June 22, 2000

At Avondale High School in 1964, Coach Calvin Ramsey brought inspiration to football players that certainly exceeded every opponent's expectations.  All of his skills came to a performance crescendo in his locker room talks preceding each game.  These talks were his particular forte. It is hard to remember exactly what was said and maybe others can recall more detail. These were by far the most adrenaline-filled moments of my high school days, and however clouded my memory may be after 35 years, I wanted to recall and write my perceptions as best I can. These events were what championships were made of in those days.  It was a great privilege to play Avondale football for Calvin Ramsey. 

Fridays after the last bell, students quickly deserted the school premises, but the football players went to one of the lower rooms in the third-wing for a final review of game plans, scouting reports, and films. This pre-game session was usually handled by the assistant coaches and was mostly a time to become solemn and focused.  Afterwards, the A-Club parents took us to a restaurant, where we all ate together in a back room.   The meals were healthy but served in very small portions. I remember we got a serving of one tiny scoop of ice cream that was hardly a bite. There was small talk and some light joking from the most humorous among us, but basically it was unusually silent.

In the car ride back to the stadium, butterflies would begin to flutter. I remember watching people out the car window, doing ordinary things, like shopping at Belvedere, pumping gas, and waiting for a bus, all of which seemed so irrelevant under the circumstances. I pictured my friends and family at home eating a normal meal on a normal Friday evening, and it seemed very strange that things could be so normal, when in little more than an hour we would be in a great battle to uphold the glorious reputation of Avondale High School.  Back at the stadium there would often be former players like maybe Frank James or Charlie Pritchett, who were football legends and who had given their all to build the Avondale reputation. They were now depending on us to uphold the tradition and one look from them as you walked into the dressing room would transform all those butterflies into an intense resolve to win.  After making their presence known to us, they would go to the coach's office and pay their respects.

In our locker room at the end of the stadium, the wire cages now contained individual hangers hung with colorful uniforms, clean and spotless, in great contrast to our practice uniforms which were always muddy, salty from yesterday's sweat, and very anonymous. But these beautiful game uniforms were warm, dry, tight, and most importantly, they were numbered. Numbers for people to refer to in their programs. Numbers for scouts to take notes. Numbers for parents, for girlfriends, for buddies, for Frank James, so that absolutely everyone would know who made the play, be it good or bad. Every action would be recorded in Avondale number history for centuries to come, in the halls of Avondale glory, or in the basement of Avondale shame.  And when that uniform went on, we all became warriors, and we were united like no other team in the state of Georgia. We had been fighting each other in practice since early August, but in these uniforms of matching colors, we were now united against a common enemy and we were moments away from facing them.  Very soon now we would be tested to establish our eternal value as representatives of the greatest high school ever.

The assistant coaches slowly entered the dressing room a few minutes before Ramsey. They seemed to enter according to a well-planned script and they were deadly serious. They would usually manage a brief, forced smile accompanied by a comment like, "You gonna get 'em?" They growled in low short phrases like, "You ready? You gonna hit some people tonight? This is it! In a few minutes, we're gonna find out what you are made of!" But just their appearance was enough to tell us we were headed into a major battle. They brought in a 'landing craft' look to the dressing room. It was that look in their eyes that began to spread to all the players. You would think the coaches were going into battle, not us. Coach Meyers was red faced, his eyes were a lighter shade of pale gray and bulging under pressure from within; and the veins thickened in his forehead and neck. Somehow his body language hinted of an eruption on the verge. If anyone was more intense than we were, it was the assistant coaches, and they passed that intensity to us in just a few minutes. Sometimes Coach Meyers would make a short speech about how Ramsey had done so much for us, and how we owed him everything. He would point out that this was our time to repay him for instilling in us an excellence of character obtainable in no other way.

Then, like a great matador, Ramsey entered the locker room and complete quiet came over the room.  All attention turned to him. He was all grace and confidence. With a snow-white shirt and dark tie, he was in full control of this battle.  He began to slowly pace back and forth in front of us. The great purpose, for which we had suffered and sweated since summer, had now come.  All of the inhabitants of that locker room, with all senses peaked, were under his spell now. With long pauses between sentences and his black eyes flashing, his voice overpowered every emotion, every thought, and every sound. Like a drill sergeant, his facial expressions pounded energy throughout the room like thunder. His eyes with quick glances sent high voltage into each player. As his words laid hold of each of our souls, doubts vanished. Questions were no longer necessary. Eyes became filled with a total commitment, a dedication, and a certainty. Eyes were sold-out, without fear, and intense beyond anything I have ever witnessed.  Every player, whether freshman or senior, lineman or back, big or little, had this look in their eyes.  It was unanimous.  All fear was gone and it was time for reckless abandon to be poured out on the field.

He would talk about our opponents, the boys down there in the dressing room at the other end of the stadium, how they would give their lives to beat Avondale.  He would say, how tonight when our coaches passed their dressing room, they could hear those boys shouting and they were so pumped to beat us, that they would be hitting us like wild animals. He would remind us of our parents, our friends, our girlfriends, now sitting above us in the stadium seats, who were depending on us, who would remember forever what we did tonight. He would speak of the assistant coaches; about how hard they had worked with us and how they had done all they could do for us. And now, it was up to us, and it was all up here, in our heads, and down here, deep down in our guts. Everyone would find out tonight, what was down deep inside of us, whether or not we would measure up. He would remind us that many had stood where we were standing tonight and they would give anything to be in our shoes tonight. They would give anything for the opportunity we now have.  Avondale would never forget what happens tonight.

He would remind us of the scouting reports on our opponent, about how some Number 53 had 15 tackles in their last game, and how he weighed 210 pounds, and would probably be all-American this year. He is a killer and wants to beat Avondale more than anything in his life. That's all he's been thinking about since last year. Bruce Mather, our center, whose responsibility it would be to block Number 53, now looked small on one knee and looking down at the floor in front of Ramsey. But in practice we had all frequently seen Bruce miraculously drive even our best linemen, who greatly outweighed him, off the end of the board.

With the energy of Ramsey's voice, the adrenaline flowed, muscles pumped more blood, bodies could no longer be held still, and more players came up off their knee and began stretching and bouncing. The running backs would begin dancing like prizefighters. Gary West was like a nervous race horse just before entering the starting gate, moving with quick, twitching movements. Brad Johnson would look down at his uniform, maybe check his socks, and roll up his sleeves above his biceps. Steve Mills had a stone cold look.  He was like a wrecking ball, with thick powerful legs like a bull. And this was the time when we were all glad we had someone intelligent like Mike Colvard as quarterback. He would be facing us, standing up front with Ramsey. His readiness was mental and you could see his mind clicking with sound reason, remarkable under the circumstances.

About that time, the band would pass just outside the locker room door, marching in single file around the corner, through the chain-link gate, down the concrete steps to the cinder track, and onto the field. It was the rattling of the drums, clicking on the rim, pounding on the snares that brought the entire experience to something like being aloft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Those drums did much the same as the ones must have done when they led Pickett's men up that hill on the third day of Gettysburg. There is a power in those drums that calls all men into battle and it is irresistible, empowering, and filled with great patriotism. All bodily sensations of aches, pains, or discomfort leave completely.  Any consciousness of contact with anything, including the ground, vanishes.  The adrenaline rush was like some highly potent drug that lifted and filled us with superhuman strength.

The tackles and guards look ferocious now.  Jim Sharp, a giant among us, glared out of his facemask with his forehead mashed by his helmet making his eyebrows bulge giving him the look of a mad gorilla.  David Bentley and Gene Webb, who normally maintained a gentle expression, now had reckless and dangerous looks.  Edwin Spencer and Bill Johnson, normally joking and laughing, are now transformed into revving engines, ready to explode off the line.  Bob Bowen, George Veal, and Paul Brinsfield are possibly the most intensely fired up of all.  As linebackers, they were by nature explosive anyway, but now their personalities had departed and were replaced by a hit-to-kill obsession toward the opponents.  Bob's shoulder pads seem to ride higher than usual hiding his neck and making it appear that is helmet and pads were one.  Bob would blow spit like bullets onto the floor, and now one would surely hate to be the opposing center who would face Bob.  Bob would be pounding his head all night with the butt of his hands.

As for the ends, we would alternately shake each leg and then stretch groin muscles, anticipating a long night of pass routes and downfield blocking of the defensive backs.  We would be chasing down those defenders who were like jackrabbits in the open field. My eyes would catch John Mangrum's and I remember we would say, let's cut them down on the first set of downs. That meant, if our running backs made it through the line, and we blocked their defensive backs, our runners would score, as simple as that. The sooner the better, on the first set of downs, cut them down, and we score and win.

It now seemed like forever waiting for the officials in their black and white striped uniforms, to come to the locker room door, and notify Ramsey that we had minutes to kickoff. That provided relief, but it also started hearts pumping overtime. Then Coach Ramsey would ask Reverend Gannon for a prayer. He would call on God Almighty to send his divine power to give us this victory. Every source of strength was needed and Ramsey always made sure that there was a petition for supernatural power on every occasion.

There was nothing now left to do but answer the high calling.  And that calling came from the roar of the fans through the concrete above us in Death Valley's stadium, calling us to come out under the bright lights and do what all of Avondale did better than any other school in the state, win football games. Ramsey gave the final nod, let's go! Then a shouting mob of Blue Devils packed tightly together, and stormed for the door, pouring outside and around corner to the gate.  There was a hold at the gate to get some hand signal from the band.  The roars from the stadium became louder.  The band started the great hymn of hymns that brought everyone to frenzy.  We could see the cheerleaders at the goal post, with a banner for us to break through, and they saw us and began to leap in the air as if their saviors had just appeared to rescue them from defeat.  Down the steps we went, cleats clicking on concrete, like an army of tap dancers, to the cinder track, past police officers, and to the goal posts.  The feeling at that moment, running under that goal post, with all preparations and all fans, absolutely erupting like a volcano in a single moment giving all possible homage to our Avondale, had to be the most glorious moment of our lives. 

Upon reaching the sidelines, a quick huddle of the entire team was formed to say the Lord's Prayer.  With its 'valley of the shadow of death', the prayer seemed to be a final commitment to victory or death, no other choice. When our opponents took the field and we faced them for the kickoff, all the noises from the stadium, the band, and everything else, seemed to fade into the distance and muffle.  Everything now seems to be going too fast.  It had taken hours and hours to get to this point and now it was going to start in just a flash.  The whistle blows, the kicker moves forward, and the ball is in the air against a black sky.  The receiver is dropping back, and I close in on an opponent.  There is sudden contact, but no feeling of impact and no sound.  The whistle blows, the ball is placed, and Bruce is signaling for our huddle.  Mike calls a counter play off tackle to Gary.  I look at John across the huddle, the huddle breaks, and we are at the line.  I look for the defensive back on my side, and the ball is snapped.   I head downfield running as fast as I can.  The defensive back watches me out of the corner of his eye, and then he cuts toward the line.    Gary catches a trap block, heads across the grain, and the defensive back gives me a head-fake, but I've thrown a body block and he rolls up with me on the ground.  I look quickly around, John's man is down, and he looks with me downfield where Gary, all alone, has already gone twenty yards, headed for the goal post. 

After the game, Coach Ramsey's cigar smoke would float our way; it was an incense telling us he was pleased with our victory.  That scent became a smell that I enjoy even today because it brings back those wonderful memories of a time when we were on top of the world, great heroes among the people, and everyone knew our names.