SAUTEE NACOOCHEE — My family left LaPorte, Texas, and moved to Morrow, Ga., in 1968. It was very exciting for a 10-year-old boy who really knew nothing about the world or life.
My parents bought a house just two blocks off Morrow Industrial Boulevard, which back then was just a two-lane road we could still ride our bikes down and it had a great hill. Located across Morrow Industrial from our subdivision sat Tara Elementary School. Elementary school is where I first met Kenny Stapleton, who holds the distinction of being one of my oldest lifetime friends in Georgia.
Kenny and I started playing sports together in 1968. One of our first memorable competitions was in a backyard game of wiffle ball, just he and I and imaginary runners to help complete the game. At the time, Kenny and I spent a lot of time together in and out of school. Our playground was large wooded acreage just to the east of where we lived where Southlake Mall now sits. We also went to Georgia Tech football games.
Kenny’s dad, Russ, worked for Georgia Tech at Grant Field. The first time I attended a college football game was at Georgia Tech with Kenny Stapleton. You see, coming from Texas, I was a Longhorn, and really didn’t understand the relationship between the Bee’s and the Bulldogs. I learned that at a much later date. If someone had said, “you know, it’s like Texas vs Texas A&M,” things might have been easier to for me to understand.
Kenny and I finished our high school sports careers together as seniors at Jonesboro High School, class of 1977. He and his wonderful family now make their home in Fayette County, and we still stay in touch, and he still roots for the Jackets.
Also with Kenny and me at Tara Elementary was a boy by the name of Kirby Cheeves, a very good athlete and a good friend of ours during those elementary years. We would all play together at recess. Kirby always had the best arm of all of us. Mr. Williams would have us do the President’s Physical Fitness Test and Kirby could make the softball disappear. It looked like a marble it was so far out in the field.
Upon leaving elementary school, we didn’t realize at the time that our addresses would take us to different junior high schools. Kirby lived in the Babb Junior High attendance area, which eventually meant he would attend Forest Park High School. Kenny and I lived in Jonesboro Junior High attendance area, which would lead us to Jonesboro High School. I think all together Kenny and I must have played six or seven years of organized sports together in Junior High and eventually at Jonesboro High School. The separation in elementary school put the three of us on opposite sides for three years while playing in the big Forest Park versus Jonesboro rivalry game in Clayton County. The game was played at Tara Stadium and, at that time, the stands were always quite full. The game played in 1974-75 season, broke a 15-year drought of Jonesboro losing to Forest Park. was such a big win that the score was on the binding of our yearbook.
Forty years have now passed since the 1976 Forest Park-Jonesboro football game of my senior year. On the last play of the game, our elementary classmate and friend, the Forest Park quarterback, Kirby Cheeves, let go a bomb that seemed to float in slow motion forever. It was caught by the Panthers in the end zone, ending the game. We lost our last game against our archrival and old childhood friend, and there were not going to be any do-overs. I sometimes think about that play and smile. I will never forget that it is still just a game, but damn.
Games such as that, taking place my senior year of high school some 40 years ago between Forest Park and Jonesboro, happen on Friday nights each week of the football season here in Georgia. One team always goes home mad and sad. What people don’t realize, and I became aware of meeting and greeting the Bulldog nation over the years, is that there are little boys and girls out there in backyards, playgrounds, and the middle of the street, playing games that emulate their Saturday afternoon heroes all across state. Here in Georgia it has either been the “Wasps” or the Bulldogs these young boys argue and fight about at school during recess and the sandlots, selecting favorite players from the past and present. I guess one might say that some of my punt return style might have subconsciously evolved by watching the great Randy Rhino play during my times with Kenny on the sidelines at Grant Field.
The Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry is personal and close to home. Everyone on the Bulldog side either knows or has played against someone at Tech at some time in his career. High school teammates and adversaries, family members gone astray, everyone has some connection in the state of Georgia with the opposing team during this week of trash talking.
So, once a year the two major football programs get together for a game, a battle, bragging rights. Georgia-Georgia Tech has been called many names, but the Bulldogs beating the Jackets works for me. I had the opportunity to play in four of these matchups against the Jackets and the first one didn’t go so well. Coaches hate rivalry games because they know, as many people have witnessed, what happens when rivals meet. The fans can toss all team statistics and records out the window. Expect some type of trick play by either team at any time. This big game has always been played sometime around Thanksgiving for as many years as I can remember. Rival games have always been scheduled near the end of the season giving teams time for the buildup and the opportunity to spoil a successful year by their opponent. A losing season can be salvaged and forgotten by simply defeating one’s big rival.
The 1977 Tech game, played at Grant Field, was a typical Tech game for the Georgia Bulldogs during my tenure. A tight game near the end of the first half, we were starting our third-team quarterback, Davey Sawyer, while I was taking snaps on the sidelines. I had not played quarterback for a year. Are you kidding me? Fortunately, I did not enter the game that day at quarterback, but it was close call. The score was 16-7, despite losing two quarterbacks, yet we were still in the game with no offense. Fourth quarter, with time running out in the game, the defense forced Tech to punt the ball. The punt is bad and the ball hit the turf in no man’s land, bouncing, and skipping towards me as Johnny Henderson and Bill Krugg give chase. The look on their faces said it all. Their desperate sense of urgency was conveyed with just a look — pick it up! I did not try to pick it up. It appeared to be futile. So, 16-7 was the score that year, and we lost, and I hate losing!
The game to end all games was in 1978 in Athens. I remember the railroad tracks were packed as we exited the buses to screaming, obnoxious, insane Georgia fans called the “Track People.” The odor of bourbon wafted through the air, mixed with the awful smell of stale beer. These people had been there all night! Coach Russell said the Track People were his kind of people and word had it Coach would drive by on Friday nights before the game on Saturdays. The “Wonderdogs of ’78” were a very young team with freshman and sophomores starting in many key positions. Our team that year relied upon the ability of Willie McClendon to run the football with a few passes just to keep people honest. Four fumbles, one interception, and a successful onside kick gave Tech all the help during the first half of the game. None of us seemed to be able to hold on to the football. We are lucky we only lost four. Tech is running the ball with Eddie Lee Ivory, scoring two touchdowns and setting up two field goals. I remember looking at the scoreboard thinking 20-0 — no way! We were at home, and it was only the second quarter.
In the middle of the second quarter, I get knocked out attempting to catch and return a punt. I will say I was never unconscious, but yes, they had to come get me and help me off the field. Seven stitches in the chin and a jaw that still pops are my reminders of the greatest Georgia-Georgia Tech game ever — but I am biased. Buck Belue comes in the game after I get knocked out takes the team down, and Willie McClendon scores and it is 20-7, just before halftime.
A takeaway gives our offense the ball at the beginning of the second half, and Willie and the boys drive the ball down and score. It is 20-14, bad guys. The game gets a little crazy as rivalries always do. Early in third quarter, I have the opportunity to return a punt, and get loose for 72 yards and score. Georgia goes ahead 21-20 for the first time that day, but it was short-lived.
The very next play, a high school nemesis of mine, a worthy adversary from Newnan High School, wide receiver Drew Hill, took the kickoff and set a new Tech record with a 102-yard return for a touchdown and now the score is 26-21. So Tech went for two points and made it — 28-21. This only sets the stage for several players to step up, cementing their names in the Georgia history books. I think there were several fourth down conversions during – Belue led drive, aided by the incredible Amp Arnold escaping on the final fourth down play behind Tech defenders scoring the final touchdown. The first two-point play was ruled pass interference so we lined up and ran a counter option. Buck pitched to Amp, and he high stepped it into the end zone — 29-28!!! Bulldogs win in greatest Georgia vs. Tech game ever, at least in my humble opinion.
The Georgia Tech game at Grant Field in 1979 was a boring 16-3 win by the Bulldogs. Neither team had a great record that year, and there were no bowl games involved in the outcome like the year before. I believe that year ended Pepper Rogers’ tenure at Tech.
One memory that has stuck with me from playing my last game at Grant field in 1979 was when some crazy fool came out of the stands. This guy was wearing a red-union suit (long underwear) and ran towards the Georgia offensive huddle (alcohol, I surmise) and jumped on the back of Hugh Nall, our starting center and one of my closest friend. I thought he was one of our fans, wearing red, until he jumped on Hugh grabbing him around the neck. He could not have made a bigger mistake. Jump on anyone on the offensive line, defensive line, a running back perhaps, or how about a wide receiver, maybe even a quarterback, but this unsuspecting fool jumped on the meanest, most intense football player on the field. Now, this all happened in clear view of the Georgia bench, yet no one moved, in less than the time it would have taken for anyone to step on the field, Hugh had this guy on the ground, handful of collar in left hand, gloved right hand pumping up and down like an old windmill in a thunderstorm. Coach Dooley later questioned Hugh about whether he thought hitting him once or twice was sufficient. Hugh’s comment back was, “I thought I only hit him once or twice.” Hugh was never very good at math anyway.
Herschel Walker’s single-season rushing record was set in the 1980 game against Tech. During my last Tech game, I also became the career leader in punt returns at Georgia, an honor I carried until Damien Gary broke it in 2003. The final score in ‘80 was 38-20, and the final quarter seemed like one big celebration for remaining undefeated. Finishing a perfect season at home, defeating our state rival, was the icing on the cake. The rest of the decorations for the cake would have to wait for the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on January 1, 1981.
Georgia-Georgia Tech is still the season maker-or-breaker, and this year’s game is no different. Georgia Tech has been playing well and has had some big wins, but then so have the Bulldogs. My experience tells me we have the makings and opportunity for an exciting game. GO DAWGS!