Vindication! Choctaws crowned champs of ‘54

February 2, 2012 dbrickhouse
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By Joshua Price/Sports Editor

The Altoona Choctaws had high expectations in 1954. The 1953 team posted an 8-2 record with four shutouts during head coach Fred “Dugan” Taylor’s first year at the helm.

The 1954 team returned a number of key starters, most notably in the offensive backfield. Quarterback DuWayne McCray, halfbacks Roy McNair and Bill Nichols, fullback Roy Hethcox and end Wilburn Davenport returned power, speed and excitement to a very potent offense.

Davenport was the most decorated of Altoona players in 1953. The 6’3, 185-pound end was named to the All-Etowah County “Little Six” offensive team that season. He was one of three team captains and was elected “Team MVP” for the Chocs during his successful junior campaign.

Hethcox was a powerful fullback. The bruiser muscled his way to the 1953 “Little Six” team as well. Hethcox’s ability to score from long or short distances made him a menace to opposing defenses. He was also a captain in 1953 along with Davenport and graduated linebacker Jimmy Willmon.

The 1954 Altoona offensive backfield featured two talented halfbacks.

Senior Roy McNair had plenty of speed and enough body strength to gain necessary yards on the corners or up the middle. McNair’s number was called many times in many tough yardage situations and he always managed to gain the needed ground.

Bill Nichols was the most dangerous ball carrier on the 1954 Altoona team. The 5’10 junior possessed blazing speed and was a scoring threat from anywhere on the field. His ability to hit the holes hard and make opposing players miss tackles made him a great back. Nichols success at Altoona earned him scholarship offers from Georgia Tech and Jacksonville State University. As a Gamecock, Nichols earned All-American honors in 1958 as JSU’s leading rusher and scorer. Nichols is also famous in Blount County, where he coached the J.B. Pennington Tigers from 1962-79.

The Choctaw offense was led by McCray in 1954. The lanky 6’3 quarterback was not afraid to throw the football – even if into tight spots. “Tootsie’s” favorite target was Davenport. The two hooked up for 10 touchdowns through the air that season. With McCray’s accurate arm and Davenport’s sure hands, the Chocs always kept defenses off balance.

There is little doubt the success of the Choctaw offense in 1954 rested upon the rugged play of the offensive line. Tackle Bobby Thompson, also a 1953 “Little Six” All-County player, returned in 1954 as the most experienced lineman. Seniors Alfred Sartin and Glendon Barton platooned the center position. Billy Chaviers and Frank Cone were the guards and Donald Foster complimented Thompson as the left tackle. Davenport and Ralph Lacks flanked the meat of the line as the right and left ends, respectively. Although celebrated for his pass catching abilities, Davenport was a sound blocker and the key to many of Nichols’ sweeping runs.

The middle line opened gaps in defensive walls with plays such as “Wedge Dynamite,” “Statue of Liberty” and “Center Sneak.” Sartin, Barton, Chaviers and Cone had no problem opening up holes for their talented backfield every game. If necessary, Barton and Chaviers would tag-team defensive players to open holes – one would hit the player high and the other would hit him low. Hethcox almost always gained yardage behind this blocking scheme.

The Altoona defense was tough and stingy. The Chocs posted six shutouts and allowed only 14 points total in two other games. Most players played both offense and defense, as is the norm in small schools such as Altoona. 

Davenport’s abilities were not limited to the offensive side of the football. He was a dreaded hitter who would, in the words of a teammate, “hit you like a Mack truck.” 

Thompson was just as much a menace on the defensive line as was on the offensive line. The senior made many tackles and plugged many would-be holes to stuff running backs and frustrate quarterbacks. 

The Chocs played in quite a few tough games that fall. 

Altoona opened the season with a visit to Sardis. The game is best remembered to the Sardis faithful as being the first ever played at Sardis High School under the lights. The Sardis faithful also remember a 20-0 loss to the Choctaws that night. 

McCray’s first quarter pass to Davenport, who in turn lateraled to Nichols, covered 40 yards and posted the first Choctaw touchdown of the season. On the ensuing kickoff, Davenport landed a massive hit to the ball carrier. 

“I put my right shoulder into him as hard as I could,” Davenport recalled. “I was in a world of pain but wanted to play.”

Taylor did not let Davenport return. The star senior sat out the rest of the game and the next week with a dislocated shoulder. Altoona’s offense was slowed without Davenport but still effective. The Chocs won the contest 20-0.

Hanceville visited Altoona for both teams’ second game of the season. Davenport and Lacks, both starting seniors on both defense and offense, stood and watched from the sideline from injuries suffered the previous week against Sardis.

“Standing on the sideline watching our team play was the worst feeling of my life,” Davenport said. “I wanted to be out there. [Hanceville] beat us up pretty good the year before [1953] and I wanted to get back at them.”

The Choctaws held their ground defensively but were unable to get anything going offensively. Without Davenport in the game, the Bulldogs vowed to stop Nichols, Hethcox and the Altoona running attack.

Davenport and Sartin recalled a standout Hanceville player who was, according to both men, a very tough player. Hanceville’s Murray Trimble suffered a terrible accident as an early teenager. He lost his left arm from the hand to just under the elbow in a dynamiting accident. The injury was not a handicap to the football star and did not affect him in any way. In fact, according to Sartin, the injury made him a better player.

“He was one of the roughest players I ever faced,” Sartin said. “Oftentimes he would use that ‘nub’ to punch the opposition. It was short and hard for the referees to catch him. He would also use that nub to stiff-arm while running with the ball, which was more like a punch to the face.”

Davenport recalled an incident during the game as he watched from the sideline.

“One of our guys [Jimmy Willmon] tackled ‘The Nub’ and got punched in the eye by his ‘nub’ while still in the pile,” Davenport recalled. “When he [Willmon] got to the sideline his eye was already swelled almost shut. Coach Taylor sent him to the team doctor and looked around for a replacement. He asked Garland Norris, the guy that had to take Jimmy’s place, how he was gonna stop ‘The Nub.’ Garland said ‘I donno but if he had a peg-leg he’d kill us all!”

Trimble went on to play football at Texas A&M and was a member of “Bear” Bryant’s famous “Junction Boys.”

The Chocs put together two successful drives against Hanceville in the second half, and moved the ball to the red zone both times. Unfortunately for Altoona, both drives resulted in fumbles, which produced two Bulldog touchdowns. The Chocs dropped the game 20-0.

Davenport’s return to the lineup produced three touchdowns against Southside in week 3. Altoona’s passing game, left virtually desolate without Davenport in the lineup in week 2, was back in full force. McCray wasted no time finding his favorite target. Nichols added six points in the final quarter. The Chocs accumulated 420 yards of offense along with 13 first downs in the 34-0 victory.

The Hokes Bluff Eagles hosted the Altoona Choctaws in the fourth week of the season. The Eagles’ powerful running game was no match for the gritty Chocs. McCray mixed up the pass and the run in the second quarter to manage a 70-yard drive which resulted in a Hethcox touchdown. Hethcox found the end zone again in the fourth quarter after a 34-yard scramble set up a 4-yard dive. Donald Payne forced a fumble that ended Hokes Bluff’s only scoring threat. The Chocs tallied its third shutout with a 12-0 victory.

In the fifth game of the season, Altoona blanked Collinsville 36-0. 

“They had no business playing us,” Davenport recalled.

After an open week Altoona hosted the Sylvania Rams for homecoming. The Rams featured the highly celebrated Doyle Grizzell. Known as “Mr. Quarterback” in DeKalb County, Grizzell had led the Rams to three victories before the contest at Altoona. Grizzell was flashy, but that did not intimidate the Choctaw defense. 

“Grizzell was good, but not good enough to beat us,” Davenport said. “The whole team was supposed to have been better than they were. We practiced hard for them and had no problem with them. We took the ball and moved it on down the line.”

The Choctaw offensive line proved its dominance against Sylvania. Altoona’s front wall opened holes for the speedy Nichols, who tallied two touchdowns in the first quarter. McNair scored on an up-the-middle run in the third quarter and Hethcox broke long runs throughout the game behind the dominant trenchmen. McCray was allotted enough time in the second period to find Davenport in the end zone.

The homecoming celebrations included a dedication of the new Choctaw field house and a 26-0 over the visiting Rams.

Altoona assumed the role of the underdog in its trip to Lincoln. The undermanned and undersized Chocs were not intimidated by the Talladega County powerhouse.

“We went there to beat them and that’s exactly what we did,” Davenport said. “They had bigger ballplayers, well over 200 pounds each across the front, and could run over teams at will. But not us.”

Nichols was the standout offensive player against Lincoln. The speedster returned an interception for a touchdown and also returned a punt for a touchdown. 

In the third quarter, a questionable call took a third touchdown from Nichols.

“I ran off tackle, hit a pile of defenders, bounced outside and ran sixty yards to the end zone,” Nichols recalled. “None of the referees knew where the ball was. They blew the whistle and called the touchdown back.”

Altoona ran the very same play on the next snap and Nichols galloped for 40 yards.

The loss of those six points was not a factor in the final score. The Chocs dominated the heavily favored Bear squad with an inspirational defensive line and a punishing corps of linebackers and defensive backs that dealt misery to all ball carriers and would-be receivers. Altoona notched a 14-0 upset and its fifth shutout of the season.

The Walnut Grove Tigers were next on the Choctaws’ hit list. Seperated by less than three miles, the matchup was one of the biggest rivalries in the county and victory for both sides was imperative.

“The rivalry between Altoona and Walnut Grove was similar to the Iron Bowl,” Barton recalled. “We knew many of the players from Walnut Grove. We wanted to win.”

Davenport recalled the bitterness between the communities the week of the big game.

“We just didn’t like them and most of us had no interaction at all with them,” Davenport said. “We wanted to beat them just like we did the others, but we didn’t take them anymore seriously than we did any other team. They were never any threat to beating us though.” 

The Tigers indeed were no threat to the Chocs. Altoona racked up over 450 yards in total offense against its neighbor on its way to a 49-9 rout. 

Altoona notched its eighth victory the following week by slapping Vincent 34-6. The Altoona defense accounted for a few touchdowns and the offense posted over 300 yards with a balanced attack. 

After completing an 8-1 season, Altoona received an invitation to compete in the annual Charity Bowl at Gadsden’s Murphree Stadium. The Chocs accepted the offer and a rematch was set with cross-county rival Hokes Bluff.

The victory against Vincent yielded a bruised and battered Choc team. Most all players suffered from nagging injuries and bruises. Although most expected the Chocs to repeat with another victory, Taylor was skeptical about taking his banged-up team to play the Eagles.

“You’re gonna lose this ballgame because too many of you are hurt,” Taylor pleaded to his team the Tuesday before the game. “But if you agree to play I will prepare you the best way I can.”

Despite the injuries, the Chocs voted to play. 

The Eagles were in full-force for the Choctaws. Despite their bruises, the Chocs played tough defense.

Hokes Bluff scored in the second after recovering an Altoona on the latter’s 20-yard line. Eagle fullback Jim Mullins charged over right tackle to tack on the game’s first points.

Altoona responded after receiving the opening kickoff of the second half. Davenport returned the kick to the Choc 35-yard line. The first play from scrimmage Davenport scramble 65 yards for Altoona’s first points. The play confused everyone on the field and in the stands. 

“I was never touched,” Davenport said. “Center Al Sartin faked a snap to Tootsie [McCray] who faked to Hethcox up the middle and he took off around the left end. Sartin kept the ball and took off downfield. I swept around from the side behind him, waiting on a lateral if necessary. Nobody except me and Alfred knew where the ball was. Our fans didn’t start cheering for me until I was over 30 yards away from everybody. We even faked the referees out!”

A defensive safety caught on to the play and started chasing Sartin. The center was forced to pitch to Davenport.

“I had to give up my only chance in high school for a touchdown,” Sartin recalled. “I thought I heard Wilbern laughing as he ran in the endzone with my ball!”

The Eagle offensive front wall dominated the Chocs in the final period as the injuries took their tolls. Hokes Bluff added three more touchdowns to down the Altoona squad 26-7. 

Despite the loss to Hokes Bluff, Altoona was awarded the “Little Six” county championship. The Chocs finished 8-2 and outscored their opponents 228-59. The Altoona defense allowed less than six points per game and posted five shutouts. 

Key players were honored after the season.

The 1954 All-Etowah County “Little Six” team included five Chocs. Wilbern Davenport (end), Bobby Thompson (tackle), Roy Hethcox (fullback), DuWayne McCray (quarterback) and Bill Nichols (halfback).

The Birmingham News honored Davenport by naming him to the All-State first team offensive end.

For their efforts, the Altoona Choctaws were awarded the 1954 state championship by the Birmingham News. It was the only championship the team earned in the school’s 43 years of high school football competition.

“We had a great group of young men who worked very hard and played together very well,” Barton said. “That chemistry contributed to our state championship.”