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Members of Watertown's Red and Black semi-pro football team.  Photo: TAUNY
Members of Watertown's Red and Black semi-pro football team. Photo: TAUNY

Watertown's love of football

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Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, TAUNY, handed out its annual North Country Heritage Awards on Sunday -- honoring North Country traditions. Watertown has had a love of football for more than a century. The Watertown Red & Black is the oldest semi-pro team in the U.S. It began back in 1896. In its first decades, the team featured the sons of immigrants who worked in local factories and young men who had been star players in local high schools. More recently, over half of the roster is soldiers from Fort Drum.

George Ashcraft was a middle linebacker for the team in the early 1970s. This year marks his 22nd year as head coach. Todd Moe spoke with him about coaching a football team that is a cultural icon in Watertown.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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This is the 117th year operating with the name Watertown Red & Black. The team is represented in the first showcase you see at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which displays an 1896 picture of the team and a manikin displaying the 1896 uniform. Ashcraft says it is comparing “apples and oranges” how much football has progressed since the early days.

The fans have called the Red & Black one of the cultural intuitions in the North Country, Moe told Ashcraft. “I believe that,” responded Ashcraft, “I’m not a kid anymore at 57 years old, but this became a part of my person 40 years ago.”

There are hundreds of people that are instrumental in the Red & Black history. “I go back to 1973 and we suited around 45 men.” Ashcraft says there is a true family feeling among that group and everyone who has been on the team. “Once you become part of the Watertown Red & Black, it’s hard to walk away from it. I get calls from all over the world, from people that have played who are in Korea, or Germany, and we have people that, right now as we speak, are in a warzone in Afghanistan.”

Ashcraft gets phone calls and emails from people who are coming to Fort Drum that he has never met, but they have heard about this team and want to play or coach football. “When you’re a part of it, you really understand it.”

He said he’s humbled and honored to be the guy in the position to talk about the team right now. “If there’s one thing I can say after doing this for 22 years, someday when I step down, I hope that somebody can come in and break all the records, and just keep it going.”

Ashcraft was visiting his father this week, and he said, “Son I’m proud of you… it’s incredible what you have done with the Red & Black, you know. They’ll talk about you a hundred years from now, your name will be booted around, because of what you’ve done.”

Ashcraft says he doesn’t think about that, but he couldn’t do anything but smile. “I have got five grandchildren that come to the game, from 5-years old to 16-years-old, and it’s just incredible.”

Ashcraft says he accepts the TAUNY North Country Heritage Award in his team’s honor, and he’s willing to talk to anybody who wants to talk about the team at anytime. “It’s rewarding and it’s humbling. I’m darn lucky. I’m very, very lucky.”

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