When I was growing up in Athens, my parents were very regular church attendees at North Athens Baptist Church. My dad was a deacon and also the janitor.
I joked that I was always there even when the doors weren’t open. The only time we missed a service was the fourth Sunday in May and the second Sunday in June. Those Sundays we would leave after Sunday school to attend Homecoming services at Short Creek Baptist Church and at Pleasant Hill Methodist Church, respectively.
My mother’s side of the family (Goforth) was from Short Creek. Many of my relatives, including my maternal grandparents, are buried in the cemetery there. My dad’s side of the family congregated off No Pone Valley Road in Meigs County at Pleasant Hill.
The cemetery on the church property now holds my paternal grandparents, more generations and many other relatives including the Perkinsons (my paternal grandmother’s family), the Kennedys, Creasmans and Hennessees, who married into the family.
It was at Pleasant Hill where I got to know many of my Meigs County relatives and acquaintances. Among the latter was the Roberts family, namely Don, who was a few years younger than I was. Don, along with many others became life-long friends of mine. Heck, we are probably related if I look back far enough! I’ve always claimed that everyone in Meigs County is related some way or another.
Don arrived in the world in November 1956 at Epperson Hospital in Athens. His dad, Paul Ed, was the first principal at Cedar Valley Elementary, was principal at Meigs County High School and then became the Director of Schools for Meigs County. Don’s mother, Frances, worked for the federal government. Don attended Decatur Elementary School through 4th grade, then Cedar Valley through the 8th grade, before entering Meigs County High School.
Athletics became a big part of Don’s life. His baseball adventures began in Dixie Youth where he played for Rusty Rowland, a former baseball and basketball player. Dixie Youth consisted of players 8–12 years old. Don’s dad was his coach during this time also. One of Don’s teammates was Bob Pettit, son of W.T., who became a top-notch high school pitcher. When Don made All Stars as a 12-year-old, he played for Tom Temple, a former Bryan College athlete who coached football and basketball for Meigs County High School.
When Don was in elementary school, there were annual Field Day events where all the schools came together for sports competition. Don had won the 100-yard dash, but when he was in 8th grade, Viola Runyan, a PE instructor at Decatur Elementary (and the sister-in-law of Doc McKee) approached him prior to the race.
“You’ll not be winning the 100 yard dash this year Roberts!”, she crowed. Sure enough, a little known 6th grader from Fairview blew past Don in the race. That 6th grader was Gary Moore. Gary, of course, became an All State running back at Meigs County, then played at the University of Tennessee.
Football was also on the agenda for Roberts as he participated again in the community league. He received instruction from Max and Rex Smith and Bill and Ben Wade. Meigs County had produced athletes such as Tommy Hackler and Cotton Lettner, two former college players.
Lettner gained fame along with Jim Cartwright and Wayne Grubb (two former McMinn County High School players) at the University of Tennessee; particularly in the win over Heisman trophy winning Billy Cannon and LSU in 1959.
After elementary school, Don arrived at Meigs County High School in the fall of 1970. It was here that he came in contact with three football people. Kenny Smith from Etowah, Bill James who had moved in from Virginia and Chuck Pickens, the hard nosed athlete from Etowah who was head coach. Pickens was a former Piledriver who had played at Florida State. Smith and James were his assistants.
Don remembers, “Our equipment was awful. Our locker room had concrete floors with two pipes running down the middle. We had wire cages that slid on the pipes and we hung our clothes there. Etowah High School had consolidated with Englewood to form McMinn Central in 1965 and they had some old equipment that they gave to us. We piled it into trucks and hauled it to Decatur. We were so happy with this stuff and we painted ‘PRIDE’ in our locker room.”
That first year of high school football resulted in a record of 1-7-2 with the only win coming over McMinn Central. David Johnson, a Vandy signee, led the Chargers. The two ties were to Tellico, where David Tucker was a senior, and to Charleston, Mike Turner’s senior year. “We were ecstatic with the win over Central. Coach Pickens had a big day on Saturday at the barber shop in Etowah afterwards.”
It was during Don’s freshman year that the team held “toilet bowl scrimmages.” Joe Price, a volunteer coach, brought the “Etowah mafia” over to Decatur to scrimmage the Tigers. These were area players such as Tommy Ivens and others who would make the trek. These scrimmages were weekly events scheduled to prepare the Tigers for the varsity game. He remembers one incident very vividly from that season.
“It was a toilet bowl scrimmage on the Tuesday prior to the final game of the year versus South Pittsburg. We ran a toss sweep and I stiff-armed the defender. After the play, my knuckle was on top of my hand. I was screaming. Jackie Rayl looked and said ‘Oh my gosh’. Then he said ‘Shut up and bite on your mouthpiece’. Then he pulled hard. After about the third attempt to straighten it up, I threw up!”
His mom took him to Dr. Cleveland in Englewood while he was still in his equipment. Turns out, he had torn ligaments and had dislocated the finger, which required surgery the following day.
Pickens left for Tellico after this year to be head football coach. Assistant, Kenny Smith, departed for Vonore. Bill James moved from assistant to head coach. His assistants were Robert Greene and Tommy Jewell. “Coach James (who is the current Meigs County Mayor) was very detailed. He planned, was organized and most of all he instilled pride. He made football important.”
Don had started in the secondary as a freshman, played some quarterback and was a tailback his sophomore year, The sophomore campaign netted four wins.
The following year, the Tigers won seven games with Roberts at quarterback. With Roberts returning at quarterback his senior year, Meigs County won nine games, losing only to Spring City 3-0.
Don reflects back on that year: “We got to experience the growth of our program. We saw the fruits of our labor. We were exposed to really good coaches. We were disappointed with the loss, as there was no advancement to post season play at that time, but wow! What fun we had! I loved playing so much! Coach James would give me info on opponents and I would study that before games. My high school teammates are still among my friends today.”
Each year at the conclusion of the football season, it was time to pull off the pads and get ready for basketball. Don played four years for Meigs County.
Kenny Smith was the head coach his freshman year when he was 6th man. Don had an opportunity to play against Austin Clark at Kingston, who later starred at the University of Tennessee, and then became the long-time basketball coach and Athletic Director at Baylor High School. Don was coached his final three years by Jackie Hennessee. Among his teammates were Ray Combs, Orlando Crawford, Willie McGee and Gary Moore.
With no rest for the weary, when the basketball season ended Don moved back outside where baseball was the sport of choice. Four more years of activity here. Don played infield for Doyle Harmon his freshman year. His football coach, Bill James, had the team Don’s sophomore and junior years when he played infield and catcher. Then, Tommy Jewell took over coaching Don’s senior year when he caught full time.
McMinn normally won the District as it was drawn up then, but we were good. We had Bob Pettit and Larry Mason on the hill. We beat Bradley and we beat Cleveland when they had Ted Williams May. But, we just couldn’t beat McMinn,” Don says.
I was broadcasting McMinn baseball at the time and remember some of those epic-pitching duals. Mike Moore last pitched at McMinn in 1971. David Ray was a “horse” and McMinn Central had Don Davis.
With all the sports Don was associated with in high school, he excelled at football. A senior quarterback, he was named a High School All-American.
Johnny Coffman is the “Voice of the Cherokees.” Email him at email@example.com