A night to remember in Americus

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- There's no two bigger names in Americus sports history since 1955 than Jimmy Hightower and Alton Shell.

The masterminds behind a combined 272 wins and four state football championships, their leadership produced the likes of Dan Reeves, Chan Gailey, Kent Hill and Victor Green.

And all six were inducted into the inaugural class of the Americus-Sumter County High School Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday night at Georgia Southwestern.

"That says a lot about a program when you can talk about people entering your Hall of Fame who have accomplished what those six individuals have accomplished," said Americus-Sumter A.D. and head football coach Michael Pollock. "When you talk about this place and what kind of talent it's had and the tradition it's had, don't just look at the six that has been inducted. Look at the ones left off the list that will eventually be on it."

Before a slim crowd Saturday, other former players, coaches and Dr. Frank Wilson were recognized for their achievements over the years.

But all the players in attendance wouldn't have been who they were and are today without the direction of Hightower and Shell.

Doug Parrish has been coaching since 1963 and is currently an assistant at Southland Academy. He was an assistant to both coaches, and he said he owes everything to the two of them.

"There's no two men more justifiable to be in the Hall of Fame than those two men," Parrish said. "Their record and what they've done in the community speaks for itself. If they aren't in there, you don't need to have one. Both of them are winners and mean everything to me. Where I am today, they are responsible for it."

The two coaches had 57 different players recognized as All-State by the Atlanta Journal Constitution or Associated Press, and they won 14 region championships.

"They were successful because of the way they handled young people and how they motivated high school athletes," Parrish said. "I was just lucky to be able to come along and be able to work with them."

Luck is what Shell said was on his side many times during his tenure from 1971-1990. A 169-66-1 record during that span, his 1974-75 teams won back-to-back state championships. The 1975 team gave up eight points all season -- to Dothan, Ala. in the third regular-season game -- and finished ranked No. 2 in the country.

Shell said he was given a gift when Hightower turned the program over to him.

"He left it in such good shape, and I'm so appreciative," Shell said. "He helped me so much. He let me in on a lot of things and helped me in more ways than one. A lot of people wouldn't have done that if they were leaving.

"I say it was just luck. I hadn't had a lot of success in Alabama before I came here. It was something new to me to be associated with the program coach Hightower had going here. It enabled me, along with players here, to be successful."

Hightower has won several coaching awards, and he's in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Georgia Southwestern Hall of Fame. He won two championships in football, three in golf and one each in basketball and baseball.

He also coached the GSW football team, posting a winning record in his first five seasons.

Hightower said the basketball championship -- the school's only -- was his best memory.

"That was (with) Dan Reeves and Bob Reeves," he said. "We really had been to the finals once before and got beat in a close game. That was when most athletes played everything. A lot of those (players) we (also) had on the football team and they just came right over and did a heck of a job."

Green and Hill each played in the NFL. Green played 11 seasons, including the first nine as a New York Jet where he set the team record for 207 tackles in a single season. He was also selected to the Jets' Four-Decade Team. Green finished his career after spending a season each with the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.

Hill played with the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Oilers, making the Pro Bowl five times and being an alternate for another. He started in 114 of 132 games and was a first-round draft pick of the Rams.

Both now reside and work in Atlanta.

Dan Reeves and Gailey were not able to attend, but both they sent letters expressing their gratefulness for the honor.

Reeves and Gailey both played for Americus and have gone on to be successful coaches. Reeves played in the NFL from 1965-1972 and has been a head coach for the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.

He led the Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances (1986-87, 1989) and the Falcons to one (1998).

Both Reeves and Gailey played quarterback in college -- Reeves at South Carolina and Gailey at Florida. Gailey has been head coach at Samford, Troy and Georgia Tech, as well as an NFL head coach for Dallas and now, Buffalo.

Also recognized Saturday were former Americus stars Alonzo Jackson, Tommy Sims, Lee Otis Burton, Niya Butts, Otis Leverette, Americus mayor Barry Blount, Rusty Whaley, Leonard Pope, Leroy Williams, Clyde McGrady, Donnie McCrary and others from Americus High, Sumter County High, Sumter County Comprehensive High, Union High, Plains High and Staley High.

Pollock expects the ceremony to get bigger each year.

"We have such a big talent pool, it's going to make for the future events to be spectacular," he said. "We've got more NFL players, a two-time national championship basketball player, an Olympic gold medalist, and the list goes on and on. The sky's the limit."