Happy Flying L Day, Flying L’s!
While the name is by no means official, April 9 is certainly the 100th anniversary of the last in a series of events that culminated in the statewide recognition of Fort Lauderdale High School’s truly unique mascot–the Flying L. It is a story of a war, plenty of unfortunate turns, a grading protest, and an underdog team triumphing in the hearts of the crowds that watched them.
It is a widespread belief that the Flying L dates back to 1917, the year the FLHS track team won the state tournament in Gainesville at the University of Florida. But photos from that season show that the athletes donned two-tone, sans-L uniforms when they ran past, jumped, and vaulted over the competition, helmed by all-around star senior Watt Gordon. This in no way diminishes the feat; despite being the underdogs and only fielding six men, the team convincingly won by six points over the second-placed favorites, Duval High School (Jacksonville), and were fêtéd in grand style by the 2,000 residents back home. It was a short celebration, though: just days later on April 6, the United States entered the First World War, and by graduation all the seniors on the team had joined the war effort.
It was in the subsequent year when the true story of the Flying L really began–the first photograph of what would become the Flying L was on a woolen sweater donned by class of 1918 graduate Ivan Austin. The mark that would come to represent Fort Lauderdale may have perhaps caught on by association with Gordon, who had already become a legend in his wartime absence, and his speed. The track runners that year wore the mark of their town proudly despite large, tough losses in a local rivalry series against Miami High School and at the state tournament.
That pierced L still lacked a name, however, and in the meantime the track teams, depleted of experience, fared little better. Watt Gordon rejoined as a coach in the 1918-19 school year, but yet again the Fort Lauderdale team fell short against Miami. The team did not even bother to enter the state competition after senior track star James Hill sustained a fatal head injury diving into the New River Canal. 1919-20 was little better; new grading and attendance standards, enforced with a heavy (though in hindsight, appropriate) hand by school administration, disqualified all but three competitors for Fort Lauderdale from the state track meet, and only two ran in the end. In the meantime, Duval High School won both years at Gainesville.
Enraged parents and townspeople quickly had the administration of the school changed to one more amenable to athletics with the election of James S. Rickards as Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, a Progressive-era reformer who set out to modernize the schools and on the way replaced much of the faculty and administration. This lifted the pressure enough for a hidden star to shine–the final hero of this story, Charlie Rodes.
Rodes had already made a bit of a name for himself as a tennis ace and baseball pitcher, but his true calling was to be a runner. A small boy standing just 5’6” and weighing 109 pounds, he made up for his unathletic build with tenacity. He regularly ran through the swallowing beach sand in order to train his legs, and despite a poor showing in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale meet, Rodes was expected to do well in Gainesville as Fort Lauderdale for the first time in three years fielded a competitive team at the state track meet.
The Fort Lauderdale team walked out to the preliminaries on Friday, April 8, 1921 to little fanfare. The ten members were poorly-known with FLHS’s practical absence from the tournament in the preceding years, and they were overshadowed by the 25 other schools competing. But they quickly attracted attention to the “Flying L” woven on the right breast of each of their uniforms in spectacular fashion, qualifying several competitors for the 100 and 220 yard dashes’ finals and bringing hope to many of the 1,500 spectators who wished to see Duval High School lose for once. It became clear that only the “Flying L’s” could kill the giants, and they went into the Saturday finals with victory by their fingertips.
This was when Rodes made his stand–the mile run. It was by all accounts the most impressive feat of the entire tournament. He completed the four circuits of the track in four minutes 58 seconds, beating the state record by nearly ten seconds. But what has perhaps become the most legendary–but by all accounts true–part of the story was that Rodes ran barefoot on the cinder track. This is corroborated by the fact that he did not run in the half-mile he was scheduled for on account of ripping up his feet on the cinders. Unfortunately, it also cost Fort Lauderdale the victory and Duval took home the laurels. The dark horse would have otherwise been the best in the state, though, as was acknowledged by Duval’s hometown sportswriter Red Davis, writing for the Jacksonville Times-Union that “there remain few persons in Gainesville who attended this meet who would not have claimed a victory for Lauderdale had not their star one mile runner, Charlie Rodes, been hurt… No one at this meet could touch him.”
The newspaper reports came pouring in throughout Florida, and so too did the name “Flying L’s”, the moniker the crowd had bestowed on the magical team from Fort Lauderdale. Rodes would deny to his death in 1985 that he had any part in the matter of the Flying L, and while he may be right on the symbol, it is without a doubt that his heroics gave us the name of the mascot we know and love today.
We should be sure to celebrate Rodes and all of our Flying L’s who have in our school’s over one-hundred-year history gone on to do equally impressive feats in athletics, arts, and academics throughout this nation and who have contributed so much to Fort Lauderdale’s vibrant community. That’s why in my final year as editor-in-chief and FLHS student, I’ll be dedicating myself not only to the news of today, but also the stories of Flying L’s of yesteryear. I hope you’ll join me on my next historical adventure.
Much of the sourcing for this article comes from an article by Cooper Kirk, a Broward County historian, in the Summer 1989 edition of Broward Legacy, a journal of history by the Broward County Historical Commission. Additionally, the Navigator would like to thank the staff of the Broward County Library for their gracious assistance in tracking down articles from the Fort Lauderdale Herald and Sentinel, from which additional information has been sourced. All the sources are available below.