My senior year was marked by two major events involving my high school.
One, late in the school year, was a riot at the end of an intramural basketball game that acted as a spark for widespread racial unrest in the community, reflecting local African Americans’ frustration over plans to merge their high school and ours the next school year as part of the local integration plan. Before it was over, National Guard troops were camped out at the local fairgrounds.
The other landmark event of our senior year, taking place 50 years ago tonight (Dec. 13, 1969), was a much happier one: Our Athens High Trojans, led by future University of Georgia and New England Patriots star Andy Johnson, met the mighty Valdosta Wildcats for the state football championship.
Providing a preview of the sort of late-game heroics that would make him a Georgia Bulldogs legend two years hence against Georgia Tech, Johnson led the Trojans down the field for a touchdown and 2-point play that tied the game 26-26 as time expired. Back then, ties still were acceptable, so Athens and Valdosta reigned for the next year as co-champions — a pretty big deal, considering that same undefeated Wildcats team was named co-national champion with a school in Coral Gables, Fla., by the National Sports News Service.
Many folks (including some neutral observers) still believe that matchup between North Georgia champ Athens and South Georgia champ Valdosta was one of the best high school football games ever played anywhere — and there are some who claim it was one of the best football games they’ve ever seen, at any level.
The buildup to the game, which pitted the unbeaten Wildcats against an Athens team that had lost once early in the season, was incredible. At the pep rally held in the AHS gym, a special phone hookup allowed Athens High and UGA grad Fran Tarkenton, then quarterbacking the New York Giants, to address the gathering. Tarkenton had led Athens to a 41-20 state championship victory over Valdosta in 1955, and he wanted the Trojans to make amends for a 14-13 loss to the Wildcats in the 1965 championship game.
““I can’t remember who actually contacted Fran Tarkenton, but he agreed to talk with us,” recalled Jessica Sheffield Jordan, captain of the Athens High cheerleading squad. “I actually spoke with him first to say hello and then he spoke to the group. It was so exciting having a former Trojan, Georgia Bulldog and current pro speaking to us!”
Athens-Valdosta was big-time high school football. The Athens team flew down to Valdosta. It was the first flight for many of the players. Recalled Richard “Dickie” Davis: “The flight was directly from Athens to Valdosta on a relatively small prop that felt like it was bouncing from cloud to cloud.”
The game was so big that it actually was broadcast in Athens by two competing radio stations. (Not bad for what was then a city of just 50,000 people.)
WGAU, the regular Trojans football station, had the game called by Hope Hines, later a well-known TV sportscaster in Tennessee, but the station I normally listened to, Top 40 outlet WRFC, also somehow was allowed to cover the game, and their sports director, a UGA senior named Bill Hartman (who went on to a long TV career in Atlanta) told me the game was especially meaningful to him “because Valdosta had beaten us for the title my senior year at AHS” in 1965.
Said Hartman: “I’ve done play-by-play for a number of games, including the Bulldogs and the Falcons, but none was more exciting than the ’69 championship game.”
Hartman remembers he and his broadcast crew flew out of Athens’ tiny Ben Epps Field on a special charter flight full of Trojans fans. “It was a raucous journey to South Georgia.”
Among those on the charter flight from Athens were two of my classmates, Charlie Bonner and Bill Faircloth, who are first cousins. “Our parents wouldn’t let us drive down with friends,” Charlie recalled. Bill added that his dad even checked with his insurance agent “to make sure his policy would cover any accidents. Thankfully, he waited until we were home to tell me that.”
Many other fans made the 215-mile drive to Valdosta. Tom Hodgson recalled he and his brother and sister, Joe and Pooh (they were triplets), had to argue long and hard to get their parents to let them go.
“It was gonna require a night away from home without benefit of chaperone, and at a venue almost a day’s drive away,” he said. “Our parents weren’t stupid. But we were persistent. Persistence won.”
Of course, his parents were right, too. Staying in “a roadside motel with no pedigree so that we might ‘prep’ for the game a few hours before kick-off,” the Hodgson triplets soon found their room filled, “as other fans, including older and drunker alumni presented themselves and claimed space on our two double beds.”
Lynda Harden Powell and Ginger “Cookie” Akins Holland rode a bus to Valdosta with the rest of the Athens High drill team. Powell remembers the excitement and camaraderie on the bus. “We had so much fun all being together and watching our Trojans play such an awesome game — and, of course, the outstanding performance of all our team, but particularly our own Andy Johnson. What a wonderful and memorable night!”
Holland remembers “standing in the cold in our bathing suit-style uniforms and marching into the stadium so excited with the drum beat, with [my] insides shaking. Andy Johnson was my boyfriend at the time, so I was happy about his playing, too.”
Valdosta’s Cleveland Field was a pretty intimidating place for opponents. Legendary Wildcats coach Wright Bazemore would dress out everyone in the program, from 8th grade up, and line them all along one sideline of the field. There were 120 Wildcats on the field that night and David Lester, a linebacker/guard and special teams player for Athens, recalled “There were only 32 of us.” (Some guys had quit the team after the season’s lone loss prompted Athens coach Weyman Sellers to go on a tirade.) “Valdosta was bigger than us,” Lester said. “Rand [Lambert, who would play college ball at Alabama] was probably our largest player, and I think he weighed 165 pounds soaking wet.”
The show of force on the sideline wasn’t Bazemore’s only mind game. When the Athens team’s flight arrived in Valdosta, Lester said, “Valdosta sent a school bus with no seats, and they drove us all over town to see all the decorations, like signs saying, ‘Dump the Trojans!”’
Another trick on the visitors, Tom Hodgson said, was placing groups of Athens fans right in the middle of the Valdosta cheering section. “They may have thought that would dampen our ability to promote the team,” he said. “I assure you it did not.”
Larry Pope, who covered the game for the Athens Daily News, also recalls that the Valdosta fans “would stomp those metal bleachers all night long.”
I wasn’t among the many Athens fans who traveled down for the game. My parents were throwing a Christmas party for the staff at the branch bank Dad managed, and I was in the kitchen, listening to Bill Hartman’s call of the game. Pretty soon, I had several of the party guests in there listening with me!
“That was probably the most exciting game I had ever listened to on the radio,” recalled my high school buddy Charles Isbell. “Nothing like winning a championship in your senior year. I still have a car tag that says Athens High 1970 AAA Co-Champs.”
Valdosta, which had dubbed itself “Winnersville” (and later was named Titletown USA by ESPN) was a high school football powerhouse. Under Bazemore, the Wildcats had won six state titles since 1960, and they were the prohibitive favorite over our Trojans. The Wildcats were 12-0 coming into the game, and that included 11 games in which their opponents did not score a point!
The game went back and forth. Athens got on the board first, but with just seconds remaining in the first half, the Wildcats led 13-6. Valdosta stopped what appeared to be Athens’s final play of the half, the clock expired, and the hometown players started heading to the locker room. But the officials had thrown a flag against the Wildcats for 12 men on the field and awarded Athens one more untimed play. Andy took the snap from center, burst through the Valdosta defensive front and raced 68 yards for a touchdown. Valdosta led by only 13-12 at halftime.
Blake Giles, an Athens High grad and neophyte sports reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald at the time, said, “Coach Sellers later told me that Andy was the only player he ever had who had scored as part of the halftime show. To show what an idiot I was as a young sportswriter, I didn’t use that quote for years.”
Jim Kitchens, one of the co-captains on that Trojans team, remembers it this way: “They may have been disoriented because of the penalty, but Andy got loose and outran the fastest guy they had.” Johnson, Kitchens added, exuded a confidence that was infectious. “He was in perfect control to do something amazing.”
As my lifelong friend Carlton Powell summed him up: “Andy was a generational talent. He just had the ‘it’ factor.”
Teammate Lester said that, in the second half, the Trojans “went out renewed, because we now considered [the Wildcats] mortals.”
In the second half, Valdosta padded its lead a bit, then Athens closed the gap to 20-18, but, as the final minute approached, the Wildcats led 26-18.
It looked like Valdosta was going to run out the clock, Giles said, when Wildcats quarterback Don Golden fumbled with less than 2 minutes to play, and the Trojans recovered.
“Sellers said he told Andy on the sideline that Athens was going to score,” Giles recalled, “and Andy just said, ‘I know.’”
It took two consecutive tackle-eligible plays to do it, Giles noted. “Think about that. The tackle eligible has basically been outlawed now because coaches didn’t like being embarrassed. Even then, it was a rare play, but they ran it on two consecutive plays.”
Those passes capped off a 79-yard drive in the final 59 seconds, the last one covering 29 yards to Rand Lambert for a TD with 25 seconds remaining. The Trojans went for 2 and Andy found receiver Gray Sellers, the coach’s son, in the end zone for the conversion and the tie.
Future newspaper columnist Darrell Huckaby, who went to the game as a neutral observer but ended up pulling for Athens after Johnson’s end-of-first-half touchdown run, remembers that, after the game had ended, “The Athens people were all going crazy and the Valdosta people were acting like they had lost.”
Athens fan Johnny Barrett remembers that the Valdosta Touchdown Club awarded Bazemore a new car, and there was almost no applause from the home crowd.
“I remember Valdosta fans being devastated!” cheerleading captain Jordan said. “The tie was as bad as a loss to them. The next morning, at a restaurant, they were still moaning and groaning. They could not believe it! “
Trojans player Davis remembers “the Wildcats leaving the field quietly with heads down, as if defeated, and we Trojans as celebratory as if we had won 100-0.” He recalls that, on the flight home, “Coach Sellers was presented with a bottle of Champagne.”
Added another teammate, Mac Coile: “That team shocked Georgia that night.”
And Lester remembers that, when the team’s plane landed in Athens that night, there was a small crowd “waiting for us on the tarmac.”
The Athenians staying over in Valdosta partied hard, remembers Clissa Spratlin England, who wrote a sidebar for the Thumbtack Tribune about the party scene, in which she noted that the place to be was the Valdosta Holiday Inn, which “just happened to be the scene of about 10 different parties. However, most fans managed to attend all 10.”
For those of us who didn’t get to attend the game, “there was so much radio and newspaper coverage we all felt like we knew every play whether we were there or not,” recalled another classmate, Becky Miller Edwards.
The next day, we devoured the coverage of the game in the Daily News and Banner-Herald in Athens, as well as the Atlanta Constitution and Journal.
Lamented the Banner-Herald’s Giles: “The story I wrote on the Athens-Valdosta game had all of the basics, but it had none of the magic of the game. I was just too immature as a sportswriter to know how to do that. But, even now, 50 years later, that game remains one of the most remarkable sporting events I ever covered.”
Bill Bryant, with whom I’d gone to school with since we were 5 years old, covered the game for Athens High’s student paper, the Thumb Tack Tribune, on whose staff I served as a news and editorial writer. He remembers, “I got my first cash advance to cover the game; I think it was $15, which bought a lot of gas — and beer — in those days.”
His memories of the game include “the hit that Gary Travis put on the Valdosta player that created the fumble that gave us the ball back and opened the door for Andy to lead the Trojans to the tying touchdown. My lede for the game story for the TTT referenced the Dells’ ‘Oh, What a Night.’”
Legend has it that Bazemore was so impressed by the Athens effort that he asked to visit the Trojans in their locker room after the game, but none of the players I talked with recalled that. However, University of Georgia head coach Vince Dooley definitely was in the Athens locker room, which made sense, since Andy Johnson was headed to UGA the next year.
Ironically, a couple of Valdosta players, including QB Golden, also wound up as Bulldogs. But, because Andy quickly became the favorite to start as quarterback, Golden wound up playing for Georgia as a safety and punter.
Unfortunately, neither Johnson nor Golden lived to see this 50th anniversary. Golden and his wife died in a 2005 car wreck, and Andy passed away last year after a long illness.
That was hard to take, Lester said, quoting his teammate Gary Travis as saying, “Superman ain’t supposed to die.”
The week after the Athens-Valdosta game, Coach Sellers showed the game film several times in the Athens High auditorium. Dave Williams remembers going to a screening with his father and “sitting with Andy’s father, Marion, during the viewing. It was a special time, and very significant and apropos, as that was the last football season for the Athens High Trojans.” The next year AHS and crosstown rival Burney-Harris merged to form Clarke Central High School.
To folks who’ve grown up in an era when ties are no longer allowed, because everyone found them so unsatisfactory, the elation in Athens at the 26-26 final score of that championship game might seem a little strange.
But as Tom Hodgson put it: “The scoreboard said the game ended in a tie. Valdosta knows they really lost. And I know we really won. Go Trojans!”
My gratitude to the more than three dozen people who shared memories, information and photos for this article. Special thanks to Mindy Moore Bacon, Charlie Hayslett, David Lester and Greer Madden.