ALBANY — Graham Lowe was sitting down when he got the call.
“And that was a good thing,” he said. “Because I would have fallen if I had been standing.”
That’s how surprised — and honored — Lowe felt when he first learned he would be inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame. They were emotions shared by Lowe and the four other inductees who will be honored and enshrined into the Hall of Fame tonight during the 28th annual induction ceremony.
Lowe, a longtime coach, teacher and administrator at several Southwest Georgia high schools, is joined in the 2014 Hall of Fame class by former Dougherty High and Troy State football standout Thomie Venisee, former Albany High and Florida State football standout John Murphy, former Westover High and Louisiana Tech basketball standout Antonio Smith and Dee Matthews, a longtime sports supporter in Albany who has served on and led countless boards, committees and organizations over the past five decades.
It’s a group that Matthews is honored to be a part of.
“I couldn’t believe it when I found out I would be inducted,” she said. “I love sports, and it’s always been a part of my life and my family’s life. I am very, very honored, thrilled and appreciative.”
Lowe, 82, spent 58 years teaching and coaching throughout Southwest Georgia, spending more than a decade at both Westwood School and Deerfield-Windsor.
Now retired, Lowe said he made up his mind in college to dedicate his life to youth.
“I thought about going into ministry. I didn’t feel the call into ministry, but I felt the call to work with young people,” he said. “I made up my mind then that I wanted to be a coach. And then they told me that if I wanted to coach, I needed to teach.”
The Fort Valley native, who served in the Korean War from 1952-54 in the U.S. Army, started his legendary coaching and teaching career at Albany Junior High in 1954, where he was a physical education teacher and football coach. After three years at Albany Junior High, he became a French teacher at Albany High and the varsity boys basketball coach.
In 1966, Lowe took his teaching and coaching career to Deerfield and became an instrumental leader at Southwest Georgia private schools for the next four decades. He served as headmaster at Deerfield, Westwood, Calvary Baptist and Southwest Georgia Academy — schools where he also was a head coach in football, basketball, tennis, baseball and track.
While at Westwood from 1977-93, Lowe, who is already in the Mitchell County Athletic Hall of Fame, directed the Wildcat football team to nine region titles and four state championships.
He said entering the Albany Sports Hall of Fame “puts the icing on the cake.”
“It means a great deal,” he said. “I have seen great guys and great ladies that have entered this Hall of Fame over the years. It’s a real thrill to be a part of it.”
Matthews, 78, grew up in Atlanta, where she attended North Fulton High School and starred on the basketball team. She later attended the University of Georgia, where she met her husband, Jimmy.
In 1961, the couple moved to Albany and began a legacy of service to the Southwest Georgia sports scene, and it was that love for athletics that became a staple in their lives.
“We were married for 57 years, and people would ask me how we were able to get along so well. I said, ‘Probably because of sports. If I wouldn’t have loved sports, he probably wouldn’t have married me,” Matthews said with a laugh. “He passed away a couple of years ago, and I know he will be up in heaven (tonight) saying, ‘Gal, I am proud of you.’ ”
And there’s plenty to be proud of.
She served on more than a dozen committees and organizations, including serving as president of the Albany Sports Hall of Fame, chairman of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, president of the Girls Club of Albany and one of the original founders of the organization and president of the Albany Bulldog/Alumni Club.
She also served on the executive committee of the University of Georgia Alumni Association, the Georgia State Games Commission and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Foundation Committee.
Matthews’ awards include University of Georgia Alumni of the Year, an Award of Excellence by the Albany/Dougherty Chamber, the Albany Downtown Sertoma Club Woman of the Year and the Service Award from the Boys and Girls Club.
Murphy, 61, has a story that starts six decades ago in Leesburg, where the eventual football star developed perseverance, humility and a strong work ethic while growing up on a farm.
Murphy took those qualities to Albany High, where he became one of the first black students both at the school and on the football team before taking his talents to Florida State to become a captain and defensive star for the Seminoles.
He started his football career at Albany Junior High, where he was one of a handful of black students who were relocated as racial desegregation began to take root in Albany.
“A lot of people ask me if that was rough,” Murphy said. “A lot of people said it took a lot of courage to come through that, but for me it was about negotiating life. A lot of the guys came to my side and became really good friends.”
Murphy was moved to the varsity football team as a freshman. As a senior he was named co-captain, team MVP and was an All-State selection.
He fielded offers from Dartmouth, Alabama and Florida but eventually decided to attend Florida State, where he played defensive end and linebacker and rose to the position of defensive captain by his junior season. He lettered at FSU three straight years from 1972-74, and after graduation started work at Procter and Gamble Paper Products Company in Albany, where he eventually retired from the human resources department.
It was a life full of challenges for Murphy, but it was his career on the gridiron that helped him overcome.
“I have had a lot of trials, but the lessons I have learned in football are that you have to get back up and stay the course,” he said. “Sometimes you have to have something inside of you to make that fourth quarter.”
Murphy, like the rest of today’s inductees, will deliver a five-minute speech during the ceremony, and when he starts speaking, all of those trials and moments of perseverance will come rushing back.
“There are so many guys that have helped shape my life, particularly all of my coaches,” he said. “Of course, they will all be going through my head, along with all the lessons they taught me about life, hard work, persistence and having goals and staying with them.”
Smith, 40, and the rest of his Westover basketball teammates watched legendary Patriots coach Willie Boston be inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame 21 years ago.
And Smith remembers exactly what he said.
“There was one line I said to (teammate) Andre Lewis, and I remember saying, ‘Man, I hope we get the chance to be in here one day,” Smith said.
Smith’s day has finally arrived, and the four-time state champion at Westover who went on to star at Louisiana Tech and play professional basketball overseas couldn’t be more grateful.
“I never would have thought that a kid from the east side of Albany would get here,” he said. “Where I came from, I never thought I would have had an opportunity to do this.”
Smith’s journey began in the late 1980s when he started practicing with Boston and the Westover varsity team as a seventh grader.
He started as a freshman during the 1989-90 season and was instrumental in leading the Patriots to a state championship.
There was plenty more to come for both Smith and the Patriots.
“Coach Boston used to always have a way of motivating us and making us enjoy the moment,” Smith said. “When we won our first state championship, he told us to enjoy it because it might not ever happen again. But it happened four times in a row.”
Smith was a mainstay of all four championship teams. As a freshman, he was named honorable mention All-State and All-Region; as a sophomore, he was Second Team All-Region and Third Team All-State; as a junior, he was a Herald Super 6er and First Team All-State and All-Region; and as a senior, he was a Herald Super 6er, First Team All-State and All-Region and had his jersey retired after his final game.
He left Westover as the second all-time leading rebounder and third all-time leading scorer and attended Pensacola State College for two years before transferring to Division I Louisiana Tech.
His illustrious basketball career continued overseas, where he starred on teams in Sweden and Finland for two seasons and continued to pick up accolades.
He began his coaching career in 2003 and has held nearly a dozen different positions — including head men’s basketball coach at Daytona State University — and is currently an assistant boys basketball coach at Radium Middle School.
Venisee, 33, was informed months ago that he would be inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame, but just last week the former Dougherty sports star said he was still shocked by the honor.
“I didn’t anticipate it at all,” he said. “I grew up in Albany my whole life and saw all of those who have been inducted. To be included among that crowd is an honor.”
It’s an honor well-deserved for Venisee, who starred at wide receiver at Dougherty during the Trojans’ 1998 football state championship run and also was instrumental in leading the Trojans to a state title in basketball in 1997.
He was named All-State and All-Region in football three straight years, including on offense and defense as a senior. He graduated from Dougherty in 1999 with scholarship offers for football, basketball, baseball and track & field.
Along with Dougherty quarterback Uyl Joyner, Venisee accepted a football scholarship to Troy State and helped the Division I Trojans win three conference championships and rank as the No. 2 offense in the nation in 2000.
Professionally, Venisee trained with several NFL teams out of college and eventually signed with the Hamburg Blue Devils of the German Football League.
During his stay in Germany, he led the Blue Devils in receptions and receiving yards and was second in the league in kick-off and punt returns while leading Hamburg to a German Bowl title in 2003.
Since returning to the U.S., Venisee coached wide receivers at Albany State University for two seasons and played on several arena football teams.
But it all started at Dougherty for Venisee, who will never forget his roots.
“There is a strong tradition of athletics in Albany, and it’s something they instill in you early on,” he said. “As a kid in elementary and middle school, you look forward to Friday night because there would be a big basketball game at the Civic Center or a rivalry football game at Hugh Mills.
“It’s a huge honor to be considered (for the Albany Sports Hall of Fame) and to be included among those guys who I grew up mimicking.”