Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
Willie Fowler lived the good life by remaining provincial. While he was not a provincial thinker, he was all too pleased to stick close to his roots and to enjoy the comfortable environment of his hometown. He didn’t go searching for paradise. He found it in Athens.
He was an outstanding lineman at old Athens High, playing for Weyman Sellers, who learned hard-nosed fundamental football from Wallace Butts. Then the ultimate compliment came when Butts offered Willie a scholarship to play for the Bulldogs.
When he earned his degree, Fowler went to work in the family business and remained a passionate fan of Georgia the rest of his life. He played golf at the Athens Country Club, played handball at the YMCA and enjoyed an ordinary but fulfilling life. Successful in business, Willie gained the greatest of pleasure in living in Athens and supporting his community. While he had special affection for the mountains and once owned a house on Lake Burton, Willie’s principal interest, at least emotionally, was the welfare of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Many former players become critics, but Willie steadfastly pulled for the Georgia football team in good times and in bad. His years with the Bulldogs (’52-’55) were not the best of times, with Georgia Tech enjoying dominance throughout the early and mid-fifties. The coming of the Vince Dooley years when the Bulldogs reversed the trend against Georgia Tech and established championship teams was a joyful tonic in Fowler’s life. He had played all his games at Sanford Stadium, both at Athens High and at UGA. He could take a walk down memory lane, discussing his teammates and practice-field incidents, but he never talked about himself — not about a block he made or a tackle that smarted. He was happy with his blue-collar status and in simply being a member of the team. Nobody appreciated wearing a Georgia letter jacket more than this native Athenian.
In the spring of 1952, he and his closest friend, Bill Saye, were invited to begin their college careers early by scrimmaging with the varsity. They gloried in the work ethic, and it was a badge of honor to enjoy an early start with the Bulldogs. They were eager and imbued with the greatest of due diligence. Just to walk on the practice field with the Georgia varsity was a high honor. To scrimmage in Sanford Stadium and to play games there was like a latter-day episode of Dancing With the Stars. They identified with the Spartan coaching style of coach Butts, whom they revered.
Under Sellers, they knew what to expect. They swelled with pride when either of them made a sparkling play and one of the coaches would say to the varsity, “Y’all not going to let those little ol’ high school players push you around like that, are you?”
However they could only enjoy the compliment quietly, never wanting to arouse or insult their older football brethren.
Willie Fowler died last week of Alzheimer’s. The tributes in his memory reflected the competitive spirit that characterized his life. He never wanted to lose at any of the games he enjoyed — handball at the Y and gin rummy, tennis and golf at the Athens Country Club.
Most of all, he enjoyed those Saturdays when the chapel bell rang after the Bulldogs had played between the hedges. The chapel bell and the hedges were dear to him, as were a hot dog at the Varsity, an ice cream cone at Hodgson’s and a pre-game tailgate party outside Sanford Stadium. Willie Fowler didn’t have to go far to find the most fulfilling of pleasures. He was a Damn Good Dog.