Roy Exum: Who Was Bobby Hoppe?

Friday, December 3, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Three separate times this week I’ve been asked by younger people, “Who was Bobby Hoppe?” Answer: Probably the best football player in the history of Chattanooga. Another: “Did you ever meet Bobby Hoppe?” I sure did … many times, Bobby was really nice to me. Another: “Did Bobby actually murder some guy when he was playing at Auburn?” Yes, and it is quite a story.

AN ESPN documentary on Bobby aired last night on the SEC Network and it told of “The Trials of Bobby Hoppe.” I thought the hour-long program was pretty special and hope it will be repeated.

Mark Schlack, a gifted Senior Writer for ESPN, wrote a dandy overview of the documentary and it reveals ‘who was Bobby Hoppe?’

* * *

THE TRIALS OF BOBBY HOPPE

By Mark Schlabach, Senior Writer for ESPN

As Auburn halfback Bobby Hoppe drove to his parents' home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, around 1 a.m.

on July 20, 1957, he said he suddenly saw a car with its headlights off in the rearview mirror.

When the 1948 DeSoto pulled up next to Hoppe's car on Bell Avenue, he recognized the driver. It was Don Hudson, a reputed bootlegger, who had been dating Hoppe's older sister.

"At first he thought, 'Oh, it's just some old high school buddies trying to scare me,'" said Sherry Hoppe, Bobby's widow. "Then the car pulled up beside him. He looked out the window, and he saw Don Hudson pointing a gun at him."

Sherry Hoppe said Bobby sped up, which caused Hudson to back off, but then Hudson's car accelerated again.

"The third time, Bobby thought, 'He's going to kill me if I don't do something,'" Sherry said. "He remembered he had a shotgun in the back seat. He pulled it over (the seat), put it on the windowsill and thought, 'I'm going to just fire it. I don't want to hit him, but I want him to know I've got a gun, and maybe then, he'll leave me alone.'"

Bobby pulled the trigger. The next thing he heard was Hudson's car accelerate and crash into a utility pole. The next morning, Bobby learned that Hudson had died from a shotgun blast to his head. Later that day, Bobby left for Auburn, Alabama, to report for training camp before his senior season with the Tigers.

The shooting was a secret that Bobby would keep buried in his soul for the next 31 years. After returning to Auburn, he told just one person -- a Baptist minister, and only after the preacher assured Bobby he would keep his story in confidence. Sherry, whom he would marry in 1972, didn't learn the full details of the incident until 15 years after their wedding, and only after Bobby was tipped that the case was being re-opened by the cold case unit of the Chattanooga police department, at the request of Hudson's mother, Georgia.

"I knew he had something on his mind a lot, because sometimes, he would just withdraw and didn't want to talk at all," Sherry told ESPN in 2019. "We were very, very close and did almost everything together, but there were times when he withdrew. I knew there was something going on that he did not want to talk about, but I had no idea what it was."

After remaining silent for more than three decades, Bobby would finally share his version of what happened on that dark street in Chattanooga during one of the most sensational criminal trials in the state's history in the summer of 1988. At the time, it was believed that the nearly 31-year gap between Hudson's death and Bobby's indictment for first-degree murder was the longest in U.S. history. There is no statute of limitations for murder in Tennessee.

"We knew that he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison," Sherry said.

"(Sportswriters) talked about how he was running like someone was chasing him," Sherry said. "What those writers didn't know, though, is that there were demons chasing Bobby when he was on the football field. He was trying to escape."

Bobby was a football star even before he enrolled at Auburn. Nicknamed the "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "Hippity Hoppe" by local sportswriters, he led Chattanooga Central High to three consecutive state titles from 1951 to 1953. He was exceptionally fast and tough. Legend has it that when Bobby lost five teeth on one play, he simply handed them to a coach on the sideline and went back in the game. "I think we've got ourselves a ballplayer!" the coach purportedly said.

Bobby was offered scholarships by nearly every college in the South, but he chose Auburn because that's where he was most comfortable. Bobby grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in north Chattanooga, just across the Tennessee River from downtown. His father, a World War II veteran, was disabled in the war and drank heavily. He never attended one of his son's games -- in high school or college.

"He visited a lot of these schools, but when he went to Auburn and walked out and saw a lot of students in blue jeans, which is what he had on, he thought, 'I fit in here,'" Sherry said. "That's one of the main reasons he chose Auburn, in addition to how impressed he was with (coach) Shug Jordan."

At Auburn, Bobby was a devastating blocker and electrifying runner as the right halfback. With players going both ways back then, he also was a punishing defensive back.

"You didn't want to be around Bobby Hoppe," said former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, an assistant at Auburn from 1956 to 1963. "He was one tough son of a b----."

Off the field, Bobby's teammates remembered that he was reserved and mostly kept to himself. There were also at least two incidents that involved a gun. Back then, Auburn's players lived in duplexes. One day, Bobby shot a pistol through the ceiling and the bullet ricocheted into one of the adjoining rooms. The teammate who was living there wasn't happy.

"Bobby was in the bed, and he came in there with a straight razor and put it right up against old Bobby's neck," said G.W. Clapp, a guard at Auburn from 1958 to 1961. "(The teammate) told him if he fired another gun through his ceiling, he'd slice that neck off."

Eddie Pittman, a manager at Auburn from 1958 to 1960, remembered another incident in which Bobby fired a gun in his room.

"We went running in to see what was going on, and Bobby was laying in the bed with a .45," Pittman said. "There was a roach crawling across the ceiling. He decided that roach was in the way, so he popped him and killed the roach, but shot a hole in the wall and scared the devil out of so many people."

Bobby's teammates also remembered his softer side, too. During his time at Auburn, Bobby befriended an older Black man named Hodge Freeman Drake, who was affectionately known around town as "Doc Hodge." According to the Auburn University Library, Drake "dispensed shoe shines and Auburn spirit from his Varsity Barbershop station for forty years." Clapp remembered Drake leading cheers with his cane in the colored seating section of the stadium during games. Bobby and Drake were often seen together riding through town in Drake's 1938 Buick. Drake also carried a cigar box, which he used to collect money from players.

"Bobby would bring him in (to the dining hall), and Doc Hodge would take his hat off and go around," Pittman said. "If he came out with less money than they thought he should, Bobby would go back in with him and hit people up again."

When Auburn players were boarding a train for a road game during the 1957 season, a conductor wouldn't let Drake on because the cars were segregated. Bobby got off the train and said he wasn't leaving without Drake. Other Auburn players soon joined him in protest. Eventually, the conductor relented and let Drake ride with the Tigers.

During Bobby's senior year, the Tigers finished 10-0 and won their first SEC championship. The defense posted six shutouts and surrendered just 28 points (seven came on an interception return). After beating rival Alabama 40-0 in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers were declared national champions by the Associated Press. Because they were on NCAA probation (an assistant coach had been accused of giving $500 apiece to twin brothers as recruiting inducements), they weren't permitted to play in a bowl game. Still, the Tigers were national champions, and Drake led the town's celebration at Toomer's Corner. Bobby left Auburn only a few weeks later.

"When he came back here carrying all of that emotional baggage, I can't imagine what the season was like, except for the fact that you move from game to game and, as a football player under Shug Jordan or anybody else in that era, you are so completely consumed by football," said Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in Auburn's department of history. "You don't have time to think about memories or what happened two weeks ago, much less two months ago or three months ago."

Bobby was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 1958 NFL draft, then was traded to Washington the next year. He was injured and was out of football by the next season. He returned to Auburn and finished his degree in 1961. He coached football at high schools in Georgia and Tennessee for the next quarter-century, which is how he met his wife, a longtime teacher and college administrator.

"He was a guy that was so funny that he could make your jaws ache from laughing, but he could also be stern," Sherry said. "He had a dual personality. There were reasons for that."

One day in 1987, Sherry learned the reasons why. Just before they were married in 1972, Bobby disclosed to her that he had once been accused of killing a man. He told her, "I have never murdered anyone."

Bobby's name had actually emerged during a coroner's inquest into Hudson's death on Aug. 8, 1957. He and three other witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and declined to testify.

A witness who had loaned Hudson a car on the day he was killed told the jury that Hudson told him that someone had threatened his life over a dispute with a girl. Another man testified that he had traded a shotgun to someone for a pistol on the day Hudson was killed, but he couldn't identify the man. The seven-person coroner's jury concluded that Hudson was killed by "a person or persons unknown."

The case remained inactive for more than three decades until Georgia Hudson approached Chattanooga Police detective Richard Heck about her son's death at a support group for the families of murder victims in January 1986.

"She told me there hadn't been a day go by that she didn't think about her son's murder," Heck told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "She and her husband told me they wanted to find out who killed their son before they went to their graves. It's the sort of thing that's hard to turn down."

Georgia Hudson told the Times that Chattanooga police never truly attempted to solve the case in 1957. Her 24-year-old son had been planning to get married only a week after he was killed.

"The police never tried to find out who killed my boy," she told the Times. "I think the big shots paid it off. They knew who did it. They think (Hoppe) was such a good boy, but I know different. He did a lot of things he would have gotten in trouble for. But they didn't want to get him in trouble. You don't forget things like that."

Liquor was still outlawed in Chattanooga in 1957, and Donald Hudson was the kind of troublemaker that police might have been happy to see go away. According to published reports at the time, Hudson had been arrested only four days before his death. He was accused of transporting unstamped liquor and driving a car that overturned while running from the police.

In 1953, he had been sent to federal prison for violating liquor laws, and two years later, he and another man were accused of kidnapping and beating a 32-year-old man. The charges were eventually dropped. He also lost his little finger on one hand in a shooting incident in January 1957.

"Bobby was so well known and so highly respected in Chattanooga that the police didn't want to indict him in 1957," Sherry said. "They didn't want to hurt him, and later, one of them told me they were glad to be rid of Don Hudson. Well, that's sad for someone to even say that, but it was what happened."

But when Heck took over the case, Hoppe's football exploits were only ghosts of the past. After a 14-month investigation, Bobby was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury for first-degree murder in March 1988. Before he turned himself in to the police, he confided to his wife that, yes, he had shot Hudson in self-defense.

"Of course, my mind just went into a whirl," Sherry said. "He had told me that he had never murdered anyone. Well, it took a while, but then I realized, and was fully sympathetic, he had never murdered anyone. He had killed Donald Hudson in self-defense."

Police had uncovered new evidence, or at least information that had been unknowingly sitting in their files all along. Nine years after Hudson was killed, Leroy Kington, then chief of detectives in Chattanooga, had taken a statement from a man about Bobby's alleged involvement. The man was Joseph Godwin, the 37-year-old Baptist minister that had heard Bobby's confession about firing the gun at Hudson.

Godwin had been taking summer classes at Auburn in the summer of 1957. Kington told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he took Godwin's statement to a grand jury, which had declined to indict Bobby in 1966.

Before the trial, Bobby's attorneys argued that he had been denied the right to a speedy trial because police had been sitting on Godwin's statement for years. Much of the case file had disappeared, and many witnesses were dead. Others still refused to cooperate with police and prosecutors. Nonetheless, prosecutors believed Bobby had motive to kill Hudson because he believed that Hudson had abused his older sister.

Bobby's attorney, Bobby Lee Cook, stunned prosecutors during opening arguments when he told the jury that his client had indeed killed Hudson, but only in self-defense after Hudson pointed a gun at him. One witness testified that Bobby was at her house and made a threat against Hudson only hours before he was killed. Another woman testified that Hudson had threatened to kill Bobby for breaking up his relationship with Bobby's sister.

Cook tried to prevent Godwin from testifying because of a Tennessee law that protected the confidentiality of conversations with ministers. The judge allowed Godwin's testimony, however, and he told the jury, "(Bobby) told me the killing was done by shotgun, he shot the man in the face, the man was in a car, the car wrecked." Bobby's attorneys claimed someone from People magazine had called Godwin and promised him $200,000 for his story if Bobby was convicted. Prosecutors claimed no such offer was made.

During closing arguments, according to an AP story at the time, assistant district attorney Tom Evans said Hoppe killed Hudson because "he's tired of hearing about Don beating up (his sister) because it embarrasses him because he's a star. So he slows down because he knows Don Hudson's behind him. (Hudson) pulls around him, ladies and gentlemen, what does he see? What does he see? He sees Mr. Hoppe with a shotgun and he tries to speed up and boom! What happens? Right in the eye. Good shot."

Evans noted that police didn't find a pistol in Hudson's car at the scene, and he argued that it would have been impossible for Bobby to pull the shotgun over his seat, load it and fire while driving, like he had testified he had done. Bobby's attorneys claimed he was unable to do it in a courtroom reenactment because he had suffered a heart attack and had arthritis.

In the end, the judge declared a mistrial because the jury couldn't reach a verdict. Jurors told reporters that they were deadlocked on a 10-2 vote for acquittal. Although Bobby wasn't convicted and wasn't going to prison for the rest of his life, he wasn't satisfied.

"We were devastated," Sherry said. "We wanted it to be what it should've been, which was not guilty, because he did not murder Don Hudson. He killed him in self-defense. Bobby was just emotionally distraught."

Sherry said her husband struggled with guilt for the rest of his life. On at least one occasion, he told her, "You know? If I hadn't killed Hudson, he might've changed his life."

"He certainly felt that God had forgiven him, but he still had trouble forgiving himself," Sherry said. "It didn't bother him every minute of every day as it did in the first year or so after it happened, but it did still come back to him and haunt him occasionally."

When Auburn celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first national championship in 2007, Bobby skipped the ceremonies at Jordan-Hare Stadium. She said he wore his national championship ring and the one commemorating the 50th anniversary every day until his death. He died at home on April 7, 2008. He was 73.

"To some degree, we will never know what really happened in that car," said Flynt, the Auburn professor.

- - -

royexum@aol.com


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