I had the privilege of being on the sideline in 1979 for Herschel Walker’s final high school football game in Wrightsville, when the future Georgia Heisman Trophy winner ran for 365 yards and five touchdowns to lead Johnson County to an easy state championship win.
Ten years earlier I was also fortunate to be at Valdosta’s Cleveland Field for the Class AAA state title game between the Valdosta Wildcats and the visiting Athens High Trojans.
This time, I didn’t use my media opportunity as sports editor of The Brunswick News to secure a spot in the Valdosta press box but rather, opted to view the game from the stands. As I recall, myself and then fiancé Barbara had seats on the visitors’ side of the stadium, down low on the first five rows or so.
We were hoping to see a tightly-contested back-and-forth football game but knowing how good this Valdosta team was and aware of what the Wildcats had done to opponents down through the years on this same field, I truly had my doubts that the team from Athens was going to be able to keep it close.
For, you see, this may have been Wright Bazemore’s greatest Valdosta team to this point and, that was saying a lot with the ‘Cat juggernauts he fielded over the past two decades. Get this, in their 12 games leading into the state title game, the Wildcats were 12-0 with 11 shutouts! Yes, you read that right …. 11 Valdosta opponents hadn’t been able to score a single point and incredibly, the Wildcats had given up just seven points in the other game, which came against Tift County in game No. 9!
So, without question, no team in Georgia high school history had ever played defense like this Valdosta team did, in the fall of 1969. Offensively, oh the ‘Cats were pretty good there also as they had tallied 407 points entering the state championship game.
Only thing is, as fantastic as the Valdosta defense was, it had never encountered a football player like Anderson Sidney Johnson.
Sure, Bazemore and his staff had a good scouting report on the Athens High quarterback. How could they not? The 6-1, 190-pound Johnson had led the Trojans to an 11-1 record, the only loss being early in the season to Gainesville. Entering the title game, Johnson had run for 1,037 yards and passed for 1,085 yards more. He was truly a superstar prep performer in Athens, playing not only football but basketball and baseball and also running track. Even the usually unflappable Bazemore gushed in a newspaper story leading up to the game, “Andy Johnson’s out of this world!”
As expected however, the Valdosta Wildcats took command of the game early on. And despite an Athens surge, the home team still led 13-6 in the final seconds of the first half.
That’s when a strange thing happened, one that I will never forget. On the final play of the half, the ‘Cats defense stymied the Trojans’ offense once again. Thus, many of the Valdosta players on the sideline left the field and started up the ramp leading to the Wildcat dressing room. Only thing is, though, a 5-yard penalty had been called on Valdosta on the play, which would give the Trojans one last play with no time showing on the clock.
Before the stunned eyes of the partisan Wildcat fans, Andy Johnson took the snap from center, burst through the Valdosta defensive front and used his 10.1-seconds, 100-yard-dash speed to race 68 yards for a touchdown. The Trojans then missed the PAT kick but they had pulled within one point of Valdosta at intermission, 13-12, and left this distinct message: “Hey, we’re not going anywhere!”
Then came a second half that legends are made of and it indeed made a legend of one Andy Johnson.
Valdosta would build to its lead most of the final two quarters but, each time, Johnson would bring Athens High back. A 7-yard scoring run by Johnson pulled the Trojans to within 20-18 and after the Wildcats went back up by 26-18 in the game’s final minutes, Johnson led a stirring length-of-the field touchdown drive … one that was reminiscent of the one he would lead the Georgia Bulldogs on to beat Georgia Tech two years later in his sophomore year at Georgia.
With just 25 seconds left in the game, Johnson culminated the against-the-clock march by hurling a 29-yard touchdown pass to Rand Lambert, to pull Athens to within 26-24. But, Johnson wasn’t through as the Trojans lined up for the two-point conversion attempt that would enable Athens to tie the mighty Wildcats. And the Trojans did just that, Johnson passing to Gary Sellers, son of the head coach Weyman, for the two points that ended the state championship game in a 26-26 tie … there being no overtime in playoff games at that time.
I can still see the looks of disbelief on the thousands of Valdosta fans as they left Cleveland Field that night. Remember, this was a Wildcat team that had surrendered only SEVEN POINTS all season long and had blanked ELEVEN different foes. And yet this quarterback named Andy Johnson had come to town and chewed up the Valdosta defense by rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns and passing for 156 yards and a touchdown plus the crucial two-point PAT pass.
And by the way, it must be noted that the Valdosta quarterback that historic evening was Don Golden, who would go on to be Johnson’s teammate at Georgia for the next four years, as the Bulldogs safety man and punter. Tragically, Golden would die in an automobile accident in 2005.
But that night in Valdosta was when I knew what kind of quarterback the Georgia Bulldogs were getting in Andy Johnson. And no doubt, Vince Dooley knew that also as the Georgia head coach was in the Valdosta press box that evening.
And Johnson would more than live up to this All-America high school press clippings at the University of Georgia. He teamed with tailback Jimmy Poulos on the UGA freshman team in 1970 to put up big numbers running and passing and then became the national sophomore of the year in 1971 when he led Dooley’s Dogs to a splendid 11-1 record including a Gator Bowl win over North Carolina. And, as mentioned, it was Valdosta night all over again on Georgia Tech’s Grant Field on Thanksgiving night in the fall of ’71. Back and forth the Bulldogs and Jackets went the night long before Poulos, the “Greek Streak,” scored the winning touchdown with a 1-yard dive with 14 seconds left in the game.
But it was Johnson’s cool performance under fire that enabled the Bulldogs to drive down the field while fighting the clock and the Tech defense, to set up Poulos’ winning touchdown. Starting at the Bulldogs’ own 35-yard line with just 1:29 left, Johnson ran for 22 yards and then completed a clutch 4th-and-10 pass to tight end Mike Greene for 18 yards to the Tech 25-yard line. The rest is history as Johnson drove the Dawgs down to the Tech 1-yard line where Poulos went over the top to give Georgia what Dooley called one of his 10 most memorable wins at the Bulldogs’ helm.
Andy Johnson would go on to lead Georgia to many additional memorable victories while becoming the greatest UGA running quarterback of all time with 1,799 career rushing yards in his three years on the UGA varsity. Ray Goff, quite the running quarterback himself when he led the Bulldogs to the 1976 SEC title, called Johnson “the best I ever saw.”And not only did Johnson star in football but he was also a baseball standout for the Diamond Dawgs, compiling a .280-plus career batting average at Georgia.
And the New England Patriots certainly knew of Johnson’s ball-carrying prowess as they drafted him after his final season at Georgia in 1973 and made a running back of him. Johnson would play for nine seasons with the Patriots with his best NFL season coming in 1976 when he scored 10 touchdowns and had 1,045 yards of total offense.
When I heard of Andy Johnson passing away earlier this week of a long-time illness, I was enveloped by a sudden wave of sadness. I never knew Andy personally but I did have many opportunities to interview him after Georgia football games and always knew he was a class individual, in addition to being a terrific football player. No question, he will be missed greatly by the Bulldawg Nation and those Georgia fans today who were too young, or not even born, when No. 14 broke the huddle for the Bulldogs’ offense, well, you missed an opportunity to witness one of Georgia’s all-time greats in action.
And, for me, it all goes back to that long-ago night in 1969 in Valdosta, when I first saw the legend of Anderson Sidney Johnson begin to take shape.