story by Aric Mitchell
“Luck tomorrow night,” read the note.
The Southside Rebels football team each made sure to place a hand on it before heading out of the locker room at War Memorial Stadium and marching onto the field for the most important Battle of Rogers Avenue in school history.
The year was 1988. The day was Dec. 2. The note was from Rebels quarterback Wesley Gibson. On the night of Oct. 22, 1988, Gibson was in a car accident that very nearly claimed his life. Lying in his hospital bed, it was the only words of encouragement he could muster for replacement QB Marty Adams and the rest of his teammates.
While Gibson was not physically present, the entire squad wore No. 10 in his honor, letting him know he would be there in spirit. The Rebels were really just grateful their offensive leader was with them at all. Gibson had been in a coma for several days and sustained massive head and chest injuries as a result of the accident. Oklahoma Sooners Head Coach Barry Switzer had sent a telegram offering his support. First National Bank set up an account in his honor. The prognosis was grave. But in 40 days, Gibson went from critical to coherent with still a long way to go to recovery.
The 1988 Southside team knew a thing or two about recovery. The Rebels finished the regular season with three losses, including a 30-3 demolition at the hands of an unbeaten Northside (11-0-1 going into the state title showdown) on Oct. 28 of that year.
The game occurred just six days after Gibson’s debilitating accident. From week one of the post season, it didn’t take long for Southside to find their groove. And when the two teams reconvened for the state championship, it would be a different story.
The Southside defense responded with a much fiercer performance out of the gate, holding Northside scoreless into the second quarter. Then, defender Cliff Harris blocked a punt on the Grizzlies 12-yard line setting up Adams’ touchdown toss to Eric Botsch. Following a successful extra point, the Rebels took a 7-0 lead with 6:06 left in the half. They would hold on to that lead until halftime.
Few believed it would be enough to fend off a team that hung 30 on the Rebels just five weeks earlier. And those few were very nearly proven wrong when in the third quarter, Northside QB Jay Richardson took a keeper 46 yards on fourth and inches to cut Southside’s lead to one.
Kicker Chris Carter planned to add the tying point as he had countless times before, but defender Shannon Wright had other ideas. Breaking through the line, Wright laid out in front of the kick for a blocked PAT that helped Southside retain its 7-6 lead with 8:05 remaining in the period.
Later in the quarter, Northside would have another chance to take the lead with a 43-yard field goal attempt, but Carter’s effort fell short. There were still 12 minutes separating the Rebels from avenging the Oct. 28 loss and claiming their second state title. To win, they’d need their defense to respond. And that’s just what happened.
Much of Northside’s success hinged on the performance of star tailback Greg Andrews, who ran for 202 yards on the Rebs in the October matchup. On this night, however, the open real estate would be harder to come by. Andrews logged only 6 yards in the first half, and a paltry 24 in the last two quarters when it mattered the most.
The Southside players and then-Head Coach Bob Gatling knew they’d done something remarkable with the sound of the final horn.
“We beat one of the best offensive teams I’ve ever seen,” Gatling said immediately following the game.
Northside had averaged 29 points per week prior to the contest, and Southside’s previous attempts at stopping them had been disastrous. On Dec. 2, they were not.
But stats and the mechanics of the game were no longer important to those in the red, white and blue. For Southside students, players, and alumni, this one was for Gibson.
“I’m glad we did this to make Wes proud,” Botsch, who caught the game-winning pass, said in the excitement of the victory. “There’s not any better therapy than a championship ring on his finger.”
Gatling, choking back tears, also confessed, “We love him. I just hope he keeps getting better.”
Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, Gibson would get better. Today, Gibson still supports the Rebels. Most every home game, you’ll see him standing on the sidelines with the players and coaches lending his cheers and inspiring others through his recovery and what he means to Fort Smith Southside tradition.
The 1988 Southerner yearbook editor Leslie Holland summed Gibson’s story up best when she wrote the following: “Through the tragedy, we grew as a student body. We were reminded of what is important and to appreciate one another more. It was through Wes’ ordeal that our football players gained the strength and courage to win ... and watching Wes on his road to recovery taught us about hope.”