Monday, October 19, 2015

Celebrating 40 Years

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Central’s 1975 state championship, members of the team gathered and were honored during halftime of Friday night’s Central / Southwest game at Henderson Stadium. My dad and I arrived early, not realizing the tailgating party was across the street.
At the gate we ran into Southwest’s offensive line coach David Cape, pulling double duty as reunion organizer. Like me, as the evening progressed you could tell how much our long-snapper Cape (#51) enjoyed having the team come together – though it was killing him to be on the opposing sideline. Later I remembered how in high school Cape went to the professional wrestling matches at what was then known as the Macon Coliseum. Afterward in the parking lot the affable Cape found himself on the other side of a car from Andre the Giant. When I brought up the tale after the game Cape finished the story: “I stuck out my hand and called ‘Hey Andre!’ The giant stuck out his huge hand, smiled, and happily grunted ‘UGH!’” Cape quickly withdrew his hand.
Outside linebacker Roger Jackson (#41) organized the tailgate and secured orange Central jerseys for the players to wear: a wonderful touch. Roger is kind and has done a great work in Macon, leading and developing young people.
During the first half the team hovered around the special roped off section in the stands, chatting up long lost friends. The half seemed to take forever, but finally we moved as a group down to the corner of the end zone. There we had more time to talk and snap pictures. When we walked out on the field we were supposed to spread out one player on every five yard stripe, but that message wasn’t quite communicated thoroughly – not that it mattered. Cape had provided the stadium announcer with copious notes about the season and team. The speaker was hard to hear, but he had a lot to say. The large crowd on the Central side cheered loudly as each player was introduced. Before the game I didn’t know how much attention the stadium would give to a team from 40 long years ago, but they were most appreciative.
Another nice touch: Central coach Jesse Hicks had his player’s take a knee and watch the ceremony: perhaps a good object lesson for his players. As a former player this show of respect was heartwarming. As the ceremony ended Roger walked over to shake hands with the team, and several more of us were quick to join him encouraging the young Chargers. As the Sugar Bear and Southwest bands performed we took our time leaving the field – talking and snapping pictures all the way. Nice of WMAZ Channel 13 to capture some of the highlights. In the video I can be seen taking pictures.         
Mike Jolly (#11) was deservedly the center of attention and life of the party. The story was retold of how Jolly was knocked out of the first two games of the season by teammate David Belote, the junior defensive end who always went full speed. Coach McWilliams still had some choice words for Belote, who wisely stayed away from the reunion. Jolly freely shared several stories: of Bear Bryant wanting to make a cornerback out of him, of Pepper Rodgers calling him into his office, of creatively calling signals by interchanging colors like orange and turquoise with the all too ordinary blue. Mike gave a fiery pregame speech to the current Chargers, speaking of Central’s great tradition and how orange was a color boys were honored to wear (now the Chargers wear all blue with just a little orange trim). Hours later the QB took time to speak to Tim Kurtz’s boys, sharing how if he had it to do over he would’ve concentrated more on his studies. Jolly married his Southwest High bride 28 years ago, and they now make their home around the corner from my office.    
Larger than life (figuratively and literally), fullback Randy Rutherford (#33) is still smiling and gregarious. It was natural to see him hanging with tailback Ray Patterson (#31). Both were tough, fierce competitors who appreciated my mention of our transcendent 9th grade team’s 96-0 victory in Milledgeville. They correctly added that our grade won championships all five years we were together: city championships in 8th, 9th, and 10th grade, the state championship our 11th grade year, and the sub-region title as seniors (above L-R: Cape, Randy, and Ray).   
Phil Clark (#22) arrived early, looking dapper. Someone remembered Phil’s game-winning 95 yard fumble return touchdown late in the 1976 Southwest game, played on this very field. With no score Southwest was threatening to put the game away when the speedy Clark scooped up a fumble and went the distance. Southwest scored but failed to convert the PAT, making my extra point the difference - we won 7-6.  
Of all my former teammates I was most looking forward to reuniting with Johnny Dennis and Tim Kurtz. Offensive lineman Dennis (#60) still has his sweet countenance, belying his job with the Department of Corrections. Johnny and I lifted weights together three days a week for two years. I sent Johnny the picture we had taken together, and he requested I send him the one of us with Roger. Later I went through my pictures and deleted several blurry photos before realizing I hadn’t sent one to Johnny. Oops.
After high school wideout Tim “Quasar” Kurtz built his experience as editor of The Charger Pride into a writing/editing career. At the game his delightful children hovered nearby, his youngest wearing Tim’s actual 1975 Central jersey. It was great catching up with Tim. We reminisced about our days stretching the boundaries of high school journalism, as well as our plot to put on an Al Green concert – then trot out our diminutive receiver with the same name. Hopefully I didn’t ruin our renewed friendship by posting his picture on social media.
Backup quarterback Tom Whatley (#14 above with Tim) hadn’t changed. He graduated from UGA and Emory Law School, and now practices in downtown Savannah, where he loves to live. Met his wife as a freshman in college. Their kids are grown. On fall weekends Tom tailgates with Tim in Athens.
Unlike brother Tim and me, offensive tackle Ricky “Sonar” Kurtz (#66 above) has slimmed down over the years (these are Tim’s words). His cowboy hat and red beard made Rick look like a young Willie Nelson. Now known as Rick, he still has the same mischievous eyes I remembered. The memory of older brother Danny “Radar” Kurtz was quite present: his widow, children, and mother were there to accept Danny’s state championship ring. It was heartwarming to learn that so many former teammates attended his recent funeral, including Cape, Crawford, Whatley, and others.
Wide receiver extraordinaire Stan Putnal (#42) was represented by his lovely wife and family, sister Zeta, and brother Rex (above). It was great having them all there. Jolly and Randy had visited Stan before he passed away. Coming off the field after halftime Stan’s wife Kay was commenting about how wonderful all this was. As I shared a few Stan stories her two beautiful college-age daughters figured out I was the one who had written a memorial to Stan. Their 27 year-old son Kane is the spitting image of his father. Kane wore his father’s jersey. Some not in the know actually thought Kane was Stan. My Facebook friend Zeta was a sophomore when I was a senior, and we were able to say hello at the after-party. Rex, the former Lanier and UGA standout, is now retired and living in Florida. Spending time with the Putnal family was one of the highlights of my evening.
Wingback Clement Troutman (#25) looked great, rocking a cap from The Lion King I was sure my daughter-in-law would appreciate. Now Troutman lives north of Washington. He made a point to have meaningful conversations with most of his teammates, including me.  
Tailback Curtis Wiley (#24) looked good, and still had all his same mannerisms. Offensive tackle Veotis Williams (#78) looked good, and was all smiles. Tough linebacker Gerald Payton (#68) arrived late but received a warm welcome. He seemed shorter than I remembered. Gerald and I rode the same school bus. Late flanker Hodges “Mooney” Glover (#20) was represented by his sister, a 1978 Central graduate.

Unfairly hiding behind stylish black eyeglass frames, tight end Jesse Anthony (#88) asked if I remembered who he was. While several teammates were hard to recognize (including me), I immediately pointed at Jessie and declared: “Number 88 – Jesse Anthony!” During the second quarter I was able to sit with Jesse, his lovely wife, and inquisitive son and catch up. As an underclassman Jesse had met with school counselor Mr. McElroy, who had encouraged him to get his grades up so he could get into college. He wound up playing football at Knoxville College. I remembered from a past Class of 1977 reunion that he had a tryout with the Washington Redskins. Later he coached at Northeast. Nowadays he looks great.
I am thankful to center Ken Herndon (#50) for sharing details with me about the reunion. Ken still lives in Macon and sees a few teammates around town from time to time. He still has that same great smile. Ken told me that a few years ago Bobby Pope had published the ten greatest football games he’s seen in the Macon Telegraph. On the list was the 1975 team’s signature win over Northside. Later Pope told Ken the Central game could’ve been higher than he ranked it .
Coach Roy McWilliams looked great. That's him showing off his ring with Tim. As hard as McWilliams was on us players, it is easy to see and feel the love he has for us – and us for him. His mind and wit were as sharp as ever. Cape told me that as a coach he was fortunate to have McWilliams as a sounding board. Roy’s son looked like he may have played a little football. Coaches Mike Rozier and Tony Thrift also attended and looked good.
Mean old defensive lineman Glen Neal (#71) looked good under his white Yankees cap. Receiver Al Green (#87) hasn’t changed. Speedy running back Rob Gary (#44) still looked like he could play. Tough as nails linebacker Michael Washington looked the same, with the seemingly permanent beard he had in high school still in place. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told his family just how mean he was. I remembered Rufus Brudage from junior high. He’s still got his magic smile. I heard Rufus was the grill master at the tailgate. Basketball player Johnny Oliver was a familiar face to many.
In the second half Waymond McKissick approached and asked my name. I’m usually terrible figuring out who people are after all these years, but McKissick’s face quickly rang a bell. He was a member of the 8th and 9th grade teams. I hadn’t seen Keith Berkner since high school, but his bright eyes hadn’t changed. We were able to have a nice chat.
Before the game a familiar looking couple climbed into the stands behind us. Former Sugar Bear Band baton twirler Lisa Ransom (now Reynolds) later came down to say hello. She was wearing husband Curt’s vintage Lanier letterjacket – easily the best-looking article of clothing in the stadium. Later I got to talk to Curt as well. I may have moved away to college, but I remember Curt and Lisa as newlyweds at Northside Christian church. She asked me to say hello to my younger brother Franklyn. Speaking of the Sugar Bear Band, they provided a strong performance at halftime, albeit a slightly different genre than the 1914 Colonel Bogey March days of beloved director Bob Barnette. I was just happy to hear they still are named the Sugar Bears.
Offensive tackle Earl Chester (#73) couldn’t make it – he was on his way to see his son play for Middle Tennessee State. Wayne “Bug” Bowdry (#43) lives in Kentucky. Offensive tackle Paul Connor (#52) was a last minute dropout. Guard Jeff Stewart (#63) was also missed.
After Central’s 41-0 win many gathered at the Dovetail Restaurant, upstairs from the Rookery in bustling downtown Macon. Punter Johnny Crawford (#10) brought his wife to the after-party. Johnny got to know my dad when they were both in the grocery distribution industry. When defensive tackle Ulysses “Scream Machine” Hawthorne (#77) called in, several teammates remembered the high-pitched way we called his name. We all posed for more pictures and continued our swell time.
I’m trying to piece together a recap of the 1975 season, but details are hard to come by. Be warned.

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