It wasn’t big news — literally — on Aug. 30, 1963, when Charles Moulden introduced East Tennessee to racially mixed high school football.
The event was groundbreaking in social context, but earned minuscule mention in the media.
His contribution appeared the next day, on Page 6, in the second-to-last paragraph of News Sentinel sports writer Ted Riggs’ story detailing Sevier County’s stunning 13-0 upset over traditional Knoxville powerhouse Young High.
“Charles Mouldin (sic), reserve Sevier halfback, became the first Negro to play against a KIL (Knoxville Interscholastic League) team when he entered the game shortly before halftime,” Riggs wrote. “His lone carry resulted in a four-yard loss.”
“MOULDEN” OFTEN APPEARED as “Mouldin” in sports stories of that era.
“People were always trying to spell my name wrong,” laughs Moulden, 70, who lives in Oak Ridge and travels throughout the U.S. as a superintendent for Knoxville’s Summit Construction Co.
“With my brother Hubert (two years younger), they always got it right, with an ‘e’.”
Misspelled or otherwise, the name quickly became familiar with coaches and players — especially those on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
Within weeks, it was rising higher on the page. All the way to headlines and opening paragraphs.
“Mouldin Sprints for Bears” read a News Sentinel keyline on Saturday, Sept. 28, 1963, Page 8. Beneath it flowed the main headline: “Sevierville Deals Carter 1st Defeat.”
“Sevierville’s Charles Mouldin, first Negro to play football in the KIL, finally got a chance to show his speed at Carter,” proclaimed the lead.
“The result: an 87-yard touchdown run that led to a 26-7 triumph over the host Hornets.”
“It was the first touchdown I ever scored that actually counted,” recalls Moulden. “Anytime I crossed the goal line, it always seemed a penalty flag had been thrown somewhere up the field. That’s how it was back then.
“When I got into the end zone at Carter, the first thing I did was give the ball to the official. He placed it down for the extra point. I looked back up the field. No flags.
“Next thing I knew, my teammates were swarming me.”
No doubt about it. In the end zone or on the sideline, Charles Moulden had landed in the right place at the right time.
Racial barriers were falling in East Tennessee schools, and he was able to take advantage of this sweeping change.
AS A YOUNG TEENAGER, Moulden and other Sevier County blacks had been driven daily into Knoxville for junior high and high school classes. He finished at Vine Junior, then progressed to Austin High.
“All I’d ever played was sandlot football,” he says. “I tried to play at Austin. I even got into a couple of games at Evans-Collins Field. But it was too much of a hassle.
“By the time practice was over and I’d get a ride back to Sevierville, it might be midnight; then I had to be up at 6 the next morning to catch a ride to Knoxville.”
Two other factors also weighed heavily. One was beyond his control, the other his own fault.
“I never really felt welcome at Austin,” he says. “Being from Sevierville, I was always an outsider, a hick. The other students called me ‘Country.’ ”
That, however, was the lesser of his woes.
Early in his senior year at Austin, Moulden was arrested for shoplifting.
“I was at Watson’s (a Knoxville discount store) and stuck a $2 shirt under my shirt and tried to walk out. They caught me. I had a pretty bad reputation for fighting back then. The Austin principal even said so to the judge in court.
“I’ll never forget what the judge told me: ‘Young man, since you like to fight so much, we’ll just put you in a place where there’s lots of fighting.’
“I got 60 days in the Knox County workhouse.”
IT’S STILL EMBARRASSING for Moulden to discuss the incident.
“That’s something I’m not proud of to this day,” he admits. “It really tore my mama and daddy up.
“But Daddy never complained (about the harsh sentence). He said, ‘Son, you did it; now you gotta do your time.’ ”
Released after two months, Moulden was through with regimentation. He dropped out of school and began working full time as a brick mason with his uncle.
“I’d been layin’ brick on the weekends and summers since I was 14,” he says. “That’s what I figured I’d do the rest of my life.”
MOULDEN WAS BUSY with mortar and stone one morning in early August 1963 when two cousins showed up at the job site.
“They said they were gonna try out for football at Sevier County,” he remembers.
“I was like, ‘What?!?!’
“They said, ‘Yeah, they gonna let us play at their school this year.’ ”
Moulden didn’t realize it at the time, but his cousins were pulling his leg — at least about trying to make the team themselves. For them, this was nothing but a practical joke.
Unbeknown to everyone, however, was the fact that yes, indeed; all candidates were welcome.
Says Moulden: “I kept talkin’ about it and talkin’ about it. Finally my uncle had heard enough. He wasn’t happy. He threw half a brick over at me. It landed at my feet.
“He said, ‘Boy, all you wanna do is play football! Git on outta here!’
“I ran all the way home and took a shower, then ran to the (high school) field house,” says Moulden. “When I opened the door, everything got real quiet.”
“You know the ol’ saying ‘quiet as a mouse peein’ in a bale of cotton’? Yeah, that quiet.”
Assistant coach Pete Stafford approached and asked Moulden his intentions. Stafford listened, then told the youngster nobody could play football unless they were enrolled in school.
“That,” Moulden exclaims with a broad smile, “is when I lied through my teeth!
“I told him my paperwork was on its way over from Austin. Wasn’t true, of course. But I knew I could get it done and that it’d be six or eight weeks before everything got switched from Austin to Sevier County. By then, I’d be in school.”
Done. And done.
IT WASN’T NECESSARILY love at first sight for the white players. Yet as soon as pads and helmets went on, skin color ceased to matter.
It became readily apparent that Moulden had the size, speed, agility and passion for the game. All he lacked was a grasp of the fundamentals.
“I didn’t even know which holes were odd and which were even,” he says. “But they taught me real quick.”
Before long, the team bonded closely.
In late August, Sevier County traveled to Kingston for a scrimmage. Soon as the Roane Countians discovered the other team had a black player, they balked.
“We held a team meeting, and coach (Tom) Bass explained everything. He said, ‘It’s up to you, Charlie.’
“I told ’em: ‘You boys go on out there. I’ll stay here in the field house.’ ”
Several team leaders — Moulden cites Tom Williams and Tony Atchley among them — then spoke up.
No way, coach. We either play as a team or we don’t play at all.
Moulden can hardly contain his pride about that defining moment: “We got on the bus and came back to Sevierville.”
The same Tom Williams and Tony Atchley were two Sevier County Smoky Bears mentioned as strong leaders and powerful players in Ted Riggs’ “Prep Chatter” column in the News Sentinel on Sunday, Oct. 13, 1963, Page C-6.
In the same piece, Riggs quoted coach Bass about another excellent athlete on his team. Here’s an excerpt from that column:
“ ‘Charles has done a fine job for us,’ Bass remarked.‘If I had him another year, the boy would be a real standout. This, you know, is his first season of football. He went out twice at Austin and had to drop off the squad each time because of transportation difficulties.’ ”
Moulden participated in his last high school game on Thanksgiving Day, a 35-0 victory over Knoxville Rule in the Little Smoky Bowl. He graduated the following spring and went back to laying brick.
But perhaps there would be one more opportunity to show his skills on the field.
By the late 1960s, semipro football had come to East Tennessee in the form of the Knoxville Bears. Moulden landed a tryout for Saturday, April 13, 1968.
On Wednesday of that week, though, he had one other engagement: The opening of trout season in the Cherokee National Forest.
By the end of that day, he would be lying in a hospital bed, a .38 caliber bullet buried in his left thigh.
Football was over forever.
AS THE YEARS WENT BY, Moulden’s interest in other sports expanded widely.
A shade-tree mechanic since childhood, he soon became enamored with speed. He built a Camaro dragster and competed in International Hot Rod Association races all over the United States, both as a driver and crew member.
He took up karate. He played amateur softball. He boxed in a Fraternal Order of Police program.
And he continued to fish.
“After I moved from Sevierville to Oak Ridge, I bought a bass boat and really started hitting Watts Bar,” Moulden says. “It became my favorite lake.”
What about trout?
“No,” he replies. “I’ve never been trout fishing again since that first day.”