The recent death of Dr. Danny Wilbanks flashed me back to the fall of 1954. The Tallassee Tigers football team during that magic time played into the state championship. That is our last one to date.
I was an undersized junior guard buried deep in the depth chart, willing fodder for the big boys in weekday scrimmages. I can still name every starter on that team and many of the reserves. Those guys could flat-out play football.
Sonny Chavis, who died a year or two ago, manned the center position. Larry Ledbetter and Wayne Joiner were great guards with J.W. Woodall and Tommy Higgins as massive tackles. At the ends stood Sonny Britt and J.V. Ashurst.
Louis Sides was a Houdini at quarterback, and Wilbanks, later a star at Alabama, a bull of a fullback. Jerry Golden and Ed Cristian played the halfbacks with Lafayette Peters adequately filling in. The latter three were juniors as was Ashurst with Sides and Wilbanks joining the other starters in the senior class.
The team went 9-1, the only loss at Valley when several key players missed the game with injuries — or at least were hobbled. My memory has the score at 13-7. We handled the rest of the schedule, including a star-studded Lanett team and the always powerful giant: the Sidney Lanier Poets.
A memorable early game took place in Sylacauga against B.B. Comer. At the time, Comer, I believe, was second in The Birmingham News rankings, the only poll that mattered then. We clobbered them, 43-6. Even us scrubs got into that game.
The play of the year, or maybe the non-play, occurred in Wetumpka. Sides faked a handoff into the middle of the line. Every official dug through the pileup blowing their whistles, searching for the ball. They failed to find it because Louis ran all alone down the left sideline carrying that lost football. Embarrassed refs had to call the play back for an “inadvertent” whistle.
Shortly after the season concluded, The Birmingham News showed up at Tallassee High School to award the team the 1954 Alabama State 2A Football Championship trophy. At that time, there were no playoffs, only three classifications and no postseason games — just the good judgment of the News’ sports staff.
I’ve lost track of most of the team personnel. Of those I know who have passed include the aforementioned Wilbanks and Chavis. Britt was killed in a motorcycle accident the following summer, Joiner in a horrible car wreck the next spring. Also, I know Christian, Sides and Peters are gone. In addition, other squad members no longer with us include Russell Chandler, Buddy Burton, Joe Tom Crockett, Buddy Billingsley and I’m sure others. I wish I knew what has become of every player.
Somewhere in the halls or a closet at Tallassee High School is a beautiful brass trophy. It needs to be polished and prominently displayed in honor of that magnificent football team of sixty-eight years ago.
Larry Williamson (Tallassee, Alabama) is the author of three historical novels, Tallapoosa; Legend of the Tallassee Carbine; and Muskogi Sunset, and a compilation of Tribune columns, Over the River, Long Ago. He teaches the novel writing workshop for Auburn University’s Outreach Program.