Remembering The 1977 Baylor Football Team, Part I: Opening Hixson’s Stadium

Sunday, September 3, 2017 - by John Shearer

Last weekend, I decided to stop by Hixson High School’s stadium on my way to jog.

Only one other person was going around the track, so I walked up into both the home and away stands, as well as onto the middle of the field and the visiting sidelines. 

Nostalgic feelings had taken over and I was reminiscing quite a bit, in large part because the stadium looked as though it had been changed little by time.

I did not go to school at Hixson, but I have always felt a connection to the stadium. The reason is that, during its first two hours or so of official use, I played a game in it.

On Sept. 2, 1977 – 40 years ago – my Baylor School teammates and I helped christen the new Hixson High stadium with a come-from-behind 27-14 win over the Wildcats.

It would be the first of several uplifting moments for our team in a season that did not end until a heartbreaking loss in the state championship game at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl stadium.

It was also a joyous event personally for me, because I was able to contribute to the win with several key and productive carries of the football from my running back position.

Another reason it was satisfying was that I was the only senior on the team from Hixson. Growing up in Valleybrook less than a mile away, I passed by the school almost daily, including that afternoon of the game, when I was on my way to Baylor to put on my uniform.

My sister, Cathy Morris, had also graduated from Hixson in 1974.

But being somewhat shy, I probably did not know an overly large number of Hixson people, other than a few who lived in Valleybrook and with whom I played golf or crossed paths in other areas.

But the game was still big for me, even though I did not realize it would be about my only main contribution to the team that year due to a non-painful injury that sidelined me for several weeks.

In connection with the 40th anniversary of that season that was one fluke play from giving our team a state championship, I thought it might be fun to go back and chronicle different aspects of the year. I hope to do it through several stories and multiple reminiscences from different people over the course of the fall, with this one focusing mainly on my memories of the unforgettable opening game.

The stories will be designed to be of interest not only to close observers of Baylor football during that time period, but also to anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows and generally pure uniqueness of high school football. And if you were in high school in the 1970s, you might enjoy it even more!

To give a little background, Baylor during that decade under former Central coach E.B. “Red” Etter had developed into the most successful football program in Chattanooga. However, the 1976 Red Raider team had finished only 5-5, so there were some question marks going into the 1977 season, even though our senior class had been undefeated in three seasons of junior high football.

We also had a small number of boarding students and others who came over from the public junior highs after ninth grade and even later, so the expectations of being able to return Baylor to success after a brief hiatus were strong, at least internally.

Although I was blessed with some foot speed and coordination as a youth, I realized how competitive becoming a worthwhile contributor in all sports at Baylor was, particularly with football during that time period.

We had at least six or seven capable running backs vying for three spots in those days before most high school teams started struggling to field large teams beginning in the 1980s, so the competition for playing time was intense.

However, through running track more and maybe just physical maturation, I gained a little foot speed and seemed to show improvement during the previous spring practice. I also did not mind running into people as much as I did as a younger player.

I remember the coaches seeming pleasantly surprised that I had improved going into my senior year. I had also enjoyed a good spring of running track and summer of playing well in golf tournaments in my other sports of interest, so life was really looking up personally.

And sports basically was my life at that time, even though I was quite aware of the world around me – from following Jimmy Carter’s presidency that was already being criticized by conservatives, to hearing about Elvis Presley’s death during football camp and seeing all those women in their 30s and 40s crying.

And, of course, I immersed myself in the music of the Electric Light Orchestra and enjoyed such movies that summer and fall as “Smokey and the Bandit” with the great Burt Reynolds and cute Sally Field and the first “Star Wars.”

I was able to survive the two weeks of football camp and spending the nights in Lupton Hall and was enjoying being a senior and trying to be an easily approachable role model to the younger players.

It was strange being in that position after having looked up to all the good varsity football players since I was a seventh grader.

During camp or the week of the Hixson game, Coach Etter asked each senior which games they wanted to be game captain of. Since I was the only one on the team from Hixson, I was about the only one really interested in being the captain for that game. I think safety Trip Reilly may have also said he wanted to be captain for that game.

The three permanent captains – quarterback Rusty Carnes, guard Rob Frazier and defensive back Richard Hays -- were game captains during the McCallie game.

When the week of the Hixson game came, I remember being quite nervous. Part of the reason was that Hixson was dedicating its long-awaited stadium.

Although Hixson had been at its current site since about 1966, it still had played its home games at the old junior high school.

Enthusiasm was also high in the Hixson community that head coach and former Tennessee star lineman Chip Kell could get the Wildcats to rise above the mostly mediocre seasons that preceded 1977.

How we ended up getting to open the stadium, I do not know. Baylor had actually not played Hixson since 1972, when Hixson’s quarterback was current County Mayor Jim Coppinger, and someone from Hixson had sent a mock coffin and body to Baylor’s campus the week of the game.

I would like to think we were scheduled because Hixson wanted a “name” opponent to open its stadium, but it may have just been because I think Hixson was now in the Chattanooga Interscholastic League after having been in the county league and were to be a regular on Baylor’s schedule.

They were probably now also in Baylor’s region in the TSSAA alignment in those days two decades before a split would occur between the public and private schools.

I could be wrong, but I believe the Hixson-Baylor game drew the largest crowd in that stadium’s history, at least among Hixson fans. I remember cars were having to park along Middle Valley Road.

It was neat to be on such a big stage like that as a 17-year-old.

I remember being quite nervous when we rode the team bus over to Hixson and unloaded and gathered in the area between the visiting stands and the school.

I also recall briefly meeting my mother as she handed me some new cleats she had exchanged for me at a local sporting goods store because my other ones seemed kind of loose on me and did not seem to support me properly. Unfortunately, the new cleats would not work, and that would become a factor during the game.

As the game was getting ready to start, I went out and was able to experience the pre-game coin toss as a game captain. I remember shaking hands with Chip Criswell, the Hixson quarterback, with whom we had a mutual friend from a few years earlier. He seemed to remember me and smiled.

I was quite flattered to get to start at right halfback in the wishbone offense, which is not that different from the offense Georgia Tech will run against Tennessee on Monday, although we also ran plenty of plays up the middle in addition to outside.

But guess what happened? On my first time to carry the ball on our first series, I fumbled the ball. I can’t remember if it was a bad exchange with Rusty Carnes or what. The paper after the game said Jeff Coppage of Hixson recovered the ball.

When I went to the sidelines, the veteran Coach Etter did not come up and yell at me or anyone else, as a lot of coaches might have done, but calmly tried to see what had happened. Perhaps he felt confident that we could come back.

But Hixson did score a touchdown on its next drive, going ahead on a short Chip Criswell keeper and a PAT by Pat Murphy.

However, Baylor came back and tied the game on a Troy Potter score and Mark Grigsby extra point kick.  For Potter, a junior that year who was able to be one of the best running backs in Chattanooga for a couple of years simply by running hard, the game was even bigger than it was for me, because he went to Hixson Junior High.

Later in the half, Hixson apparently had a mix-up in signals and unsuccessfully tried to run a play deep in its territory. Baylor’s Rusty Carnes then scored to put the Red Raiders up 14-7.

Unfortunately for us, but good for Hixson, we had another fumble on a punt return, and Mark Goodner recovered. With Mike Potter and Tim Herrick making some good runs, Hixson was able to tie the game 14-14.

The Wildcats were no doubt pleased to be tied at the half, but Coach Etter, much as he was after the fumble, calmly tried to reassure us and make sure we were able to execute well in the second half.

And in the second half, I finally got a chance to redeem myself, as did, more importantly, the Baylor team.

But it was not easy, as the score remained tied through the third quarter. However, we had begun a drive late in the third quarter that continued into the fourth quarter.

If memory serves me correctly, I was able to have two successful runs in that drive. One in particular I have never forgotten. It seems like I may have been touched or grabbed near the line of scrimmage on what may have been third down, but I was able to sprint for 23 yards.

It resulted in my one and only mention in the next day’s Chattanooga News-Free Press article about the game.

And as I realized by looking back at the old news clipping 40 years later, several other teammates received even more accolades. Bill Stephenson had a good run during the drive, and quarterback Carnes threw to fullback Bill Healey on a key gain.

We were able to score again with about five minutes left on a short dive by Healey, but the Wildcats’ Criswell blocked the extra point, perhaps able to get out some frustration.

Fortunately for me and my teammates, that touchdown ended up being the final scoring, and we won 27-14 in a game in which David Farmer also had some good kick returns. However, Hixson could certainly hold its head somewhat high, although the big crowd of Wildcat supporters who left the stadium were no doubt a little disappointed.

After the game, I was ecstatic, at least emotionally. We had won, and, for the first time as a Baylor varsity player who had waited my turn, I was able to contribute and probably against a team that had as much significance for me personally as did rival McCallie.

I remember shaking hands with Baylor assistant coach Ron Phillips afterward, and he was glad to beat the school where he had formerly taught and coached.

While I was on an emotional high as I drove past a now quiet stadium on the way back home after changing at Baylor, physically I realized I was not doing so well.

The loose shoes had not given me good traction, and for some reason I had felt a slight pain below my knee and I was walking around with a noticeable limp after the game and the next morning.

I had no idea it was getting ready to change my season as a player in an entirely different manner.

But as shall be mentioned in the upcoming editions looking back at our team that year, the Red Raiders were able to continue full speed ahead for the most part.

And despite the deep disappointment I would feel that season about having to miss quite a few games, I have continued to carry with me the warm feeling about getting to help contribute to the win over the school from my home community.


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