On Tuesday, December 6, 2016, I was sitting on the dais in the Waldorf Astoria’s Grand Ballroom. My view overlooked the never-ending sea of magnificently decorated tables.
People fill the chairs in their finest black ties and beautiful evening gowns. It is beyond anything this humble Georgia boy has ever seen or ever hope to see…the National Football Foundation Annual Awards dinner in New York City.
The Waldorf was built in the late 1890’s, opening in 1897, the largest hotel in the world at the time. Being in that ballroom the first time was breath taking for me. Several balconies surround the great hall adding to the ambiance and opulence of the room; banners representing every college, and every university that ever played the game of football hung from the balcony railings covering every square inch of open space.
The annual event for 2016 is about to begin, and I have the best seat in the house.
The 59th NFF Annual Awards dinner, of which 58 have taken place in this prestigious hotel, in this very room.
Having a last name beginning with a W has always been a blessing or a curse depending on the situation, as I know some of you can relate.
Tonight, it is a blessing because I am off camera, on the audience’s right. I am at left cornerback in college again. I can see the entire field and players with a slight turn of the head.
This is great!
The dais and ballroom are full of tables crowded with family, teammates, and coaches from all over the country to honor the special guests. Yes, my football brothers are here in New York, some sitting in the middle of the ballroom at the ESPN table, while family and others teammates are sitting at the Georgia table on the first balcony allowing for a great view.
The row of young men sitting behind me on the dais are the 14 finalists for the William V. Campbell Award for Excellence in Academics.
The award now has been given for the past 27 years with Zach Terrell, quarterback from Western Michigan, winning this year. He was sitting directly behind me. What a wonderful young man! I will be pulling for the Broncos in the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin.
They go into the game 13-0. WOW! I know how you feel.
I had been at various receptions with these young men, a press conference, and had spoken to many of them and their parents around the hotel. They are a very special group. I encourage all to look up these players online and check them out.
A player you might recognize who won the Campbell Trophy in 1998 was our very own Bulldog, Matt Stinchcomb.
So, you get the picture…an elite group of players.
While speaking with these players, I kept seeing the faces of many of my teammates. Maybe it wasn’t the faces I was seeing but the attitudes. Listening to the testimonies coming from many of these young men I heard, “I was too slow” or “I was too small” or “I would never make it in D1 football”.
The stories sounded remarkably similar to ones I had heard some 40 years ago in McWhorter Hall the night of our arrival in Athens. I know we were not the fastest; I did get caught against Clemson in 1980. I also know we weren’t the smartest, but twenty-five of us finished with degrees, and a bunch did not stop there.
The O-line that came to New York with me, Hugh Nall, Nat Hudson, and Tim Morrison, will tell you they outworked everyone, and it would not be a lie. The offensive line worked twice as hard as the rest of us during practice on those teams.
Coach McDuffie would start practice 30 minutes before anyone else. Coaches can say what they want, but today’s players would all quit if they ran into a Wayne McDuffie. The answer for these players was very simple.
“I will not quit.”
“I will not relent.”
“You can’t beat me.”
I don’t think anyone exemplified the personality and attitude of 1980 team better than our Captain. Frank Ros still has that same attitude today, but I think that could be said of all of those seniors of 1980. Don’t tell us we can’t do something.
Really, most of the starters and subs on the defensive side of the ball in 1980 were offensive players in high school, and walk-ons, meaning it wasn’t their first choice; it was their only choice.
This year’s two coaches inducted were classics in my book. Frank Girardi from Lycoming (1972-2007), and Bill Bowes from New Hampshire (1972-1998), both posting amazing records and careers teaching and coaching thousands along the way.
How many coaches these days begin and end a career at the same place?
Coach Bowes was not aware how restrictions had been placed on practice time and the amount of contact between players, but he did not seemed surprised.
A previous inductee, Kevin Butler, informed me on Sunday night that Tuesday night’s awards dinner would be very special.
The evening did not disappoint any one in attendance. Mike Tirico was the Master of Ceremonies, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, gave the invocation. Chancellor William McRaven of the University of Texas received the Distinguished American Award. Mike Fisher had taped and watched his speech twice after the dinner was over before anyone left the ballroom. William H. McRaven is one of the most dynamic people I have had the pleasure of meeting this year.
While listening to the speech, I was reminded of what Chris Welton said at one time that “the only thing that might bring men closer than we were might be serving together in the military.” William H. McRaven, a retired 4-Star admiral and Navy SEAL, shared comparisons of SEAL training and football.
Why don’t people like him run for president?
Watch his 2014 Commencement speech at University of Texas. Incredible.
Grant Teaff was Awarded Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football. Coach Teaff, a legend at the Baylor Bears, a team we played in Athens the first game of the season in 1978. Coach Teaff has spent a lifetime in coaching.
When he retired in 1994, he became the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association where he made coaches better through his efforts for 22 years. Grant Teaff can truly say he spent a lifetime making the game and everything about it better.
Archie Manning was the Gold Medal Recipient which is the highest award given by the National Football Foundation. Archie Manning is as nice and polite answering questions from total strangers as he is with his family. An easy smile hides the fierce competitor he was when he was playing the game. The smile seemed to increase in size when his three sons entered the room to honor their father receiving this prestigious award.
Having seen what happens to Herschel when he comes to Athens, I no longer feel bad for him. Peyton Manning is a saint, posing for selfies with everyone that asked. That’s what makes him special. My fellow inductees of 2016 were all wonderful men and very deserving and special in their own way. Randal Cunningham was selected to speak on behalf of the class of 2016. Randal did a fine Job representing us and keeping it short because night seemed to last forever.
The list I had created was similar to Randal’s, and I am sure that each one of the inductees had one in the back of their mind; all the people to whom you’d like to say thanks.
John and Fern Woerner, my parents, are at the top of the list. Dad, for teaching me the game, and mom for always reminding me it’s just a game.
Thanks to all my teachers, and coaches over the years, they all played a part in making me who I am.
Every teammate on every team I have ever been a part of because we always take something from the field after each game, win or lose.
Coach Weyman Sellers, at Jonesboro High School, fanned the fire in me to work, and changed the way I viewed the game.
Coach John Kasay changed a bunch of us on our way through UGA. He, like my father, turned out to be one of the smartest men I know. Because of you, I never quit. I am sorry you did not get to make the trip to New York. You were truly missed.
My teammates and dear friends that have become family. Thanks again for sharing.
A special thanks to those teammates that made the trip to New York to share this award with me…Frank Ros, Hugh Nall, Chris Welton, Nat Hudson, Tim Morrison, Pat McShea, Robert Miles, Mike Fisher and Tim “Spanky” Chapman. It meant the world to me that you were there. What a celebration we had!
Coach Erk Russell who made anything seem possible if you believed and successfully challenged the opportunity in front of you.
Coach Vince Dooley, still the winningest coach in Georgia history, and my friend. Thank you, Vince, and your wonderful wife Barbara. Marianne and I treasure your friendship.
My wife, Marianne, who is the one person that has probably seen me play more games of football than anyone, I will never be able to repay the debt…but the first trip to New York was a good start. We had a wonderful time!
I Had A Promise To Keep
It has been a week since the dinner at the Waldorf, and I am a little tardy in getting this column submitted in a timely manner. First, I was exhausted after blitzing through New York with family and friends. New York is beautiful city at Christmas, and I would like to have had more time. Go see the 9/11 Memorial, a very moving place.
Secondly, we had a graduation in the family the Friday after my induction.
If you have been reading my articles, you know my sister, Christi, died the weekend of the GA/FLA game.
Her daughter, Jordan Friend, a 2014 UGA Grad in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology degrees (3.50 GPA) was graduating from the University of St Augustine for Health Sciences with a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy.
We had to be there as a representative for my sister. We are all so proud of Jordan, and I know her mom is smiling big time and still watching over her. The good thing for me is I will probably be the uncle that needs the most help with this deteriorating body of mine, so it’s good to have a physical therapist in the family! Good luck with the job search, but don’t go too far away!