The Georgia-Florida game is personified by good times with great friends, which I had many of with John Donaldson at Shellman Bluff.
The annual Georgia-Florida skirmish in Jacksonville has become something of an unofficial holiday for many of the partisans of both schools. However, I am only familiar with the view of those with an affinity for the red and black.
Like so many who have matriculated in Athens, the big weekend in the fall historically was to leave on Thursday and drive down Georgia Highway 15 to U. S. 1 to Jacksonville where there was an abundance of parties and time spent at the beach. Seeing the ocean was a treat for most students, including the country boys on Coach Wallace Butts’ team, who were enjoying the beach experience for the first time.
This was before the exposure to the Golden Isles, the coming of Amelia Island, which would gain priority in the years which lay ahead. Eventually, it became a ritual to leave early in the week and drive to the coastal home of John Donaldson who had played for the Bulldogs and later coached at both Florida and Georgia.
John was an advocate of running off tackle and featuring fullbacks in his running attack. You win by playing defense and running the football. Not sure who said that first Walter Camp or Alonzo Stagg, but such view is not a latent preachment. Nobody espoused that philosophy more than Donaldson. And, if you haven’t noticed, that still is the modus operandi of most coaches who win championships today.
Back to my friend John.
He grew up in Jesup and was a highly regarded halfback who was to replace the heralded Charley Trippi at Georgia when the later was graduated. Only one thing stood in his way—injury as it turned out. While John was a stickler for underscoring the strictest of training rules (he was ahead of today’s staples of good diet and good health habits; and even now, as he nears fourscore and ten years, neither alcohol nor tobacco has ever touched his lips), he could not recover from a practice field incident that neutralized his career.
“I heard it pop, like a gunshot,” John said of the hamstring pull, which came as he had made his move through the line of scrimmage and bounced to the outside and into the open field on a scrimmage play. He was never the same after that.
As a boy growing up, John was a quiet and introspective kid who always underscored discipline, good manners, and a healthy diet.
He mastered his homework, he paid attention in class and spent his downtime on the Altamaha River or in the woods. There were excursions to Shellman Bluff, 45 miles away, where he learned the nuisances of the tides, the sweet spots for fishing the creeks of the islands which dot the coast, casting for trout and bass.
He became something of an expert fisherman. He could “read” the water and the conditions. He had the skills and patience to load up his cooler in short order. His marsh home was equipped to accommodate his insatiable desire to enjoy the outdoor sport and coastal living. He loved a refreshing breeze off the water and he enjoyed cooking what he caught and killed, mostly dove, marsh hen, and quail.
A handsome fellow, John could have been a model for outdoor magazines. He was always in a cheerful mood when he was on the water. We would dock his boat in one of his favorite spots in the marsh. He would rig up our fishing rods, then cast away reveling in the outdoor experience and the environment. He considered marsh living a healthy plus. The water and the marsh invigorated and inspired him.
As he cast for his anticipated quarry, he talked football. He would regale his fishing companion with the story of how he got the better of the coach who was once considered the best in the state—Wright Bazemore whose legend in Valdosta is still intact.
While Donaldson respected and admired Bazemore, he, nonetheless worked to conquer the legend. Bazemore in tight games often used the center-keep to gain the edge. Donaldson figured two could play that game and used the play (the center snaps the ball to the quarterback who does not take the snap but proceeds to run the play without the ball; the center pauses after the snap for a couple of seconds and then charges downfield, often untouched to the goal line) to defeat the Wildcats in Valdosta. Donaldson then had the Jesup band parade around the field playing, “The Old Grey Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be.”
Not sure how many times I heard that story, but I never tired of it. In my mind’s eye I could see the play developing, maturing as planned and concluding with the advantage in full view of a crestfallen opponent and house of disbelieving local supporters.
John lived as enjoyable of a life as any man I have ever known. The happiest of days were spent at his coastal home at Shellman Bluff with his wife Anne, a golfing and bridge aficionado.
Unfortunately, I no longer fish with John. My Georgia-Florida weekend is compromised, leaving me with an emptiness that has brought about a void. In fact, John’s fishing days are over. This is, after all, an imperfect world. The only thing that could get John Donaldson off the water is dementia. In the saddest of times, John’s fishing poles are gathering rust.