Since I left my home state, its largest city has hosted an Olympics and won a World Series. But New York and California can say that. Those states never had a football program like Georgia Tech's in the '50s, when I was growing up: Bobby Dodd's Yellow Jackets, whose wizardry I savored through a medium, now long defunct, that was cooler than TV.
At an early age I knew I would not be an engineer. So I would not go to Tech but rather, presumably, the University of Georgia. It seemed so wrong. UGA was Wally Butts, who was about as subtle as his name implied. Tech football was "Dodd's luck." Dodd had small, gentlemanly players who were required to take calculus. Sometimes in practice they played volleyball—scrimmage bored Dodd. And yet they were a (lighthearted) juggernaut. From 1951 to '53 they went 29-2-2. For six straight years they went to a major bowl and won. Larry Morris, from my hometown of Decatur, was a '53 consensus All-America and a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. Six Tech players made All-America '52: Pete Brown, Leon Hardeman, Bobby Moorhead, Hal Miller, George Morris, Buck Martin. Appropriately, in the grind-it-out Southeastern Conference of that era, most of these stalwarts were blockers and tacklers. Dodd loved to quick-kick on any down and wait for an opening.
"Opportunistic," his teams were called. In the 1956 Sugar Bowl, over loud protestations from Georgia's governor and legislature, Tech had the temerity to take the field against Pitt, which had a black player, Bob Grier. No white Southern team had done such a thing in the South. "A lot of coaches told me," said Dodd, " 'If anybody can break the racial thing, y'all can.' " A step forward, anyway. Pitt rushed for 217 yards to Tech's 142 and passed for 94 to Tech's 0. When Grier was hurt, Tech players helped him off the field. Tech won 7-0. "I guess we do win a lot of games when the other team does most of the moving," said Dodd.
When the Yellow Jackets would get the ball in close, they'd pounce, confounding the foe with Dodd's "belly series." A wily quarterback—Darrell Crawford, Pepper Rodgers, Wade Mitchell, Toppy Vance—would stick the ball into the belly of a running back, most notably the diminutive, quicksilver Hardeman or Billy Teas, and accompany him for a step or two, until the defense committed, then either leave the ball with him or keep it, pitch out or (once in a while) pass.
This I knew vividly, even though the games weren't televised, because I studied the big plays through the medium mentioned above. In the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a game, the copious sports section teemed with photographic sequences. HARDEMAN'S DAZZLING 28-YARD RUN ON SCREEN PASS PLAY SETS UP TECH'S FIRST TD would be the headline, over two rows of maybe 12 long-range shots that captured the play forever, with dotted lines for the ball's course in the air and a solid line for the carrier's zigzags. You could see a blocker bearing in on a defender in one frame, the defender bumped and the runner making his cut in the next, and on and on. As jerky-fluid as break dancing, as historical as a Civil War map. Or one panoramic shot might encompass a punt and its return—all 22 players in medias res, the ball circled in the air and lines showing what happened theretofore and thereafter. Televised highlights, even in slo-mo, go by too fast. When you've got serial stills or one frozen tableau to dwell on, you can fill in the blanks and make the play flicker over and over.
Recently I went back to my hometown library and found those old plays on microfilm. SHARP-EYED LARRY MORRIS TYPIFIES TECH'S ALERT PLAY BY GRABBING AUBURN FUMBLE. Eight installments, with a terse caption under each: "Bounding Ball Attracts Attention." "Larry Gets There First."
"What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?" exclaimed Keats, pondering the action immortalized on a Grecian urn. I was back rerunning with the Rambling Wreck, "Forever panting, and forever young."