John Shearer: Remembering the 1977 Baylor Football Team, Part 3 – Reaching The State Semifinals

Monday, December 4, 2017 - by John Shearer

On Friday night, Oct. 14, 1977, Baylor played at home against Chattanooga “City” High.
That’s right, after five road games and one neutral game at UTC’s Chamberlain Field, Baylor was finally back home at Heywood Stadium for the first time all season. It was definitely a strange quirk in scheduling.
And in a strange twist of weather, the game-time temperature was quite cold for mid-October. As a result, old Jack Frost almost seemed like an extra opponent, as did the injury bug, which knocked quarterbacks Rusty Carnes and backup junior Frank Hirsch out of the game.

But a positive came out of the latter, however, as it provided a rare opportunity for reserve quarterback Bobby Frost to step forward and contribute.
The grandson of former Hamilton County Judge Chester Frost – as in Chester Frost Park in Hixson – the outgoing Frost seemed to react with natural confidence over the opportunity. I can still remember him barking signals in the huddle after I came back from being injured, and his voice did not sound timid at all, despite being on a big stage for the first time.
Frost getting to play a lot was also a wonderful example of an opportunity finally coming for someone who had been churning through all those practices at Baylor since the seventh grade.
And it was quite a game in which to make a debut. City was one of the top teams in Chattanooga at that time under coach Bobby Davis, who was one of the first coaches in Chattanooga to enjoy some success with teams that featured a good number of both black and white players in the first decade after integration.
As a side note, Baylor had been a little later to integrate than most schools and began in 1973 in the younger grades at the initiation of headmaster Herb Barks Jr. And our team in 1977 held the distinction, I think, of being the first Baylor team to have blacks playing on the varsity football squad.
Two sophomore reserves – running back Grayland Hilt and defensive back Eddie Hart – were dressing for the games that fall and would be key contributors on later Baylor teams before graduating.
By 1977, integration was not the issue it was a decade or two earlier, and the only colors people were paying attention to were those of the lights on the scoreboard under each team.
Against City, the score remained 0-0 at the end of the first quarter, but in the second, Frost came in for the injured Carnes after Rusty had helped lead the Baylor team down the field on a 78-yard drive.
Frost handed the ball off to Troy Potter for a one-yard touchdown run to give Baylor the lead.
Frost later came back in and completed a clutch pass to Steve Hudson on a tension-filled fourth down. As a result, Baylor appeared headed for a 14-0 lead. But on the next play, a bobbled snap was recovered by City’s Donald Swell.
The Dynamos then began an 89-yard drive to tie the game, 7-7, heading into the half. Dennis Coffman scored, while quarterback Thomas Strickland, receiver Carlos Thompson and running back Henry Hamilton also made big plays.
At the start of the second half, Baylor had two good drives that went inside the City 30-yard line, but turnovers resulted in no points.
In the fourth, Baylor frantically began another drive, due in part to good runs by Ryan Murphy and Troy Potter, the latter of whom finished the night with 93 yards.
But with third and goal at the 4-yard line, Baylor’s second-string quarterback Frank Hirsch had to fall on another bobbled snap, and an apparent easy touchdown pass that was developing went for naught.
But Mark Grigsby came in to make a short field goal from close to extra point distance to put the Red Raiders up 10-7.
But the drama was not over. As had been the norm during several of Baylor’s games so far, this one would also go down to the end.
Baylor held City on what everyone thought would be its last drive on the next series, but Baylor quickly turned the ball over again.
This time City began moving the ball from their own 42 and tension filled the air. The Dynamos went all the way down the field.
But on the last play, Coffman was stopped by Baylor on the 1-yard line, and Baylor could let out its almost weekly sigh of relief.
The following Friday night, Oct. 21, Baylor held its second game on campus of the year against Howard. As during the McCallie game less than two weeks earlier when he scored the game’s lone touchdown on an interception return, safety Dan Reynolds would prove to be Mr. Turnover again.
But this time he helped by looking down instead of up and falling on two Howard fumbles. The first came on a recovery at the Howard 28-yard line, which set up a 9-yard touchdown run by David Farmer.
On the subsequent Howard drive, the opportunistic Reynolds fell on the ball again, this time at midfield. Senior fullback Bill Healey provided much of the workload and scored from the 4.
After the second PAT kick by Mark Grigsby, who also ran the ball some as fullback, the score was 14-0.
Howard was able to get a touchdown on a nice 69-yard bomb from senior Willie Jones to Joseph Caslin, but a follow-up touchdown run by Ryan Murphy and a kick by Grigsby made the score 21-6 in favor of Baylor at the half.
In the third quarter, Farmer scored on a 25-yard run, which, after the Grigsby kick, completed the scoring at 28-6.
In this game, Baylor had also been without starting quarterback Rusty Carnes, who was still nursing his injured ankle.
The Howard game was the first game in which I came back to play since the first game, but it was in a rather unceremonious way. As I mentioned in previous installments in this series, my right leg below my knee had felt a sharp pain in it that made running without a limp hard.
At first local orthopedic surgeon and team doctor Barry Heywood, the son of legendary former Baylor coach “Humpy” Heywood, thought it might be a problem like bursitis. But I continued to limp on it, and it did not seem to get better. I even remember slipping slightly going down the stairs on a wet day, and that seemed to aggravate it.
Finally, after the McCallie game, I had it checked out again. Dr. Heywood this time said it was a slight crack in the bone due to a stress fracture, I think. He said sometimes such a break is not noticeable immediately.
Besides slowing me down physically, not getting to play for several weeks had also hindered me emotionally and made me feel very discouraged that I was not getting to play much my senior year after having such high hopes going into the season.
But at least I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Dr. Heywood said for me to take one more week off, and then I would be ready to play the following week. I remember coming out to practice that afternoon to watch, and Coach Etter came up to me and said that Dr. Heywood had contacted him and updated him on my condition. I felt honored that I was even a subject of a phone conversation between two busy and distinguished people.
So, finally in about the fourth quarter of the Howard game, I entered, marking the first game I had played in since the Hixson game at the first of the season. Needless to say, it was a very inauspicious start.
I don’t think I was in the game more than a play or two when I went out to block a Hustlin’ Tiger end or cornerback. I remember he came up to me with either his helmet or forearm or both and hit me right in the forehead area.
I had never been hit that hard before, and I remember seeing stars and feeling a little out of it, although I was conscious.
Either after that play or within a play or two when we came to the sideline, I went up to the student trainer, Wade Baker, I think, and told him I had been hit hard. He or someone told me to get on a cart by the track.
Ironically, they were already loading up on the cart standout Troy Potter, who had also been hit hard in the head just a few plays before me. Headmaster Herb Barks was with him and wanted to ride with him back to the gym on the cart to help. I think Troy was doing worse than I was.
I remember Mr. Barks looked at me and said something like, “You must have gotten hit hard, too.”
Once back at the gym, the trainer, Sandy Sandlin, whom I had gotten to know better by having to take a lot of whirlpool baths that fall when they thought I had bursitis, looked me over in his kind and gentle manner. He or someone suggested it might be best if I didn’t drive home due to the injury. 
So I had to call my parents, who were surprised I was not driving home, and they came and got me. And by the time I went to bed and woke up the next morning, I felt fine. That was in the days before concussion protocol, and I am not sure I even suffered one. But I am glad they were interested in my well being.
Needless to say, my debut return had been forgettable, and I almost had trouble remembering it due to my hit.
Historically, that game might better be remembered for two sophomore players who I assume were evidently playing for Howard that night. They were future Tennessee star and NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White and Charles Morgan, who also was a standout at Tennessee briefly before deciding to quit after what was described as a scolding by the Vol coaches just hours after being named the TV player of the game in a loss to Alabama.
The next Friday, Oct. 21, we were at home again against Kirkman, which had beaten us the year before in what was a genuine Cinderella story for the Golden Hawks.
In 1977, they seemed ready to beat us as well, despite our 7-1 record. Cleveland Billingsley recovered a Baylor fumble in the first quarter, and then Ron Jones ran 43 yards for a score.
Baylor came back to tie the game at 7-7 on a long drive aided by a 51-yard David Farmer run that had been set up with a good Ryan Murphy block. Murphy later scored from two yards out.
The Golden Hawks under coach Angelo “Nubby” Napolitano then scored again following a blocked punt and led 14-7 at halftime.
This was homecoming, and when we came back out of the locker room in those days before football players got to watch homecoming, we learned that Baylor cheerleader Mary Claire Pruett had been named homecoming queen. She had been a former classmate at Bright School, and was someone with whom I would get reacquainted later at the University of Georgia while she was on her way to being named Miss Georgia Football in 1981.
We could not ponder the news of the homecoming ceremonies too long that night, however, because we were trailing.
Once again, we rose to the occasion, and we came out and scored four second half touchdowns and won 33-21, despite not having starting quarterback Rusty Carnes. Scoring for Baylor were Farmer on a 10-yard run, boarding junior Trip Pilgrim on a 14-yard pass from Bobby Frost in a play in which they were both getting an opportunity to shine, and Bill Healey on runs of 1 and 66 yards.
Such players as Bill Stephenson and Randy Lagod anchored the defense and led to only one second half score – a 32-yard pass from Greg Crum to Reginald Douglas before Baylor’s final score.
I was pleased to be alternating some in the game after being hurt for so long. I even had my name mentioned briefly in the paper for picking up a key third down on a short run. I must admit that the long layoff had made me feel a little slower or out-of-sync and not as quick or as confident as I had been during the previous spring and early fall.
The next week brought more rain, maybe even more than against McCallie in what was turning into a wet autumn. We were scheduled to close out the season against Red Bank at the old Rankin Field behind the high school off Dayton Boulevard.
Red Bank – which was 3-6 entering the game -- had been having a disappointing year, despite being put through some tough practices under coach Tom Weathers. I believe coach Weathers might have been looking forward to getting the year over with, because, even though it was raining pretty steady all day long, he wanted to go ahead and play the game. Coach Etter remarked to us during the day that he had called Red Bank to find out about the game, and coach Weathers had left word that the game was going to be held unless the stadium washed away, or something like that.
Just like the McCallie game that was also played in rainy conditions, we would win this one by the same “dry” and uninteresting score of 7-0. But in contrast to some second half heroics in the McCallie game, this time, the drama came very early, when senior fullback Bill Healey of Atlanta sprinted 64 yards for a TD on the game’s second play.
After that it was pretty much a mud bowl. Ryan Murphy did have a touchdown run called back at the start of the fourth quarter on a clipping penalty, but I am sure coach Etter’s strategy was ball control.
We did have some offensive turnovers, but Red Bank could not capitalize. The Lions’ top ball carriers were Mark Thomas and David Kreider, while the quarterback was Bill Price, who would later become a well-known local high school coach at such schools as Soddy-Daisy, Bradley Central and Signal Mountain.
Baylor quarterback Rusty Carnes was unable again to play in the Red Bank game due to a nagging ankle injury, and Bobby Frost and Frank Hirsch substituted for him. Those two, while entirely different in personalities and backgrounds -- although they were both naturally outgoing -- had helped keep Baylor’s dreams alive in unexpected roles, and they could take pride in that.
For Carnes, not getting to play in the Red Bank game had to have hurt, since he had many personal and family connections to the school. But I have not forgotten how he turned around and led us in cheers as the bus pulled out of the old Red Bank stadium parking area.
If he could not lead us on the field, he would lead us off it.
Frost was also from the Red Bank area, so the game had to be satisfying to him.
On the same night we were playing Red Bank, McCallie lost an overtime thriller at Shelbyville, which featured future Vanderbilt standout quarterback Whit Taylor.
By the time we got back to Baylor and washed all the mud off of us, we realized we still had a pretty clean slate football wise.
We were playoff bound, even though we had experienced one loss by double digit points, and seven of our nine victories had been by two touchdowns or less.
But in the playoffs, we would become an even-more focused team and lift our level of play. And coach E.B. “Red” Etter and his staff, including his son and defensive coordinator Gene Etter, would do some of their best coaching during their entire 14-year stint at the school by the Tennessee River.
The first playoff game was a rematch of the Sept. 23 game at Bradley Central won by Baylor, 14-7. And this time the game was at Baylor.
However, Bradley had shown signs of improving as the season wore on, and the game was expected to be a war. It was!
In fact, both teams were tied at 21-21 at the half and had traded TDs after Baylor went ahead 7-0 on a Bill Healey 36-yard run on the second offensive play of the game.
Bradley had scored on a Franklin Elmore 3-yard run, and the Bears were aided later in the half by a short run by quarterback Greg Geren, and a score by future Ole Miss back Kinny Hooper on a bullet pass from Geren.
Baylor’s other first half scores came on a Troy Potter 33-yard run and a David Farmer 44-yard burst.
Mark Grigsby had kicked the PATs for Baylor, while Tim Cartwright did the successful extra point duties for Bradley.
In the second half, though, the complexion of the game changed, and only one touchdown was scored. And it came in an unlikely way for run-oriented Baylor.
The outgoing senior tight end Greg Simmons had caught only one pass all year from quarterback Rusty Carnes in the run-oriented Baylor offense, but the two had practiced a lot during the summer on passing.
The work would pay off. With only 3 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in a game that was becoming quite tense, Baylor was at the Bradley-43 yard line when Carnes threw about a 20-yard strike to Simmons.
He was able to hang on to the ball at the 20 and Baylor had a first down. However, Simmons was not finished yet. He fought off two Bradley tacklers and found his way into the end zone.
With the Grigsby kick, Baylor went ahead 28-21, and the Baylor fans went wild with cheering.
However, the tense game was not over yet. Bradley began driving the ball. But it would not last, as Tinky Williams intercepted the ball, and the game pretty much ended.
Bo Watson, today a Tennessee state senator, had also earlier intercepted a Bradley pass for the other turnover.
After the game, Simmons was obviously excited. “All year, we hardly threw a pass, but this is the one that counted,” he excitedly told sports writer Terry Hardwick of the Chattanooga News-Free Press.
On the same day as that game, a couple of top 11th grade basketball players -- Tennessee High’s Derrick Hord of Bristol and Baylor’s Jimmy Braddock -- played each other’s team at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Atheltics Center before the UT intrasquad game. Although it was likely done as a recruiting tool for Tennessee, neither would sign with the Vols, though. Hord signed with Kentucky, while Braddock played for North Carolina.
But football was the main focus in mid-November for Baylor, with a second-round matchup looming on Nov. 18 against Columbia Central High School in Maury County in Middle Tennessee, a team about whom we knew little.
And as we would find out, Columbia was pretty tough. And we would almost beat ourselves with three turnovers. It would take the defense, most specifically Ryan Crimmins, to give us a chance.
Baylor had gone ahead 7-0 on a David Farmer 28-yard run, but Columbia -- which, like the Ivy League school by the same name, called itself the Lions -- came back to lead 10-7 at the half on a Chip Moore 25-yard field goal and a score by Jody Herbert.
But in the second half, the resilient Red Raiders would rise up, as they had all year. With 2:46 in the third quarter and Baylor still trailing, 10-7, Ryan Crimmins intercepted a pass.
With Troy Potter really starting to assert himself as a key Baylor back in the playoffs, Baylor began moving the ball down the field. Potter got the ball in the end zone early in the fourth to put Baylor up 14-10.
However, the game was not close to being over. Columbia had the ball again, but this time they fumbled. Guess who recovered the fumble? That’s right, Ryan Crimmins, with this turnover coming by ground after the previous one by air.
Baylor then was able to take the ball into the end zone following a short drive, and Bill Healey scored from the 15-yard line to put the Red Raiders up 21-10.
Columbia did get the ball back, but on one fourth down effort, they were stopped short. The tackler? That’s right. Ryan Crimmins.
“Ryan Crimmins deserves the game ball for his performance,” wrote Gary Davenport for the News-Free Press afterward.
I have a couple of personal memories of that game, but it was not due to any stellar playing on my part.
Although the coaches had kindly let me play in the final two regular season games after I came back from a stress fracture, I must not have overly impressed them. The reason I think that was that I did not get to really play in the first two playoff games when we were on offense, although I might have been in for the “victory” formation.
But I was on the kickoff return team. Columbia probably scouted us well and noticed I had played less on offense than the other two deep kickoff returners. So they deliberately kicked the ball to me at least twice. I think I had modest returns each time, but at least I did not fumble.
We had also practiced a fake field goal, and I was to be the receiver who trotted out in the flank to catch the ball from the holder, who I think was Rusty Carnes. Coach Etter, believe it or not, called the play in the first half against the tenacious Lion defense.
I tried to sneakily move out toward the sidelines to catch the pass. But as soon as I caught it, I remember getting hit by one or two Columbia players. And then I heard the roar of the Columbia crowd as soon as they hit me. Unfortunately, I had been tackled for a loss and we did not get the first down on the trick play.
But despite the breakdown on that play, the game had turned out wonderfully for Baylor. In what was turning into quite a storybook season, we were now headed to the semifinals. But looming was powerful and nationally ranked Oak Ridge High.
However, as we shall see in the upcoming final installment of this series, you never know what is going to happen until you play the game.

To see the previous stories in this series about the 1977 Baylor football team, read here.


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