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Remembering the '53 Heightsmen
Nov 21, 2006 12:00 am
Upon my arrival at Castle Heights in early Aug. 1953, I wasn't impressed, and after two weeks of two-a-day football practice, I was even more disillusioned.
But after becoming acquainted with my teammates, Coach Stroud Gwynn and the teacher with the camera, Col. J B Leftwich, conditions were becoming more tenable.
I soon developed a rapport with my teammates and respect for Castle Heights that has endured for more than 50 years.
As the football team began to shape up under Coach Gwynn's methodical, patient and skillful coaching, my perception was that I was an integral part of something with the potential of becoming extraordinary.
I was among some of the most talented football players ever assembled at CHMA. I genuinely felt very appreciative and fortunate, indeed.
Earl Cato, of Hartsville, one of the finest athletes and runners I had ever seen, had an uncanny sense of timing and talent to break away, becoming famous for long scoring runs. Earl would position himself to be on a dead run and at full speed within a few seconds of receiving a punt or kickoff.
Harold Greer, of Lebanon, was one of the most tenacious, agile and hard-hitting guards I ever played with. On defense, he "out-quicked" blockers despite being double teamed on almost ever play.
He moved at maximum efficiency on every play, unmindful of probable injury. In the Georgia Military Academy game, Harold received a kick to the head. Cut and with blood running into his eyes, he reluctantly left the game to be patched up and to return to action almost immediately.
Many of us were post-graduates, including Larry Wray who had played for Nashville Isaac Litton the previous season. He was no stranger to me since my high school team at Oak Ridge played Litton and sustained its only loss that year.
Not only a stellar receiver, he was a potent force on defense at either end or in the backfield. Because of his speed, agility and quickness he was a vital force on offensive plays.
The other end was Humphrey Folk, one of the few veteran players on a squad of mostly new cadets. An underclassman, he was a good receiver and a stellar defensive player.
Left tackle Frank Walker was our largest player. He was 6-2 and weighed 220 pounds, big for the 1950s. He was a three-sport athlete at Haleyville (Ala.) High School the year before.
An appendectomy after our third game sidelined him for three games and probably kept him off the All-Mid-South team, but he earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama.
Rodney Thomas, of Hartsville, at center was anchor of a terrific line. Snapping the ball to a tailback or a fullback in the single-wing offense requires concentration and skill, but Rodney was adept at this task. In addition, he was a bone-crushing linebacker and one of the Tigers' "48" minute players.
Jack Warwick at left guard made up for lack of size with unusual strength, speed and determination. He was one of the more cerebral players with a through understanding of the game. After graduating from Heights, he played at Tennessee Tech.
Watt Williams, of Lebanon, was our right tackle. He was unusual in size for a tackle, weighting only 170 pounds at 6-2 height and not the typical Mid-South Conference interior lineman. He was solid as a rock and delivered the sharpest blows our opponents would experience.
Billy Williams, the fullback, had the rock solid strength to grind out tough short yardage and enough speed to be a breakaway threat. Our team seldom punted, but when we kicked, Billy averaged over 40 yards per punt.
Our blocking back was Bobby Burkhart, another undersized "Phenom" no more than 5-8 and 160 pounds. Bobby played with heart and determination and was an unerring blocker. He was a good pass receiver, and in the single-wing formation if given the opportunity, a competent runner.
This is my opinion of the football team some believe was the academy's best. I think so, but I may be prejudiced. I am Frank Clayton, the starting tailback of this 1953 Mid-South Conference champion team.
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Postscript, by J B Leftwich: It should be mentioned Frank Clayton, a retired engineer living in Oak Ridge, may have been the equal of any single-wing tailback in Heights history. He was a dynamic runner and an adroit passer who excited the cadet corps and a host of fans. He made the all-conference team.
This team was undefeated while playing some of the toughest secondary school teams in Tennessee and Georgia and outscoring their opponents 273-63.
Four of the starters are known to be deceased. They are Rodney Thomas, Watt Williams Jr., Humphrey Folk and team leader and captain Harold Greer.
Stroud Gwynn, of Lebanon, had a 25-year stint as Castle Heights head football coach, posting 22 winning seasons. His overall record of 184-99-25 began at Watertown in 1934, where he coached one year, and spanned eight years at Gallatin. His record and an impeccable reputation earned him membership in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Selecting a best team in the history of a school is tricky. But old-timers, who watched Castle Heights football teams during its last half-century, always mention the teams of 1943 and 1953. Other teams remembered for their championship qualities played in 1948, 1962 and 1964.