Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Belated 40th Anniversary

Every year all across the country many schools are crowned state champions, in one sport or another. Some small schools play a few other small schools in their area and call themselves state champs. I won’t even get into travel ball – every weekend  it’s a different “world series.” But to win the state title in the football-crazy state of Georgia, in the highest classification, is quite a claim to fame - especially when no other Macon school has equaled that feat in the past 40 years. It’s been a long time, but here’s how the lowly kicker remembered it:

1974 was supposed to be our year. Central was loaded with talent, including two high school All-Americans. But the season turned disappointing. Afterward all we could hope for was a better 1975, my junior year.

Preseason: Defensive lineman Ulysses Hawthorne (#77) missed a practice. Rumor was he was at Six Flags. The next day he also had a new nickname: Scream Machine, from the pain he endured at the next practice.

With the graduation of high school all-America kicker David Taylor, the kicking duties were mine to lose. And that I did, when sophomore Ricky “Sonar” Kurtz (#66) drilled one practice kickoff one yard deep into the end zone. The coaches had seen enough. I would not regain the kickoff duties until the second or third game of the season. Playing offensive tackle the whole game and kicking off tied did not mix well for young “Kirk”, as Coach Reynolds called him.

On picture day the trainer was handing out the game jerseys to wear. Players crowded the equipment room doorway, all wanting their jersey. The trainer would hold up a number and try to remember whose it was. Knowing all the numbers, I’d quickly tell him. Finally he said “Murphy, you know so much. Come on in and help me.” This is just what I wanted. As a sophomore backup I had been assigned number 82. A decent number, but I wanted a lower number. All the new sophomores were wanting their favorite numbers as well. Finally I found it: number twenty one. Worn in 1974 by the ever so cool receiver Tom Poole. Sophomore Jeff Byrd spied the jersey and begged for it, but no deal – it was mine. I handed him a consolation prize – my old number 82. Perhaps the big smile on my face in the team picture is from finally getting to wear my favorite number.

Senior baseball player Johnny Crawford (#10) joined the football team as a punter, giving me someone to practice with. I got quite good at catching punts and often dreamed that I’d be pressed into service as a punt returner. Right. As the season progressed Johnny decorated his practice helmet with three stripes of athletic tape, plus a lightning bolt. He called himself Thunder Foot, so I claimed the title Lightning Leg. I found an ancient single-bar suspension helmet in the equipment room that happened to fit, so it became my practice helmet. It even stuck out on the sides, like the one Johnny Unitas wore in the 1960’s. When Crawford decorated his helmet I did the same, with two thick stripes. I also wrapped the single bar in tape, making it white. I’ve always regretted not keeping that helmet as a memento of my playing career.

David Cape (#51) was the fair-skinned senior long snapper. Back then he was a bit of a Eddie Haskell type, always up to something. I always remember driving past the Fountain Carwash with Cape in my red 1966 Ford Country Sedan station wagon. Cape reached over and turned off the ignition key. As a relatively inexperienced driver I almost panicked. Out of all of us Cape carried the torch, coaching and teaching and leading another generation of middle-Georgia football players.    

But all fun and games quickly ceased during a subsequent practice. Junior defensive end David Belote (#85) was the exception to the typical high school jock – he was a good student as well. But on the field he was a white tornado, with a motor that never stopped. The next year Belote, Paul Conner (#52), Roger Jackson (#41), and I would be returning starters and elder statesmen, but in the summer of ‘75 Belote had yet to be named a starter. And when Belote slammed into senior quarterback Mike Jolly (#11) the coaches, especially offensive coordinator Roy McWilliams, were not pleased. Jolly limped off the field with a sprained knee. Forty years later McWilliams was still cussing Belote. Perhaps that’s why David was a no-show at the reunion.

“There goes our season” quipped one senior. Very quickly my role became all the more important – backup quarterback Randy Griffin (#12) rode to school with me every day. One day I almost had a wreck. After that I was extra careful - I didn’t want to mess up the hopes of the entire school.

21-14 over Griffin Bears - September 5th at Porter Stadium (I went 1-2 kicking PATs): as high school kids long before the internet age, we knew little about “distant” opponents. At least I didn’t. We did know we were expected to win. In 1974 I wasn’t impressed with Griffin’s stadium. Our Griffin, sophomore backup quarterback Randy, filled in for the injured Jolly and got the job done. When I missed an extra point I stomped my leg, providing hilarious entertainment at the Sunday afternoon film session. Coach McWilliams ran the clip over and over, and I quickly learned to never to that again.

35-6 at Douglas County – September 12th (5-5): road trip out west of Atlanta, past Six Flags. I remember wearing orange sleeves under my white jersey, with the orange band carefully tucked under for what I considered to be a super cool look. But standing outside the locker room before the game someone pointed out my different look, and the always-helpful center Mike Wager (#53) “fixed” it: untucking my collar and tucking the orange undersleeves so they couldn’t be seen. “Thanks, Mike” I said – intentionally NOT calling him Wager, the name we ALWAYS called him.

After the game the team bus drove west on I-20 to Atlanta, but instead of taking the ramp south our bus driver Buck took the adjoining northbound ramp into downtown Atlanta. The entire team was chanting “Go Buck Go!” Buck took the International Boulevard exit, turned right onto Peachtree, then another right and pulled up in front of a nightclub and braked to a stop. Wager and linebacker Gerald Payton (#68) stood to get off the bus. The coaches quickly nixed the idea, and we all roared with laughter. The bus rolled away and headed home.

22-8 over Keenan of SC – September 19th at Porter Stadium (1-3 plus one short field goal)

21-7 over Butler Bulldogs – September 27th at Porter Stadium (3-3). On the Saturday morning after we played I would pour over the Macon Telegraph’s game story, to see of course if my name made the paper. But several times the story got it wrong, crediting holder Randy Griffin with the kick. As soon as I kicked Randy would grab the black kicking block and jog off the field, while I was standing there watching my kick and accepting attaboys from the line. As a protest during practice I swapped places with Randy, a petty and stupid thing to do. McWilliams didn’t have time to screw around, and I was quickly reprimanded.

45-0 over Richmond Academy - October 3rd at Porter Stadium (1-3).

48-0 over arch-rival Southwest  - October 17th at Porter Stadium (6-6). Warming up before one game at Porter Stadium, I felt the beginnings of an asthma attack. Having suffered with asthma all my life, this was no huge deal, though I knew clearing it up before the game started would be best. By that point I carried my orange kicking tee and black field goal block with me to games, to insure they weren’t lost. It never occurred to me to bring my inhaler on the bus to the game. I didn’t panic, but sent a team manager back to school on a mission to get my inhaler. After that I always took my inhaler to games.

36-0 at Northeast - October 24th at Henderson Stadium (4-4)

20-6 at Lucy Laney - October 31st in Augusta (2-3) Halloween, when strange things happen. Thrust out of our normal environment, we got to know our teammates all the more intimately. Riding through eastern Georgia on a two lane highway fullback Randy Rutherford (#33) perked up and exclaimed “Hey! Look at those PEE-can trees!” I looked out the window and said to myself “It’s pe-CAAN.”

On the opening kickoff I ran downfield admiring a particularly good kick. Then suddenly my field of vision was blocked – by a huge opponent. He slammed me to the ground with a vicious hit. With the play still live I immediately started to scramble to my feet – only to be pushed back down to the ground. I get it, I thought. I stayed on the ground until the play was over. Fortunately that happened only once.

Somehow on an extra point I had the breath knocked out of me. I can’t remember being hit or roughed, but I quickly had to gather myself and prepare for the kickoff.

14-27 vs. Northside Warner Robins - November 14th at Porter Stadium (2-2). The only blemish on our season. Led by all-region senior running back Tony Davezan, Northside had a strong team. On kickoffs I was instructed to kick the ball away from Davezan. He would line up as the deep back on the left side of the field, where a right-footed kicker would more naturally pull the ball. So every time I would approach the ball from the left, and kick right. It wasn’t the most natural thing to do, but in the two Northside games I was able to kick away from Davezan on seven of my eight kickoffs. Only once in the second game did Davezan and the other deep back switch places. Before the kickoff I noticed the switch and instead kicked off left – away from Davezan. The one time I messed up and had my kickoff sail toward Davezan I received a sharp reprimand from McWilliams.

When the Telegraph’s All-Region high school football team was named, I was disappointed to not be on it. Jolly and Stan Putnal (#42) and several other Central players made it. The kicker was Davezan, the Northside running back. They must not have been room for him in the backfield. Maybe he didn’t miss as many extra points as me. My senior year I was again disappointed – no one was named the all-star kicker or punter.

21-19 vs. Northside Warner Robins - November 26th at Porter Stadium (3-3). After losing to Northside in the season finale, as region champions we slated to clash again in the first round of the state playoffs – the “area” championship. Undoubtedly the most exciting game ever played at old Porter Stadium. Facing 4th & 20 with 1:20 remaining, Jolly scrambled right for a 23 yard first down run. With no timeouts remaining, Jolly sneaked across the goal line for the winning touchdown.

21-6 vs. Wayne County at Porter Stadium for the South Georgia Championship (3-3). As McWilliams tells the story, this was a duel between WR/CB Stan Putnal for Central and WR/CB Lindsay Scott of Wayne County (and later UGA). Coach Roy was irate when Jolly threw an out route instead of a post. But Jolly and Putnal were setting Scott up for the next play – a touchdown.

The state championship game was delayed a week when Lakeside High protested an official’s decision. During the off weekend the Chargers bussed up both Saturday and Sunday to practice on the unfamiliar AstroTurf of Lakewood Stadium in south Atlanta. After over four months of long practices the road trips provided a welcome change to the routine. As we rode our yellow “cheesehounds” up I-75 two of our coaches passed the busses in an old pickup truck. Coach McWilliams was riding shotgun, and as he passed he saluted the bus as only he could. The entire left side of the bus lined every window to return the salute. Like me, I’m sure the rest of the team still carries this fond memory with them (in fact we reminisced about this at our reunion earlier this fall). Both days after the practices the busses dropped us off at the state farmer’s market cafeteria for a chopped steak dinner.

One of the more popular places in the locker room was the window looking out where the Central High Sugar Bear Band gathered for practice, since that’s where the girls were. As Christmas neared the football team gathered around the window and joined in a chorus of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. This became a cherished memory for band director Bob Barnette.

21-14 at Douglass High at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta (1-1). Cold. Packed stadium. A night I would always remember. Several of us players walked out on the AstroTurf well before the official warm-ups, like players often do these days. When we ran out onto the field just before game time I was missing from my usual place near the front – it was my grandfather’s first time watching me play, and he was standing outside the locker room. I hoped this break from routine wouldn’t mess with my performance.

Back in those days players almost never wore gloves. Due to the cold I donned cordovan leather businessman’s gloves – that I wore only on the sidelines. No way I wanted to risk wearing them on the field in the unlikely event I needed handle the ball, attempt to tackle, or block. Looking back I’m sure the gloves looked completely unathletic. I’m sure I wore long sleeves under my orange jersey, probably white.

After our first touchdown the coaches decided to fake the point after and pass for two points. We hadn’t faked a PAT all year. Usually we’d practice the fake to the right, but for some reason we ran the play to the left. After Cape’s perfect snap to holder Jolly, I charged left and blocked the first guy I saw. Maybe he was already falling down and I fell on top of him, I forget. It seemed like the left side was clear and I thought Jolly would run it in, but I was unaware of what was going on behind me. Just then Jolly’s crisp pass sailed over my head to the receiver (Clemet Troutman (#25) ?), but it was too high to be caught.

After the second touchdown we went for two and made it. When we finally went ahead with our third touchdown (a Jolly QB sneak?) I was finally able to kick the extra point.

As the clock ticked to zero I remember a feeling of elation I’d rarely experienced either before or since. I did something completely uncharacteristic, climbing into the stands to celebrate with my friends in the Sugar Bear band. That was just something a football player didn’t do, but I had a great time.

The post-season football banquet was somewhat memorable. Players wearing their finest late-70’s attire. Was that the year I rocked a light blue polyester leisure suit, royal blue polka-dot open collared shirt, and white patent leather shoes? I’m not sure. I do remember the haul: my football jersey, a state championship trophy, framed certificate, and the hardest to get article of clothing in town: the orange Central High letterman’s jacket, complete with my name stitched in the pocket and football-shaped 1975 state AAA champs patch on the sleeve.

The next day the players were to wear their jerseys to school. Not me – all I wanted to wear was that letter jacket. Like memories of the state championship season, it hangs in my closet to this day.

NOTE: in honor of our team’s 40th anniversary of winning the state AAA championship I started working on this essay last fall, with hopes of posting it during the season to coincide with the team reunion, or in December when the game was won.

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