon probably could play by feel, much the same as her dad learned to play the guitar.

Prior to Weldon joining the varsity Hawks as a sophomore, brother Jimmy was a starting lineman for the team, then being shaped by Coach Tommy Watkins.

“The last year I played was ‘66,” remembers Jimmy. “We never played on the same team together.”

Iowa Park was consistently in the state playoffs.

“These guys played in the playoffs from Jimmy’s early years plum on through ‘71,” said Spruiell. “It was a dynasty. Iowa Park was a state-ranked team for years and years in a row.”

For five straight years, the bi-district hurdle was another strong team, the Phillips Blackhawks. As a sophomore, the two teams tied on an extremely cold night in Borger, with the Hawks advancing before losing to Snyder. Iowa Park would win the next three years in a row before losing to the Blackhawks when Weldon was a sophomore.

“There are so many football memories,” Bettie said. “In those years, there were a lot of merchants in Iowa Park that really did have a hard time, because the people in town neglected to take care of their obligations in favor of following the football team.”

Lehman agreed, adding “On Friday night, when we played out of town, it was a ghost town.”

Coach Watkins, along with assistants ... which included Grady Graves and Jerry McWilliams ... prepared their players for combat through a combination of intense workouts and rigid discipline. Even in off-season, the coaches found inventive ways to toughen up the athletes.

“I can remember playing murder ball,” said Lehman. “It was something Coach Watkins invented. You split the gym in half, tossed the basketball out there ... you touch the wall at the other side for a point, and anything goes. It was mean.”

Jimmy added, “When I played we had what was called a fruit loop (on the helmet) ... it came down over your facemask. If you misjudged and didn’t execute your position well, it made a perfect hand hold, and you got real close and personal with the coach.”

“Things were explained in plain and simple English,” laughed Lehman.
Spruiell added, “Watkins had a position called the monster man, and that was the guy you never wanted to meet when the lights were out.”

Emblazoned on one side the helmet was a skull and crossbones. On the other, a bolt of lightning.

Though known for their intensity on the field, when they entered a restaurant together, the Hawks were remembered as polite and mannerly young men. “When the boys went out of town, Watkins initiated that when the boys loaded the bus they had a green sports jacket, black pants, white shirt and a black tie. ”

Jimmy nodded. “That was game day.”

“It made the team look outstanding when they would go into a restaurant,” said Bettie.

The action at Hawk Field ... which is now used by the W.F. George Middle School Hawks for practice ... was always colorful, loud, and full of action, both on the field and behind the fence made with drilling pipe and oilfield cable before a more permanent fence was installed.

During one game, Hawk fan Loyd Thompson was on the wrong side of the cable, and turned to run off the field when he was spooked, and suffered a broken leg.
Watkins eventually put up a tarp between the players and the fans “... so the daddies couldn’t coach,” laughed Jimmy.

“When you are playing on my team, I am the boss,” he remembered Watkins telling the players. “You do it my way, or get on the other side, and give me back my equipment ... that was just the way it was.”

And, during Jimmy’s playing days, the team had a cannon. “It was made by Gale Lowrance,” he said. “It was a homemade, seven-inch piece of casing on lawn mower wheels, and used black powder. It just made a big bang, and a lot of smoke.”

Friday night, as in many Texas towns, the football game was the social event of the week. The stands would get so crowded that, at one particular game, school buses were lined up on the outskirts of the field, with people clamoring on top for a chance to view the game.

And, by the 1968 season, Iowa Park was one of the dominant teams in Class AA.

“I think we had the best team in the state in ‘68,” said teammate and two-tim e all-state lineman Craig French. “It was us, and then maybe Reagan County.”

Prior to the season, the Bradberry family had spent another vacation in Colorado. On the return trip, as was by then a ritual, the family stopped at Dutch’s Restaurant in Quanah.

“It was during the time the Greenbelt Bowl wa s going on, and there were a lot of people in Dutch’s eating,” said Shirley. “And Weldon saw something like that (Fighting Hawk) on something. He went over and looked at it, then came home and drew it on a small piece of paper, and then scaled it out much bigger.”

To scale it out, Weldon improvised. “We got the paper from the meat market over on 9th Street (in Wichita Falls),” said Shirley. “You couldn’t buy wide paper back then. Weldon taped the pieces together, and then just sat down in the garage and drew it out, looking at his little drawing.”

Lehman added, “After he got it started, the pep squad and cheerleaders would take that butcher paper and put it on the gym floor and draw it out (in a large banner) for the team to run through it.”

“It (the pieced-together drawing) has little holes in it, because James Eake’s dad came over and brought a big piece of fake leather .. naugahide ... laid it down, and Weldon took mom’s sewing trace wheel and traced it onto that flat naugahide,” offered Shirley. “The pep squad used that for a banner for years.”

“This is the original (Fighting Hawk),” Bettie noted, pointing to the drawing, now fading with age. That original piece had the Fighting Hawk sporting a football helmet and carrying a football, plus wearing cleats. Half of an “I” for Iowa Park was on the middle of the jersey. “I am just tickled it was documented,” she said.

“I was afraid ... I knew Weldon drew it ... but I was afraid no one else knew it.”

The first place the Fighting Hawk showed up in public, though, was on the window of a local business.

“Mrs. Shook ... Melba Shook ... asked Weldon to draw it on the window at the laundrymat next to the Jiffy store on the highway,” said Shirley. “Everytime the team won, on the wing that’s going across his chest, Weldon would go up and chisel out a stripe for the win and color it in.”

In a classic quarterfinal matchup that season against Reagan County, led by quarterback Jo Jo Barnes (who later would start at Texas Tech University), the two teams fought to a 0-0 tie, with the Hawks advancing by penetrations to the quarterfinals.

That game, plus the 12 other wins played in the ‘68 season, left several of the Mean Green injured or hobbling, including all-state back James Eke, and Weldon, a two-way starter on the line as a junior.

No one knows to this day in which game Weldon separated his shoulder, but the tough kid told no one, refusing to leave the field.

Bettie said, “Coach Watkins told me he went back over every game film to try and determine when he actually inju red his shoulder. He played the rest of the season with his shoulder hurt.

“One game ... I don’t remember which, Watkins had him on the sideline. He had missed some play, and Watkins pulled him out of the game, and I asked Jimmy “Is he playing right?” And Jimmy said, “No, why do you think he has him on the sideline?” That was probably the game he was hurt, but he went back in and never came out.”

In the semifinal battle against Daingerfield in Grand Prairie, injuries finally caught up with the Hawks, as they lost the contest 14-0.

Weldon was admitted to a Wichita Falls hospital in January of 1969 to undergo surgery on his injured shoulder. In the early hours of Sunday morning in recovery, Weldon died of complications.

And the news was not only devastating to the Bradberry family, but to the town itself.

“The reason he had surgery during the school year,” said Bettie, “He wanted to be healed so he could pass a physical to be able to play football for ‘69. After it happened, the doctor told me from now on he would not do another surgery on an athlete until they had been out just so long after the season.”

It seemed the whole town turned out for Weldon’s funeral at Faith Baptist Church a few days later. Services were conducted by both Faith Baptist pastor Gerald Tidwell, and Rev. John Klappenbach of Calvary Baptist Church in Vernon, the family’s former church.

Pallbearers were coaches Watkins, Gerald Combs, McWiliams, Jimmy Alsup, Larry Dortch, Tom Shelton, Otho Woods and Don Lucy. The entire Hawk team served as honorary pallbearers.

When he learned of Bradberry’s death, Watkins said, “This is a big blow. Weldon was an outstanding player, student, and individual. He was liked by everyone; in fact, I can think of no one who did not appreciate Weldon because he gave 100-percent of himself whether on or off the field.”

Condolences came to family from many teachers, coaches, and fans of the Hawks ... plus several from past opponents ... even from restaurants the Hawks would frequent while on the road.

By some accounts, including that of “The Voice of the Hawks” Robert Wilcox, Hawk sophomore Steve Webb took Weldon’s Fighting Hawk and, with a few alterations, redrew it and colored it to be used for the team’s helmet decal beginning the 1969 season.

Watkins also retired Weldon’s jersey – No. 64. It stayed retired until years later and until a new coaching staff, unfamiliar with what had transpired, once again used that number. The Fighting Hawk remained on the helmets of Hawk players until years later, when it was replaced (also by an unfamiliar coaching staff) with hawk wings. In 2009, Coach Chris Ellis brought back the Fighting Hawk. Coach Scott Ponder, now in his second season at Iowa Park, has retained that look ... The Fighting Hawk, against the outlined backdrop of the State of Texas.

“Weldon was an all around very personable person,” said his mother. “People loved him.” When asked what helped her through those trying times, she answered, “My family. Without them, I couldn’t have made it. I close my eyes now and it is just like it happened yesterday. But then, I had two girls at home to raise.” Jimmy by then lived away from home with his bride, Karen Sue (Vestal) Bradberry.

And, despite Weldon’s death, Bettie and the rest of the Bradberry family remained loyal Hawk fans. Both girls were still at Iowa Park High School, with Shirley working her way as twirler in the Hawk Band.

“I tried my very best to continue and not let his death affect the boys,” Bettie remembers. “I did not want his death to deter any of them with their desire to play. It was hard to watch them play. When his name was suggested when the new field (Hawk Stadium) was dedicated, I specifically asked that his name not be ... that he not be remembered that way ... in that he wasn’t the only one that earned it. He was just part of a team.

“Because of his death, I didn’t want him remembered that way,” she continued. “I rathered him be remembered as a person, not just a football player. ‘Course, he loved football. But he wasn’t the only one on that team. He was just a part of it.”

In 1969, the Hawks finally won the coveted state title with a win over Klein.
Following the season, the team presented the Bradberry family with a plaque honoring Weldon, and a framed picture of the team signed by each player and coach.

The IPHS A Cappella Choir began “The Weldon Bradberry Award” for the top choral student, which was presented annually for several years.

“I just remember how enveloping the community was,” said Shirley. “That was the first time I could remember anything like that (Weldon’s sudden death) happening. It did affect the whole community, I think.”

So, there you have it. The next time you go to an Iowa Park football game and you see the Fighting Hawk on a player’s helmet ... especially if you are yourself a player ... you now know the story behind that menacing bird, poised and determined as if moving forward into battle.

The Fighting Hawk is the very spirit of its creator, Weldon Bradberry ... symbolic of the hard work, determination, and tradition for all the players that have worn it proudly on their helmets from the 1969 season on.