Eddie Shannon put his hand on his chin and dropped his head as he sat in his dining room. Then his head popped up quickly.
“We had a lot of great athletes,” said Shannon, now in his mid-80s. Shannon is a legendary coach and trainer in Manatee County who coached a boatload of legendary players at Lincoln Memorial High School from 1955 to 1969.
The all-black high school gave way to integration following the 1969 school year.
Imagine if today, you took every black athlete from grades 7-12 in Manatee County and put them in one school.
They were the Lincoln Memorial Trojans.
Blue and Gray forever.
For five days starting Wednesday, former Trojans students from every class will celebrate the school’s 60th anniversary, reliving the glory days of their cherished school with an all-class reunion.
The talent within the athletic program was ridiculous.
The football team had so much talent, the Trojans could have fielded three or four good teams.
They beat teams by lopsided scores like 89-0. And it could have been 100.
“Raymond Bellamy caught the ball and threw it down, because he said he didn’t want to beat them like that,” Shannon said.
There was Bellamy, who became the first football player to break the color barrier at a university south of the Mason-Dixon Line when he accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Miami in the late 1960s.
There was Henry Lawrence, who became the first player from Manatee County to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft when the Oakland Raiders took him with the 19th-overall selection in 1974. Lawrence was in awe of some of his teammates while playing for the Trojans, before switching to Manatee High when the schools integrated after the ’69 school year.
“Man, those guys were awesome,” said Lawrence, who played defensive end for Lincoln Memorial. “I played, but those guys were good. Willie Lee Jones was the best linebacker I saw play on any level. That man was bad.”
This coming from a man who blocked many of the greatest linebackers in NFL history and morphed into a two-time Pro Bowl tackle and three-time Super Bowl champion.
As for Jones, it was common for players to quit the team after absorbing a crushing blow during practice from the linebacker, a 1968 graduate of Lincoln Memorial.
After a standout college career at the University of Tampa, Jones was a late-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1972, but he bolted to the Canadian Football League because “the CFL offered more money,” he said.
“Out of five years of playing varsity football,” said Jones, who became a starter in eighth grade. “I can recall only one or two games that we lost. I attribute that to Coach Shannon. He taught us how to be real men on and off of the field.”
And Neil “Chip” Nelson was a man among boys on the basketball court.
Nelson, all of 6-foot-1, guarded the opposing team’s biggest player. He referred to the tall guys as “trees,” and he held his own while playing center.
He was a solid shooter and people rarely outjumped him. He dunked with ease and could rebound and pass with the best in the nation. He once scored 59 points in a game and finished his career with more than 1,500 points. He poured in 26 points a game his senior season. In 1967, Nelson was selected as one of the top 10 basketball players in the South, according to the 1967 yearbook.
“I didn’t realize how good I was until I graduated,” Nelson said.
But others noticed and never forgot.
That’s why Nelson was inducted into the National Negro High School Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago.
Then there was Eugene Hart. His name still rings bells.
“Oooh, (Eugene) Hart was the best running back to come through this town,” said Lincoln Middle School physical education teacher Linda Leaks.
People in Palmetto, including myself, have heard the same thing over the years, and we’ve had the chance to watch superstar tailbacks such as Shevin Wiggins, Dyral McMillan, Kevin Freeman and Tommie Frazier — who was a quarterback, but wouldn’t have had a problem playing tailback — light up the scoreboard and the stat sheet.
Older folks still say Eugene was better. They say it was his vision with the football. They say it was his ability to run past or through defenders. Hart ended his career with more than 5,500 yards of total offense and 72 touchdowns. And they say it was his ability to get the tough yards when needed that separated him from the pack.
At least that’s how the stories have been passed down.
Then there was Waite Bellamy, who was a dominant basketball player for the Trojans, starred at Florida A&M University, was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA and finished his career playing in the Eastern League for the Delaware Blue Bombers.
There are plenty of others who left their indelible marks on the program and the black community.
These great players are a big part of the reason why the community is holding this five-day celebration to commemorate the great times at Lincoln Memorial.
This part of the great history of Manatee County athletics should never be forgotten.
Before Manatee High, Southeast High and Palmetto High won their seven combined state football titles, and before Lakewood Ranch High and Palmetto each won a state baseball title, it was Lincoln Memorial High School that paved the way to the greatness that is Manatee County prep sports.
Live on, Lincoln Memorial Trojans, ’ole Blue and Gray.
Ryan T. Boyd, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7017.