The Early Years of the Dublin Touchdown Club
On every Friday night in late summer through November and most days in between, they are there - cheering their sons and boosting their team. For the better part of the last half century, the members of the Dublin High Touchdown Club have provided support, both monetary and moral, to the winning tradition of Dublin High School football. As the Dublin Irish are currently enjoying one of their best seasons in years, I am reminded on the early days of the Touchdown Club, when the people of Dublin got behind a faltering program and within five years turned it into one of the most successful football dynasties in the state of Georgia.
Dublin High’s football teams had enjoyed successful seasons in the late 1940s, earning several district championships. Hugh Henderson, a former Americus High quarterback, lamented the fact that Dublin fans accepted losses in the early fifties with the phrase, "Yeah, but we played a good game." Henderson set out to change things for the better. He had help from two outstanding young coaches, Tom Stewart and Minton Williams. One of the first elements of the plan to improve the team was to start a recreation department football league, much like the one in nearby Statesboro. To fund a recreation program, money had to be found somewhere. This is where Murray Chappell, Ed Hall, and Keith Stone, all members of the city council, stepped in. Longtime mayor Felton Pierce also threw his support behind the project.
Football boosters began to talk in pairs - then in groups. These groups began to meet in sundry places around town, first at Johnson Street School. The first formal meeting of the Dublin Touchdown Club was held in Hugh Henderson’s Men’s Store on West Jackson Street, which was located in the Kreutz Building now occupied by Sapp’s Jewelers. The original members of the club were: Wimpy Roberts, Spec Hall, Bush Perry, Ben Crain, Sr., Hugh Henderson, J.B. Burch, Ed Bateman, Elmer Mackey, Joe Durant, Keith Stone, Fred Middlebrooks, Sr., Murray Chappell, Ray Prosperi, Leonard Swida, Fred Middlebrooks, Jr., Tom Stewart, Johnny Floyd and coaches Tom Stewart, Minton Williams and Bobby Rich. Ray Prosperi was the first President. Fred Middlebrooks, Sr. was elected Vice President. Elmer Mackey, who lent his ice plant offices on South Monroe Street for other meetings, was chosen as treasurer. Dues were a mere five dollars a year, but that amount, insignificant by today’s standards, kept the club going.
One major problem was the team bus, known as the "Green Goose." " In the early days, the bus often broke down on out of town trips," recalled Leonard Swida, an original founder of the club. "All Dublinites knew this and would follow behind the bus, just in case. If the bus broke down, we would carry the football players to the game. We always got the players to the game in time," Swida fondly remembered. Eventually, the booster club helped to raise the funds to buy a new Green Goose, a large, white, modern bus, lettered in green.
The first item on the club’s wish list was a movie camera to film the games. The school lent a movie projector to allow the coaches to show the team and their opponent’s strong and weak points. Joe Durant was the first camera man, aided by his assistant Hugh Henderson. In the last century of Irish football, I cannot go without mentioning Paul DiFazio for his work on filming the game which became an invaluable resource to the coaches and players. Another longtime volunteer was Ed Pierce, who broadcast the games and filled in at other jobs if needed. One of the team’s biggest boosters in the early years was Bush Perry, the newly hired sports editor of the "Dublin Courier Herald," who chronicled every game and supported Dublin athletic programs for nearly three decades.
A morning coffee discussion led to the purchase of a professional scoreboard for the old "Battle Field" on West Moore Street. Ben Crain, Sr. presented Superintendent S.R. Lawrence’s offer to match half of the amount needed to purchase the thousand-dollar scoreboard if the club could raise the other half. Two members of the club took the ball and ran with it. Messers Perry and Swida went to newspaper owner, state representative, and businessman, Herschel Lovett, who gave the men half of the money they needed. Swida and Perry then went to see Howard Cordell, Sr., who after a thirty minute sales pitch, gave the men the remaining $250.00 to meet their goal, one which was accomplished in one morning.
The members of the club worked hard to keep the grass on Battle Field and the practice field on North Calhoun Street green and growing. State Patrol Sergeant Ben Snipes, Sr., worked during his spare time to keep the field up. Leonard Swida went around town and gathered many pounds of fertilizer from every dealer in town. Keith Stone helped by seeing that water was provided to the field. Ben Crain, Sr. managed the finances and often supplied the players with cold drinks from the Grapette Bottling Company, which he owned and managed.
The greatest coup for the Dublin Touchdown Club was the building of the Shamrock Bowl. Swida, President of the club in 1960, originally planned to build the bowl shaped stadium on the site of the Kmart Store on Hillcrest Parkway. The plan was scrapped for the current site on Shamrock Drive because of other city-funded projects happening at the time. Don Lamb, Sr. brought all the factions of Dublin together, and through the aid of more than eighty thousand dollars in contributions (most of it borrowed by businessmen and supporters) to complete the construction of the Shamrock Bowl in 1962.
Throughout the 1960s, the Touchdown Club sponsored its annual jamboree to honor the players and supporters of the team. Each year, a committee sought out and found the best and most respected football speakers of the day. Honored guests came from all parts of the state to attend the festivities. Shug Jordan, legendary Auburn football coach, gave the keynote address to a large gathering held in the Central lunchroom in 1961. Receiving honors that night were the 1926 Dublin High Green Hurricanes, the 12th District Champions. Most prominent among the members of that team and present that night was "Breezy" Wynn, who after leaving Dublin High starred in the backfield of Coach Neyland at Tennessee during the early 1930s. In 1962, Bill Peterson, the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles, spoke to the crowd at the Moose Club. On hand that night was Theron Sapp, a Laurens County native, a member of the 1960 World Champion Eagles, only one of four former Georgia Bulldogs to have their jersey numbers retired, and who single handedly defeated Georgia Tech in 1957 to stop a long Tech winning streak and earn a lofty place in Bulldog history.
A year later, Ray Graves, an icon of University of Florida football coaches, addressed the touchdown club members in the Methodist Church Social Hall in 1964. The largest crowd of the decade turned out at the church to hear the new and successful Georgia coach, Vince Dooley. A pall was cast over the party, when Coach Minton Williams, who had led the Irish to state championships in 1959, 1960, and 1962, announced his resignation. "Tonto" Coleman, the new S.E.C. Commissioner came to town to honor, Dublin lineman Ronnie Rogers, who recently was granted a scholarship to play football at Georgia.
How did the players respond to all of this support? All you have to do is to look at the record. Except for a brief slide in the early 1970s, Dublin High’s teams have proved themselves as winners. If you don’t believe me, go out on Friday night. Just watch. You’ll see.
(This column is dedicated to my friend, the late Leonard Swida, who poured his heart and soul into the Touchdown Club and contributed most of the information for this article.)