UGA great Herb St. John will be missed

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

PERRY -- To get Herb St. John to play college football in Athens only cost the Bulldogs a bus ticket. He never thought about making All-SEC twice and he never dreamed of All-America honors. What was on his mind was a college education.

While he played professional football for two years, the idea of a career in pro football never was a goal. What St. John wanted was to raise a family and coach football, hoping to provide a positive influence on kids to help them find their way in life.

One of his kids, Larry Walker, became an influential legislator under the Gold Dome in Atlanta. When Walker spoke at Herb's funeral last week, more than 50 years after he first met St. John, he could not bring himself to call his coach by his first name.

Many of his former players gathered at the Perry United Methodist Church to say goodbye to St. John, one of Georgia's most accomplished linemen who embraced, unwittingly, anonymity. Of all the linemen who achieved greatness as a Bulldog, Herb always seemed to reside in the background. If you analyze his career, you note his exceptional accomplishments and wonder why his celebrity was not more renowned. After all, as great as his teammate Charley Trippi was, the Bulldog All-America halfback could not have claimed celebrated the honor without somebody doing damage up front on the line of scrimmage. A lack of headlines never bothered Herb. The way he saw it, he was doing his job. Linemen are the blue collars for the silk-shirted halfbacks. Linemen do the grunt work, the backs incur the glory.

Over the years at reunions of Georgia's championship teams, Herb was always there -- seen but not heard. It wasn't his manner to trumpet any block or any deed that assisted Georgia to its first post World War II championship, one of the few teams to post an undefeated record. (The Bulldogs went 10-0 in 1946, defeated North Carolina 20-10 in the Sugar Bowl and were voted National Champions in the Williamson Poll). Herb's life was football's "High Noon" script. Little was said, but the results were clear and unmistakable.

The American dream in Herb's day was to earn a college degree, raise a family, find gainful employment, settle down in a community and support its institutions, foremost among them, the church. It was a given that, as the head football coach, he would be of service to his community. If he hadn't been the coach, he would have, nonetheless, pitched in. Herb, who forever functioned with modesty and humility aforethought, never said a lot, but when he spoke, it was advisable for those in his circle, to listen. His teams played like he played -- hard and fair with an accent on togetherness. Herb's demeanor and coaching modus operandi reflected the view that teams win, individuals don't.

Back to how a bus ticket was a life-changing event in his life. When Herb finished high school in Jacksonville, he got his first hint of a football scholarship when another Jacksonville native, Mike Castronis, told him one day that he thought he could talk the Georgia coaches into letting Herb try out. Herb, never one for conversational excess, said, "Send me a ticket."

Immediately, coach Wallace Butts had a ticket waiting at the bus station and right after arriving in Athens in 1944, Herb was practicing football. A peculiar football injury had him classified 4F (ill fitting hip pads had caused his tailbone to become chronically inflamed). If he had gone to war, we know what kind of soldier he would have been -- one willing to die for his country without ever seeking any glory for his patriotic service.

When I was researching and gathering background for the book, "Wally's Boys," the following quote -- which he gave me -- speaks to the essence of Herb LeGrande St. John as a coach.

"It was the deep satisfaction of being able to help young boys to get the most out of their ability to develop a serious interest in getting an education. Then when they come back and say, 'Thanks,' that is the greatest reward there is in being a teacher and a coach," he said. "There is great disappointment when one of them fails to take advantage of opportunity which athletics provides. A coach hurts when he fails with a kid, even if it's not the coach's fault."