Remembering Athens’ Bulldogs, Both On and Off the Field

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Remembering Athens’ Bulldogs, Both On and Off the Field

Andy Johnson (Photo: Georgia Sports Communications)
Andy Johnson (Photo: Georgia Sports Communications)

Sports is the great unifier, it brings people together like nothing else. There is no sport anywhere in the known universe that boasts a passion that could rival that of college football fans – particularly in the SEC. Most beloved though, from a slightly biased perspective, are the heart-filled followers of the Georgia Bulldogs.

While the memories of what transpires on the field is the centerpiece and base of the memories and stories, the reference point if you will, the family, friendships and fellowships forged through Georgia football provide the diary of a lifetime of so many of our fondest moments.
As Father Time presses on, it is the cruel and natural course of things that more and more people special to us all are called away.

These last few months have taken some great Bulldog fans. But that magnificent season of 2018 provided some amazing final Georgia football memories – and undoubtedly bought some precious extra time – for some wonderful people who’s lives were adorned in red and black.

“Bulldog” Bob Rushton’s dream was to make it to South Bend to see his beloved alma mater play Notre Dame. In November, prior to Georgia’s game with Kentucky, there was a big gathering in his Five Points Bulldog palace to say goodbye. We all hoped he would make it through Thanksgiving and get to watch Kirby Smart’s team whip Tech. He did. He made it one more week after that, to see Georgia win what would be the last SEC championship of a full lifetime. The Rose Bowl was four weeks away. He got to watch the Bulldogs beat Oklahoma in Pasadena. “Bulldog” Bob died a few short hours later.

Mike Williams was an Athens landmark. His family – including his incomparable brother-in-law Bobby Poss – famed for the renowned Charlie Williams Pinecrest Lodge and Poss’s Bar-B-Que. Mike always had a smile and everyone loved him. When Kirby Smart came back to take over the football program, his aim was to re-connect with the past and launch Georgia into the future. Amongst the many details, feeding the players and the recruits, and their families. His good friend, Bulldog great Mike Cavan, told Mike that Georgia needed for him to come out of retirement and take care of feeding the Bulldogs, present and future. He was the king of feeding Bulldogs past. Mike of course answered the call of his beloved University. As Coach Cavan pointed out during his eulogy, Georgia wound up with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
There are no coincidences.

When it comes to Athens sporting legends, Billy Henderson and Andy Johnson are on Mt. Rushmore.
Perhaps most notably the legendary head football coach of the Clarke Central Gladiators, who he led to three state championships and seven North Georgia titles. He is one of the greatest men I ever met – part Dan Magill, part Erk Russell, two titans who touched the lives and are the heroes to so many. While Henderson’s championships and victories are a big part of his legacy, it is immeasurable what he meant to Athens. Taking over during the turbulent days of integration, Billy Henderson and his team united Clarke Central and the community of Athens. He coached the Pernos, Dooleys, Moroccos, Dukes’, Kasays and Greers. And thousands of young players who were finding their way. He sent hundreds of players to college, while helping mold them as a father figure.

Henderson was a remarkable athlete. A native of Macon, he played in the first ever National High School Baseball All-Star Game, with celebrity managers Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. He still holds the Georgia stolen base record, swiping 91 bags for the Bulldogs from 1947-50, seasons that had a total of 109 games. On the gridiron, he was a part of the Bulldogs SEC championship squads of 1946 and 1948, a teammate of Charley Trippi, who later coached him in baseball.
He was a truly great man beloved by all.

Andy Johnson is widely considered the greatest all-around athlete to ever come out of Athens. He was a young star at the YMCA and caught the eye of the town. As a 14-year old freshman, he was the starting quarterback for Athens High, and as a senior, led the Trojans to the state-championship, shared with Valdosta in a famous 1969 tie. The Atlanta Braves wanted to draft him, start him in Double-A and fast track him to the big leagues. Bear Bryant wanted him to run the wishbone at Alabama. But Andy was an Athens Bulldog.

Following an afternoon of spring practice in 1971, he crossed the street and Big Jim Whatley told him to grab a bat. The first pitch he saw, Johnson hit for a home run. He was the National Sophomore of the Year in ’71, leading the Bulldogs to an incredible 11-1 season, highlighted by a last minute game-winning drive that he orchestrated on Thanksgiving Night in an unforgettable 28-24 victory at Tech. His broken play bootleg touchdown at Tennessee would be the first iconic call for the world’s greatest college football announcer, the Legendary Voice of the Georgia Bulldogs Larry Munson. Andy was drafted in baseball by the Orioles and in football by the Patriots. He had a long NFL career, and was named to New England’s All-Decade team as a running back. How many do that at a difference position that they played in college?
At the tennis courts at Forest Heights Country Club (Stateboro), when I was around 12 or 13, I asked Coach Russell who, when he was at Georgia, was the greatest quarterback he’d coached? Before I could get the “qu” sound out of my mouth, he said Andy Johnson in a tone that meant the subject was not up for debate.

He was Georgia’s most iconic player of the 1970s. Elvis on campus.
But what separated Andy, is that, like Herschel Walker, he was amongst the most humble men you’d ever meet. Maybe the most humble. To quote longtime Bulldog Brad Lastinger: “You sometimes use the phrase, “nicest guy ever, well Andy may have been that guy. Nicest stud ever.”

Having the football program in Kirby’s hands brought him lasting smiles, and his final bucket list item was to make it to the Lettermen’s Golf Tournament, of which he was an enormous figure, honorary starter and officer for the organization. The call went out that this would be his last one. The lettermen rallied, and he had one last glorious day in the Athens sun.
Now all these Bulldogs, who got to witness the rebirth of glory and enjoy that last special season, are reunited with so many Georgia loved ones. They are shining examples of memories made and legacies laid for the Georgia Bulldogs.

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