Roy Exum: The Best Players I Ever Saw

Sunday, August 17, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I dug a deep hole for myself several weeks ago when, in a story about fabled Scottsboro (Ala.) quarterback Pat Trammell, I declared him among the top five high school football players who ever grew up in this area. There is no way I can substantiate that statement because the truth is no one will ever know who the top five really are until we get to heaven where only the Lord himself can answer such a question.

Trammell’s name came up because Pat will be among the charter members of the Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame when its inaugural class is enshrined this fall. He was a great athlete at tiny Scottsboro High School, being named as a high school All-American in both football and basketball. He then led Alabama to its first national championship under Bear Bryant but because he died of cancer 46 years ago at the age of 29, not many can remember how truly great Pat Trammell really was.

So, with high school football set to start this week, allow me to take another stab at my top five players. When I became a sports writer in the late ‘60s, it was the loose consensus among the old-timers that the best football player in Chattanooga’s history was another guy you probably never heard of. Humpy Heywood’s magnetism attracted a boarding student named Eddie Prokop to Baylor who was from Ohio. I was assured that Prokop, a 5-foot-11 quarterback, was in a class by himself.

Eddie later went to Georgia Tech, as so many Baylor players did back then, to the delight of Bobby Dodd. Seriously, one year the entire Georgia Tech backfield all came from Chattanooga and lineman Bill Healy, a two-time All-American, is still considered as the best at his position in Tech’s entire football history. Even with that, Prokop, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting as a senior in 1943, was a once-in-a-lifetime player.

Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli won the Heisman Trophy that year, leaving immediately after the final game to join the Marines. Famed sports writer Grantland Rice, after watching Bertelli complete 169 of 324 passes in 26 games accounting for 2,582 yards, famously wrote, “In Angelo’s senior year, Notre Dame averaged more yards than Iwo Jima and Guam.”

Prokop was just as good. In the 1944 Sugar Bowl, No. 13 Georgia Tech was playing No. 15 Tulsa when there was a wild play in the first quarter that broke Prokop’s nose and knocked out some of his teeth (facemasks hadn’t been introduced to the game). Eddie was so mad over the foul he responded with 199 yards rushing, threw a touchdown pass and kicked two extra points in the 20-18 victory. He was then drafted in the first round by Boston and remained sensational before he died of a heart attack while playing golf in 1955 at the age of 33.

Steve Sloan, who played for Bradley County and would also become a Sugar Bowl MVP while leading Alabama to two national championships in 1964 and 1965, took the luster off of Prokop’s high school achievements but by then Red Etter had built Central High into such a dynasty you could easily pick five of Etter’s top Purple Pounders as the “Five Best” and get little argument.

Central had dozens of great athletes, guys like Dickie Phillips, Ed “Racehorse” Nobles, Bobby Etter, and Charlie Glenn, who died just the other day. I asked Coach Etter who was the toughest player he ever coached at Central and, after he hemmed and hawed, he said it was probably “Indian” Cantrell. The legend was that Cantrell later went to Chicago, joined up with the mob and died after a vicious knife fight inside the men’s room at the Chicago Greyhound station!

Etter’s top aide, Stan Farmer, disagreed, recalling the night a first-year sophomore dashed to the sideline between plays and yelled, “Hold these!” The kid then put six broken teeth in Farmer’s outstretched hand and ran back in the game. The “kid” was Bobby Hoppe, who Auburn coach Shug Jordan told me was “the hardest hitter” he had ever seen in his life.

Who is to say Healy, Cantrell or Hoppe deserved to be on any “Top Five,” much less Prokop or Sloan? Of those five, I only saw Sloan play in high school and it was in a basketball game. So do you pick the best from what you’ve seen and heard about, or do you limit it to just guys you have personally witnessed?

I mentioned two guys from McCallie, Scrappy Moore and Bill Spears, because, like Sloan, they are in the National Football Foundation’s Hall of Fame, but, lordy, they were old back when I was still young. It’s unfair to compare them to Lakeview’s Steve Poole or East Ridge’s Chuck Strickland, who were captains at Tennessee and Alabama, respectively. See what I mean?

Then there is this: do you pick a player just on his high school ability or include what he did afterwards as well? A great example is John Hannah, who played at Baylor but returned to Albertville for his senior year due to “extenuating circumstances.” Hannah would never be in your top five based on high school alone but after becoming a two-time All-American at Alabama and then being regarded as one of “the” premier offensive lineman in the NFL for a number of years, he would easily be a shoo-in based on his career. And to this day Hannah picks Baylor’s much-beloved Luke Worsham as the man who shaped his life, not Bear Bryant.

So to end the stream of emails wondering who I would pick as my “Top Five,” let’s confine it to those I saw with my own eyes from 1960 until 2000. Knowing well I’ll probably forget somebody and make a mistake, and that maybe I place too much value on how a kid did in other sports in defining one’s athleticism, here are the five who impressed me the most:

REGGIE MATHIS – This guy came as close to being out of the same mold as Bo Jackson or Hershel Walker than any I have ever seen. At Notre Dame he was all state in football, basketball and baseball. His greatest gift, believe it or not, was his uncanny peripheral vision – he could see things developing before anyone else could. That’s the truth. During his senior year, he finally picked Kentucky over every other SEC school but a colorful sheriff, who was a huge Tennessee fan, openly used flat-out extortion to force Reggie to sign with Tennessee. I know, I was there. Reggie balked, purposely taking a dive on the SAT test to keep from going to Knoxville under such loathable circumstances, and instead went to a junior college where he was a Juco All-American but by then Barry Switzer had gotten his claws on Reggie and Mathis played two years for Oklahoma at defensive end, where he was an all-conference player.

JIMMY BROWN – I was still in junior high school when Jimmy earned a record 14 varsity letters at Baylor and he was the most exciting athlete I had ever seen. Remember, this was when they didn’t give varsity letters for “participation” and Jimmy excelled at everything, becoming one of the most legendary athletes in the old Mid-South Association. As expected, Jimmy promptly signed with Tech and a cute story is that several years ago, weighing considerably more today than he did as a player, Brown took a friend and the man’s grandson to a game at Grant Field, As the teams warmed up, the kid was looking through that day’s program and suddenly blurted, “Wow! Mr. Brown, there is a guy with all kinds of records who has the same name you do. Did you know him?” Suffice it to say, Jimmy didn’t think it was nearly as funny as a group of former players did who were sitting nearby.

REGGIE WHITE and CHARLES MORGAN – The two Howard High players will always be known as “the greatest package deal” in the history of the SEC and I watched them become legends starting in the eighth grade. By their senior year over 100 colleges were recruiting them and one day they were being flown to Tuscaloosa on the athletic department plane. Reggie noticed a telephone and ace recruiter Brother Oliver – who later coached at UTC – asked Reggie if he’d like to call his mother. Suddenly, as Reggie was talking, Oliver cried, “Reggie, we are running out of wire!” and White slammed the phone home like he was dunking a basketball. Both started as freshmen at UT and, after a sickening loss that year to Alabama, Charles was named as the Defensive Player of the Week by ABC after he made something like 18 tackles and scooped up a pair of fumbles. The very next morning, a stupid assistant coach told the two they couldn’t eat breakfast, saying “if you lose you don’t eat.” Reggie shrugged it off but Charles got so mad he immediately returned to Chattanooga. No matter how hard Johnny Majors begged and pleaded, Charles never put on a UT uniform again while Reggie became one of the best ever at UT and “The Minister of Defense” in the NFL.

ANDY RUTLEDGE – Somebody smart once said of Red Etter, “The great Central teams happened because Etter had the uncanny knack of watching each player and then putting each exactly in the very places they could help the team the most.” That same Etter magic occurred at Baylor in 1973 when Red skillfully built a team around Rutledge, a strong and fast running back whose leadership ability was by example. The guy was stunning on a team of talented over-achievers and Rutledge became quite a prize in the recruiting wars for his mere presence on the football field. Andy, a high-type guy, chose Vanderbilt and it so infuriated one rival coach that, when his team played Vanderbilt, he told one of his kamikazes to ignore it if Rutledge dared to signal for a fair catch. Sure enough, there came a high, lofty punt and Rutledge waved his arm but the opposing player nearly sliced Andy in half and was tossed from the game to a chorus of hearty boos. That’s how good Andy Rutledge was.

* * *

Some of the best players always remained unknown. Whether it is poor coaching, injuries, off-the-field behavior or a myriad of other hurdles, fate can be the cruelest teammate. The linemen are the unsung heroes every fall and any purist will tell you the kicking game is every bit as important as a good offense or defense. Penalties are “free yardage” for an opponent and the team that is most penalized is indeed a loser.

Years ago I learned that if you’ll tell me how many turnovers, or take-aways, any two teams have in a game, I can tell you which team won the game about 85 percent of the time without knowing the score. If a game is close, five or six plays will tell the game’s story and, about 85 percent of the time, the best player on a given team will be responsible for the biggest plays.

Oh my goodness, let the season begin!

royexum@aol.com


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