JESUP – Here in the heart of swamp living—this logging, pulp wooding and agri-business community—you will find football as much a staple of its core as the American flag to which reverence is expected from the beginning of life until that exit into the unknown.
Many of the town’s signature football heroes have found their way to the University of Georgia, beginning with John Donaldson a talented and adroit, but hard luck halfback, in the forties. Donaldson was groomed to succeed Charley Trippi. He had the speed, versatility and toughness for the assignment, but succumbed to the mother of all pulled hamstring muscles and became the victim of potential unrealized. A sad day for him and UGA.
However, he would return to his hometown to coach Jesup to state championships, once beating Valdosta twice in the same season—unheard of in the day. He then had the band in the post-game celebration to march up and down the field, playing “The Old Gray Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be,” an unforgettable moment that is still recalled today. That gives you a sense of how important football is in this neck of the woods, especially with Bulldog quarterback Stetson Bennett III, being a native son. Blackshear may rightfully claim Stetson, but Jesup won’t let go of the fact that it keeps Stet’s birth certificate on file.
Then there was Len Hauss, who was signed for collegiate tenure in Athens by line coach J. B. Whitworth, who first recruited Len’s mother by eating second helpings of everything she cooked and bragged with such oratory that he sounded like William Jennings Bryan, for whom he was named.
Hauss was followed by Lindsay Scott who partnered with Buck Belue to become the heroes who saved Georgia’s national championship season in 1980. You remember, “Run, Lindsay, run,” of course, and their 93-yard pass (Belue) and catch (Scott) in the old Gator Bowl to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat that seemed to be a foregone conclusion when lightning struck with 1:35 minutes left in the game. Woof, woof.
There were others along the way including Chuck Anderson, who showed up in his letter jacket, and Jim and Joe McPipkin who attended Hauss’ service on Monday as friends and neighbors crammed into the First Baptist Church for condolence hugs for Hauss’ widow, Janice, and to pay their respects to Len, one of the outstanding centers in Washington Redskin history. Perhaps, the best.
Eulogizers all remembered Hauss with an unspoken preamble, “In addition to.” In addition to being an all-pro center with the Washington team, they remembered how natives in this town could take the train from Jesup to Washington to see Len play and were royally entertained by Janice and her highly regarded husband. A meal, a tour of the nation’s capital—downhome hospitality you would expect from Wayne County alumni.
In addition to his exalted football career in Washington, they appreciated Len as an Altamaha (or “Altamahaul,” the local pronunciation) aficionado. They loved it in the days when players introduced themselves on network TV and heard their hometown hero, tell the nation, “I’m Len Hauss from Jesup, Georgia. I catch more redbreast than anybody in the NFL.”
One of those who paid tribute to Hauss was Billy Kilmer. A gifted all-around quarterback at UCLA, Kilmer also played basketball for John Wooden and is best remembered for bringing about the modern use of the shotgun formation with the Coach Red Hickey of the San Francisco 49ers. When Kilmer was traded to the Redskins, he and Sonny Jurgenson became the best of friends, competitors at practice but beer-drinking buddies afterward. Len would join them, a trio of NFL stalwarts.
Jurgensen was sitting in the back of the sanctuary as Kilmer recounted a couple of Redskin stories but spoke mostly about his trips to Jesup to visit Janice and Len. Kilmer eagerly learned about the ways of the Altamaha. Nobody would suggest that Billy became a swamp rat, but it was plain as a tight spiral that he became an Altamaha aficionado. They even named a slough in the backwaters of the river for him.
Only in football would two quarterbacks—one evolving from the liberal environs of Southern California and the other from the hallowed halls of Duke University—become best friends with their center who hailed from the woodlands, fields and swamps of deep South Georgia. Their common bond was their love of football and deep and abiding respect for being regular guys. Len’s successful career segued from the NFL back to his roots where he lived out his life as a banker, fisherman and storied citizen who loved his community and life amongst the “salts of the earth.”
Two salient points about Len’s UGA career. He came to campus as a hard-charging fullback. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought he might have brought about gang tackling at Jesup since it took three or four or more to bring him down in his prep days.
At the next level, however, it was noted that his lack of speed would cause an aborting of his backfield career. He was moved to center/linebacker where he had excellent speed and quickness for those positions. Then as a sophomore in 1961, Hauss suffered an ACL injury that threatened his career in an era when rehabilitation of such injuries was not what it is today.
Len took matters in his own hands. He ran the steps of Sanford Stadium as if he were a man possessed. He was there in the bitter cold of February, the nauseating winds of March and the sweltering heat of summer.
While he did not experience the career, for which he aspired in Athens, because of the knee injury, his indefatigable workout regimen prepared him for the NFL. Drafted in the 9th round by the Redskins in 1964, Len played 14 years in the NFL, all with Washington—starting 192 consecutive games once he took over at center. He was a five-time pro bowler and played in the Super Bowl VII. His name is lettered on the façade of Federal Express Stadium, home of the Washington team, as a member of Washington’s Ring of Honor.
When a local boy makes good, the Jesups of the world become button popping proud, but it gets to be special when there is a Len Hauss who underscores humility and never loses that grasp of his downhome lifestyle. Then he brings big name friends such as Kilmer and Jurgensen to the banks of the Altamaha and they act like natives.
Losing Len is hard enough, but what is going on the National Football League these days, is that “regular” guys like the aforementioned are disappearing. I believe the league will eventually evolve from the shackles of COVID, but, unfortunately, arrogance and greed are here to stay.