Imagine being that 8-year-old kid that came home every day after school, waited for his childhood heroes — the Claremore Zebras — to walk by on the sidewalk and then stared through a chainlink fence to watch practice.
Sixty-two years ago, that kid was none other than the Claremore Zebras biggest fan — Bill Whittington.
He lived out his childhood dreams listening for those clacking sounds of ‘Cleats on the Sidewalk’.
The 70-year-old Whittington, who was born to William H. Whittington and Gladys Jo (Lowry) Whittington, received a ultimate dream come true in late August when his favorite football team — the Claremore Zebras — came to visit him and the other residents at Autumn Wood Care Center.
“I was shocked,” Whittington said upon meeting the Zebras.
“They (the players) were so respectful, very big and fun to talk too.”
Many years ago, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Whittington was once a member of the “Boys of Fall”. He donned the Claremore Zebra uniform, strapped on his helmet and smelled the fresh-cut grass every afternoon underneath the blazing sun that radiated through the old high school football stadium located off 11th Street.
“Those were memorable times,” according to Whittington. “In my day, I played offensive tackle and wasn’t very big. We averaged around 180 pounds, where the players today are huge and weighing more than 300 pounds.”
Whittington, who currently is battling Parkinson’s Disease, still remembers those Friday nights of watching the Zebras and cheering on his friends.
He even recalls longtime veteran Claremore head coach Bear Jensen as being one ‘tough son of a gun.’
“We were coming out of one of our worst seasons and we needed a coach, so they moved to (Bear) Jensen,” Whittington said.
“Jensen was tough on the players, but also knew what it needed to take in order to win.”
For Whittington, playing for Jensen and the Zebras taught him to take pride in wearing that red and white uniform.
“When you had on that uniform, you were the talk of the town and everyone wanted to be on your team,” according to Whittington.
Though his playing career ended with a knee injury his sophomore year, Whittington still followed his teammates and never skipped a game.
“Some of my closest friends played for the Zebras,” Whittington said. “I still remember watching guys like Alan Fry and Larry Catherwood find success on Lantow Field.”
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Back in the glory days, Friday nights in Claremore were spent watching the Zebras.
They (the Zebras) were the only team in town, according to Whittington, and the stadium was always full with passionate fans.
The enthusiasm and loudness of the fans carried down to the players on the field and brought a sense of excitement to the games, Whittington recalls.
“There wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be on Friday nights than inside that stadium supporting the Zebras,” Whittington said.
For 365 days a year, Whittington ate, slept and breathed Claremore Zebra football.
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Whittington, who graduated from Claremore High School in 1961, was amazed at the so-called game he watched days ago during ‘Meet the Zebras’ at Autumn Wood Care Center.
“He (Bill) thought he was watching a real game,” said Starr Blaze, the activity director for Autumn Wood Care Center. “Bill talks about that game (5-play scrimmage) and beams with excitement, asking when are we going to see another one.”
If Whittington gets his wish, the next time he watches the Zebras, he won’t have to look through a chain-link fence.
... In Whittington’s honor, he’ll have the best seat in the house ... right on the front row at the 50-yard line.
“There’s not many people in Claremore that are more passionate about the Zebras than Bill,” Blaze said.
“He lives for hearing those ‘cleats on the sidewalk’.”