John Shearer: Remembering The 1977 Baylor Football Team, Part 2 – Becoming State Bound

Monday, November 20, 2017 - by John Shearer

Forty years ago this fall, my Baylor School teammates and I were determined to help the Red Raiders return to a top position in Chattanooga high school football after a disappointing season of 5-5 in 1976.
 
Beginning in seventh grade, many of us had not only witnessed and cheered on some outstanding Baylor varsity teams under coach E.B. “Red” Etter from the stands, but we had also gone undefeated ourselves for three years on our junior high teams.


 
So we deeply understood what the Baylor tradition at that time was.
 
And after being joined by a small number of boarding teammates, underclassmen and several from the area public junior high schools, we were ready to bring Baylor back in 1977.
 
So here are some details of the middle part of that outstanding season, which included several close wins that qualified us for the playoffs -- and toughened us up.
 
It was a tale that went all the way to Memphis’ Liberty Bowl.
 
I hope to mention details of the last few regular season games and the playoffs in an upcoming story in the near future.
 
In summing up this team, one could say it did not overly dominate other teams, nor was it as special in Chattanooga sports history as some of those rare ones that won state championships. But it is special to me and my teammates and supporters of the Big Red at the time, and that has caused me to reflect on it 40 years later.
 
And I am not the only one who reflects on it from time to time, either.
 
“I remember so much stuff from that year, it’s unbelievable,” admitted Ryan Crimmins, a senior cornerback on the team and currently the chairman of Lawson Electric Co.
 
As I mentioned in the Part 1 story written in early September, we had enjoyed a 27-14 win over Hixson on Sept. 2, when we opened that school’s current stadium in front of what may have been the largest crowd ever to see a Hixson home game. 
 
The next Friday, Sept. 9, we went down to Warner Robins, Ga., to play Northside High there. Warner Robins, which is located just below Macon off Interstate 75, has long been a town with a number of good high school football players. In 1976, future Auburn star James Brooks and future Georgia back Jimmy Womack along with future Florida State star Ron Simmons had led rival Warner Robins High to a state and mythical national championship.
 
More recently, current Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has hailed from that town, although he played at Houston County High.
 
Northside High’s coach was Conrad Nix. He went on to coach at Northside off and on until recent years and won a state championship in 2006 and 2007. His son is Patrick Nix, a former standout quarterback for Auburn in the early-to-mid 1990s and the father of Alabama high school standout quarterback Bo Nix.
 
Patrick Nix was 5 years old in the fall of 1977 and was likely at the game. 
 
At least from our perspective, Warner Robins Northside did not seem that much better than us, despite the strong reputation for high school football in Georgia. We had also lost to the Eagles the year before at Baylor’s Heywood Stadium, and I remember walking back to the locker room in the gymnasium, and hearing coach Etter mention to anyone who would listen that Baylor gave that game away.
 
In 1977, I vividly remember the bus drive down there to Warner Robins that Friday. The long-unfinished short stretch of Interstate 75 above Atlanta was finally completed just weeks before, so we made good time. We hoped that would be a metaphor for our season, and it would end up being figuratively complete as well.
 
I might be confused with another game, but I think we stopped at a cafeteria in Georgia for our training meal and walked through plays in the courtyard. 
 
Anyway, we began warming up for the game and the spot on my lower right leg below my knee that had hurt since the end of the Hixson game the Friday  before was still bothering me. I remember telling running backs coach Bill McMahan during warmups that I probably could not play that night and he shook his head in understanding. I am sure they were not counting on me, since I had been unable to practice.
 
I did not realize at the time, but I would not be able to play again until the eighth game of the season, so I had to end up being just a cheerleader on the sidelines for this and the other games during this stretch.
 
In the game held at the community stadium where the great James Brooks and others had played the season before, we lost 19-7. Junior running back Troy Potter and straight-on kicker Mark Grigsby gave us a 7-0 lead following passes from quarterback Rusty Carnes to Greg Simmons, and another from Simmons to Steve Hudson.
 
I still remember that before maybe the final Northside touchdown, the public address announcer said in a rather partisan manner to the announced large crowd of 7,500 something like, “Let’s get on our feet and get those Eagles in the end zone.”
 
Although we lost, teammate Doug Dyer, an all-state offensive tackle on that team, did remember when contacted one positive from the game: being able to help stop a standout defensive tackle on the Warner Robins team.
 
“The week prior to the game, (assistant) coach (Fred) Hubbs was all up in my face telling me this guy was going to kick my butt,” said Mr. Dyer, a vice president with J. Smith Lanier & Co. insurance firm, with a laugh. “He was relentless. Every time I saw him that week it was the same thing: ‘he is going to kick your butt.’ 
 
“Needless to say, by game time, I was pretty fired up. (Tight end) Greg Simmons and I devised a plan to double team this guy all night long; he would go high and I would go low. Unfortunately, we lost the game but that all-state tackle had a pretty rough night.”
 
First-year varsity running backs coach Bill McMahan also had a memory from that game 40 years ago – but it was of something that happened several hours earlier. It is an action he can laugh about today, but then it was hard.
 
“I got left,” he said of missing the bus ride with the team to Warner Robins. “Coach Etter was always ahead of time, and I had Parents Day and I swear I got down to the gym 10 minutes early.  The buses were gone.  I panicked something terrible.”
 
He said he was able to hitch a ride with local dentist and former University of Chattanooga athlete Dr. Frank Trundle, who filmed the games for Baylor. Also along for the ride were Dr. Trundle’s wife, Ann, and Betty Hubbs.”
 
Despite finding transportation to Warner Robins, his tenseness over trying to hook back up with the team before the game was still not over.  
 
“The women wanted to stop in Atlanta and shop and I pleaded not to do that,” he said.  “We got to the game during warm-ups and I ran down through the stands and all the boys were horse laughing at me.”
 
He thinks coach Etter apparently never knew he did not get there until game time. When the buses stopped for the cafeteria meal and were going over some pregame planning, Coach Etter asked coach McMahan whom he wanted in for that play. He did not get a response, so he asked him again – and again.
 
“After about the third time he asked my name, Coach Hubbs and Coach (Sib) Evans told Coach Etter they thought I was in the bathroom,” coach McMahan recalled.  “He didn't even know I wasn't with the team.”
 
While the loss to Warner Robins was disappointing for us and perhaps left at least temporarily a question among Chattanooga high school football fans whether Baylor had rebounded from the mediocrity of the year before, we seemed to recover and not let the loss linger.
 
Little did we know, but it would also be our last loss until a cold December night in another faraway city.
 
While the team rode back that night, my parents came down and we drove another hour or so south to Cordele, Ga., where my father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer, had grown up and where my grandparents and aunt’s family still lived.
 
While it was nice to visit with family, the football aspect was pretty much a total loss for me – we lost and I did not get to play due to an injury. Due to my family connections to the area, I had also looked forward to that game like I had the week before against Hixson High just a mile from my house.
 
Little did I know at the time, but I would not get to play again until the eighth game of the year.
 
But the next week, we rebounded as a team in fine fashion. With the game postponed to Saturday, Sept. 17, due to heavy rains that canceled many local games on Friday night, we defeated Tyner at Tyner, 28-8.
 
I am not sure if Tyner made their now-famous fish sandwiches to sell in 1977, but we smelled victory after some early Ram turnovers and went on to defeat the Rams, who were in a slow-but-successful rebuilding program under coach Ernie McCarson.
 
We were helped by a Craig Troxler fumble recovery on Tyner’s first drive, which had started with hope following a 39-yard run by Steve Rector. Baylor also had an interception by Dan Reynolds on Tyner’s next possession when the score was still 0-0.
 
Wishbone offense quarterback Carnes then scored, and, following a Trip Reilly interception, backup Frank Hirsch led the Baylor wishbone attack by scoring two first half touchdowns. 
 
After some tough defensive playing by Baylor’s Mitch Lyle and Russell Craig, David Farmer added an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter on a play that was described by Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writer David Jenkins as “dazzling.”
 
Tyner did get on the scoreboard before the half with a short pass to Kenny Copeland from sophomore Stan Phillips – who had started his career at Baylor but whose father was the Tyner principal Harry Phillips. The score had been set up by some good runs from Gary Woodburn and Walter Scott.
 
Carnes scored the final touchdown, and Ryan Crimmins had a fumble recovery and sophomore Brent Hestand an interception.
 
We were now 2-0 in District 6-AAA and the Chattanooga Interscholastic League.
 
Also watching the game from the sidelines that game with me was center and fellow senior Ken Royal, who had broken his arm before the season practice had even started. He would soon be back playing, however, leaving me to continue watching.
 
In the fourth game, we went on the road for a fourth straight week, this time to Cleveland to play a non-district game against Bradley Central, which was the defending state champion in Class AAA and a victor over us the year before.
 
Although Bradley scored early on a 64-yard Franklin Elmore run following a Barry Varner interception, Baylor came back to win, 14-7, on touchdown runs by David Farmer and Ryan Murphy. 
 
With Baylor being able to dominate on the ground with Rusty Carnes and Bill Healey also having good games, Baylor overcame some of its own mistakes and won.
 
Assistant coach McMahan said he remembered that Troy Potter was hurt that game and that Murphy filled in and played a good game. That was one reason he thought the win was memorable.
 
“Bradley was always big and tough and had a lot of guys that went on to play college ball after the '77 and '78 seasons,” coach McMahan said.
 
After the run-oriented game by Baylor, head Coach Etter was quoted as saying, “It was three yards and a cloud of dust, but it worked. I felt like we did what was necessary to win.”
 
But perhaps the most telling comment came from News-Free Press sports writer Gary Davenport, who pointed out that the two teams had been installed as favorites in their districts.
 
“That means they could meet again in just seven weeks possibly for the region title, if all goes right,” he wrote. 
 
His words would prove to be prophetic.
 
The next week brought the closest game of the year for Baylor at Brainerd. Going into the game, both teams were 3-1, with coach Carey Henley always having competitive teams during that time period. 
 
Baylor pulled ahead 14-0 in the first quarter on a 28-yard pass from Rusty Carnes to David Farmer and another 39-yard run, but it was not to be a blowout, not by a long shot.
 
Early in the second quarter, Brainerd scored on a pass from Jeff Maines to the speedster Deon Cheeks. And then, after holding Baylor, they began driving again. Following some good runs by Andy Patterson, the Rebels, as they were still known, scored on another pass play from halfback Tony McKeldin to Cheeks.
 
However, due to failed two-point tries, Baylor still led 14-12 at the half.
 
But it would be a shaky lead, as the Red Raiders lost a fumble in the third quarter, and Brainerd capitalized on a Patterson touchdown run and a McKeldin two-point dash.
 
Suddenly, Baylor was behind 20-14. Would this season be another disappointing one for our team? 
 
It certainly looked like it would be when the Red Raiders took the ball at its own 8-yard line. Methodically, however, they began marching down the field. With some good runs by Farmer and Troy Potter, who had returned following an injury, Baylor still showed signs of life. They were also aided by a Brainerd penalty. 
 
Potter soon scored on a short run, and Mark Grigsby’s extra point kick put Baylor up 21-20. However, it was still the third quarter.
 
In the fourth quarter, tension remained high, as Brainerd drove to the Baylor 5 near the midway part of the fourth quarter, but a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
 
Baylor was able to hang on and win in the emotionally packed affair at Brainerd’s stadium off North Moore Road. 
 
As News-Free Press sports writer Gary Davenport described the game with obvious excitement, “With their backs to the wall and time at a premium, the Red Raiders finally got the effort they needed to put it away last night.”
 
He also referred to the game as a “classic.”
 
The Red Raiders now stood at 4-1 and, at just the halfway point of the season, had experienced several games that brought out plenty of emotion and drama. 
 
And archrival McCallie was still looming on the horizon the following week. The rivalry with the Big Blue had just been renewed beginning in 1971. Baylor won the first five regular season contests, but McCallie had come back to win a playoff rematch against Baylor in 1974 and had also won the 1976 regular season game.
 
So we thought it would be a tough game, even though our senior class had beaten McCallie in the junior high games. And Pete Potter was certainly trying hard to get on the same level as coach Etter, perhaps through working the players hard.
 
McCallie’s only loss that year had been to Brentwood Academy, the private school in Nashville that was very much in the initial stages of being a football force in Tennessee. 
 
Forty years later, there are two factors that stand out about the game, which was held on Saturday night, Oct. 8, at UTC’s Chamberlain field: it rained throughout the contest and, most importantly, a key interception occurred in the second half. Or should we say, THE interception occurred.
 
For most of the game, however, about all who might have enjoyed it were some ducks and defensive coordinators. The defenses were playing well with the help of a 12th man called rain, and both Baylor’s B. Billings and McCallie’s Mark Fullam were punting well as their roles became even more important.
 
Baylor quarterback Rusty Carnes re-injured his ankle early in the game and had to be replaced by backup junior Frank Hirsch.
 
The game also had six turnovers -- four by McCallie and two by Baylor – due no doubt at least party to the weather. Baylor’s Mitch Lyle and Ryan Crimmins recovered fumbles, while McCallie’s Tommy Hobbs intercepted two passes.
 
But it is the player who had two interceptions for Baylor whose name now lives on in the annals of the Baylor-McCallie rivalry – junior Dan Reynolds.
 
Reached over the phone recently, Reynolds said he remembered having some room to run after that interception, but he somehow lost his footing and went down.
 
On his second interception – the one which would become the far more memorable of the two -- the opposite storyline occurred. He intercepted it in crowded area, but just when the thought he might not go far, the whole field opened up, and he found daylight.
 
The unforgettable moment took place very late in the third period, when the game continued to be mired in almost a stalemate. In McCallie’s territory and with the score 0-0, Blue Tornado junior quarterback Mark Brock threw a pass, but it barely skimmed off receiver Mike Anderson’s hands. 
 
Instead of the ball dropping to the ground incomplete, however, it went into the jumping free safety Reynolds, who was near teammates Tinky Williams and Richard Hays. 
 
With the ball in his grasp, this time Reynolds tried to be cautious.
 
“I remember being more careful running and ran across the field and turned down the sideline,” he recalled.
 
Once along the sideline, he realized he had some open space, so he began churning as hard as he could. He was tackled at about the 3-yard line by McCallie’s Steve Jacoway, who, like the receiver Anderson, was a friend, but he managed to reach the end zone.
 
“I barely made it,” he remembered with a laugh.
 
The Baylor fans, who like the McCallie faithful, were braving the rain, erupted in excitement. And so did the Baylor team.
 
“I remember the whole team piled up on me and I was kind of in shock,” Reynolds recalled, admitting that he had no idea before the game that he was going to be involved in such a key way.
 
Mark Grigsby kicked the PAT, and the 7-0 lead in favor of Baylor ended up being the final score. 
 
Baylor sat at 5-1, and was atop the District 6-AAA race for the playoffs. And, in a strange scheduling twist, we had not even had our first game at Heywood Stadium on our campus. But we would the following week against always-tough City High.
 
Many mountains remained to conquer, but the McCallie game would no doubt be a highlight to pause and enjoy and maybe to savor for a day, not to mention a lifetime. 
 
Reynolds, who briefly walked on at Alabama in the spring of 1980 and impressed Crimson Tide football assistant coach Ken Donahue with his ability to run the mile faster than all the other players during team workouts, said he is still asked and kidded about the play. That includes from some of his McCallie friends who remember the game.
 
“I was lucky I came out on top on that one,” the current photography business owner said of that wet night in 1977 when he was not the photographer but the photographed.
 
* * * * *
 
To see the first story in this series, read here.

jcshearer2@comcast.net



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