In the summer of 1949, Margaret Mitchell was struck by a speeding car while crossing Peachtree Street with her husband on the way to a movie. One of Atlanta’s most famous citizens, the author of “Gone with the Wind,” died five days later.
Pepper Rodgers was a schoolboy then, a rising senior at Brown High in the West End neighborhood, living in a time that has passed much like the Old South.
Boys growing up in Rodgers’ day had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They could’ve hopped a railed street car to Ponce de Leon Park or the Fox Theatre.
Fewer than 10% of U.S. households owned a television in 1949, and WSB-TV had just gone on the air. There were no interstate highways. Two Varsity hot dogs cost 35 cents.
Sports were different, too. The Braves were in Boston. Atlanta’s sports heroes were Ralph “Country” Brown of the Atlanta Crackers and Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson was the National League’s MVP, but Atlanta remained staunchly segregated.
Rodgers, who died last week in Virginia, was best known as a college football coach at Kansas, UCLA and Tech. He’s remembered by older Tech fans as the kicker and backup quarterback on the 1952 national championship team.
Lesser known was that Rodgers was a member of one of the great high school football teams in Georgia history. The 1949 Brown Rebels fielded seven West End boys who would go on to play at Tech.
The seven, playing with leather helmets and no faceguards, included guard Norman “Pig” Campbell, tackle Ed “Bulldog’’ Carithers, end Cecil Trainer, fullback Johnny Hunsinger and halfbacks Charlie Brannon and Wayne Clyburn.
“Pepper was very, very good,” said Guy Sillay, the starting left end and one of the few surviving team members, “but we teased him because with the line he had and the other players, he never had to have his uniform laundered, and that was about the truth. He had some exceptional players around him.”
Rodgers played three sports in high school and always said basketball was his best. With respect to his assessment, Rodgers was spectacular throwing the football the night of Dec. 9, 1949, when he completed 12 of 15 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-13 upset victory over Glynn Academy in the 1949 Class AA championship game at newly built Grady Stadium.
In those days, schools and rosters were smaller, and the best players rarely left the field. So any team facing Brown High was up against seven legitimate major college prospects for every meaningful snap.
Dodd naturally took notice of what was happening a short drive from North Avenue. The coach had settled on taking four or five Brown players but initially had no interest in the quarterback.
Dodd’s line coach, Ray Graves, visited Brown’s practices, probably most interested in the star linemen, “Bulldog’’ Carithers and “Pig’’ Campbell.
Carithers was “ferocious,” Sillay said. “His name was Bulldog, and that’s what he was. He weighed only 180, but, oh man, he was strong.” Of Campbell, Sillay said, “He was just mean. He was big, too. You didn’t want to line up against him.”
The story goes that the cocksure Rodgers introduced himself to Graves and sold him on the idea of giving him a “city scholarship.” That is, Rodgers would live at home, saving the team housing expenses, if Tech would take him. Graves and Dodd were persuaded.
Neighborhood high schools open in 1947
The West End boys never might have played together had the Atlanta Public Schools not closed its larger Boys, Girls, Tech and Commercial high schools in 1947. As a freshman, Rodgers attended Boys High, at what’s now the Grady High campus. He was too scared to try out for the football team.
“As a small child, he saw the size of the players and the tough exterior that they displayed and felt he was better off playing the clarinet,” Spencer Stueve wrote in his chapter on Rodgers for the book “UCLA Football Encyclopedia.”
So it was good news for Rodgers in 1947 when Atlanta adopted the concept of neighborhood schools and created Brown and six other smaller high schools. Atlanta was much smaller then, not just in population but physical size, its area one-third what it is today. The neighborhood idea allowed many kids to walk to school instead of taking streetcars across town as Rodgers and Sillay did to Boys High.
The other new high schools were Roosevelt near Grant Park, Grady near Piedmont Park, O’Keefe next to Georgia Tech, Smith in the Summerhill neighborhood, Bass in Little Five Points and Murphy in east Atlanta. The seven new schools formed the GHSA’s new Region 3-AA, but locally it was called the City League.
It’s a shame that the City League didn’t have an eighth team. Booker T. Washington, Atlanta’s high school for blacks, won a state title of its own in 1949 in the Georgia Interscholastic Association under the great L.C. Baker. Washington was just 1.6 miles north of Brown High, across what’s now I-20, which for no coincidence split white and black neighborhoods in the 1950s.
What a game that Brown vs. Washington might’ve been. But of course, high school football in Georgia was segregated in those days, so that’s another story.
Brown, meanwhile, dominated the City League for its first three years, culminating in the ’49 state championship.
Brown’s coach, J.E. DeVaughn, came to Atlanta as a teacher in the 1930s at Tech High. In his 2000 obituary in the AJC, his wife, Jane, explained that DeVaughn found football fascinating and began drawing up plays in his spare time. “He was a scholar, not a football coach,’’ she said.
DeVaughn’s plays worked so well that coach Gabe Tolbert hired the English teacher who’d never played football himself.
Before long, DeVaughn was running the offense. Tech’s 1946 edition, called the Smithies, might’ve been the best Georgia team of the first half of the 20th century. It went 11-0-1 and destroyed teams from five states.
DeVaughn was hired to start Brown’s program in 1947. Sillay said it was the coaching staff, not the talented roster, that made the difference. DeVaughn’s top assistants were Carl Fletcher and Jimmy Green.
“J.E. DeVaughn was an articulate educator,” Sillay said. “Fletcher was a rawboned, rough-tough lineman, and Green was an intelligent, wonderful man, more of a technician. Before our senior year, we received in July a complete package of offensive and defensive plays and blocking assignments and the call for each particular play. I didn’t dare show up for practice without knowing what I was supposed to do.”
That first year, Brown played its games at Ponce de Leon Park, home of the baseball Crackers, and at Grant Field. The next year, Grady Stadium opened and became Brown’s main home field. Brown’s first star was “Chargin’” Charlie Beckwith, later the famed U.S. Army Special Forces offer who created Delta Force and led the rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran in 1980.
Rodgers wins QB job by persuasion
How Rodgers became the quarterback in 1948 is another Pepper-esque tale. Brannon, who would be voted Most Athletic by his senior class, was DeVaughn’s original choice for the position.
Rodgers put it in DeVaughn’s ear that Brannon would be more valuable as a running back, the argument being that a quarterback just manages the game in the T formation. Running backs were the real weapons.
“Charlie was small, but he was quick,” Sillay said. “He’d run straight at a guy, make a move, and that guy would be tackling a shadow.”
Rodgers talked the coaching staff and Brannon into the switch.
“Pepper considered himself a thinking man’s quarterback,” Stueve wrote. “Though a better athlete than he would admit publicly, he knew that he didn’t have all the best physical tools. He would have to understand defenses and how to lead his team. He thrived.”
The 1948 season resulted in another City League championship, but it started the way it ended – with a shutout loss to Marist. Brown still had never won a playoff game.
The West Enders, as they often were called in newspapers, came in to the 1949 season full of determination and seniors. Brown opened in Macon’s Porter Stadium against defending AA champion Lanier. Jesse Outlar, the future longtime Atlanta Constitution sports columnist, covered the game and reported a “record Macon prep crowd of 12,000.”
Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to Trainer in the first half, and Brannon broke the game open in the fourth quarter with a 71-yard run. Brown won 19-7.
On Oct. 27 came a showdown with old nemesis Marist. The Catholic school was in downtown Atlanta in 1949, where the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus church is now, just a few blocks east of what’s now Centennial Olympic Park. It was a short drive from Brown.
Marist’s coach was Shorty Doyal, then the most famous high school football coach in Georgia. The nickname Shorty belied his 6-foot-5 stature and nine state titles. Doyal had been the coach at Boys High, Rodgers’ original high school, where football frightened the future Brown quarterback.
DeVaughn had tangled with Doyal many times while assisting Boys’ arch-rival, Tech. In some ways, the Brown-Marist game had the old Boys-Tech rivalry feel to it. Marist had blanked Brown twice the year before, though it was off to a rough start in 1949.
Still, the game was expected to be close, and it was. Gene Kinard received a punt on the fly, then ran a reverse, handing off to Clyburn, who raced 72 yards for Brown’s only touchdown. E.T. “Buddy’’ Young, who later would pitch three seasons on Georgia Tech’s baseball team, made the final, springing block. Rodgers’ extra point, making it 7-0, was the difference.
Marist would score a matching touchdown, but the point-after try by Marist’s own quarterback/kicker, Allen Morris, was ‘’very wide,’’ according to Constitution scribe Charlie Roberts, and Brown prevailed 7-6. Morris would make amends as a tennis player. He reached the 1956 Wimbledon singles quarterfinals and once beat Arthur Ashe.
The West Enders kept winning and claimed the region title, running their all-time City League record to 18-0.
Brown lost one game in the regular season, beaten by Charlotte (N.C.) Central 14-7 on the road. Roberts defended that one: ‘’A Brown player was injured and lying on the ground. Other Rebels were grouped around their fallen mate. Charlotte ran a quick play that naturally went for a touchdown, and the officials in Tarheelia allowed it to stand.’’
With a 9-1 record, Brown again would face Marist, the Region 4 champion, in the four-team state playoffs. It was easier this time, as Brown won 20-6.
Brown is an underdog in state final
The Red Terrors of Brunswick were 11-0 and had outscored opponents 430-63. They’d destroyed Marist 55-7 in the regular season and trounced Lanier 55-27 in the semifinals after leading 55-0 at halftime. Glynn Academy fullback Sonny George would play at Wake Forest, and lineman Bob Sherman would join Brown’s seven at Tech and start on the famed 1952 team.
Atlanta teams hadn’t seen the same success statewide since the breakup of Boys and Tech high schools, so Glynn Academy was heavily favored. But as it turned out, Rodgers’ ability to pass had been underestimated or perhaps forgotten.
Roberts, the reporter, suggested that Brown had been sand-bagging. Rodgers and end Trainer had made the all-state team in 1948, but the ’49 team had leaned on its talented backfield.
“Pepper (The Arm) Rodgers, regarded by man as the smoothest high school T quarterback ever to crouch behind a center’s stern, was a great passer in 1948,” Roberts wrote. “He didn’t have to throw much this year.”
Against Glynn Academy, Rodgers set the record straight, and Trainer caught eight of his passes for 173 yards, one a touchdown. “Decoy Trainer was a decoy no longer,’’ Roberts wrote. “He made two catches you wouldn’t believe possible. He showed kleptomaniacal tendencies by snatching everything that wasn’t nailed down.’’
Sillay also spoke highly of Trainer’s talents. “He was the Calvin Johnson of our team. If you threw the ball down the field, he would get it.”
Rodgers wasn’t done being a star. He’d be voted the City League’s basketball MVP later in his senior year. He was the starting second baseman on the baseball team.
But Brown’s football dynasty was finished. With the seven graduated, the Rebels won just a single game in 1950. A new school in the West End called Sylvan Hills opened and took many of Brown’s students. Brown played Sylvan Hills to an embarrassing 0-0 tie in the final game of 1950.
Some 20 years later, in January 1969, the ‘49 state champions had a reunion. Roberts, still writing high school sports for The Constitution, covered the event.
Rodgers was the Kansas coach then, and his Jayhawks had just lost to Penn State 15-14 in the Orange Bowl. Hunsinger, the ’69 reunion’s emcee, joked to his old teammate: “Pepper, if you’d won that game, there’s no telling how many people would have been here.”
As it were, the entire starting 11, every coach and 186 people in all attended that night at the Mark Inn hotel in Hapeville. A photo of the 11, each in coat and tie, ran the next day in The Constitution. The players manned their offensive positions again with linemen in three-point stances.
Brown would have some good teams over the years but never anything like 1949. By the 1970s, white flight had changed the racial makeup of the West End. The old Rebels nickname was changed in 1972 to the Jaguars. By then, there were 27 Atlanta city high schools.
In 1991, Brown’s football team made a last glorious run, reaching the Class AA finals, and lost to Pepperell. In 1992, Brown High became a middle school that now feeds students into Booker T. Washington.
Brown’s 7 Tech players have died
In the past 10 years, one by one, the seven have left and gone away.
Hunsinger built a prominent Atlanta real-estate brokerage, John Hunsinger & Co., and remained a fervent Georgia Tech fan and patron until he died Oct. 24, 2010.
Clyburn played on Tech’s freshman team but then gave up the sport. Clyburn worked for Murphy Oil. He became an outstanding golfer and attended the Masters annually. He was living in Trinity, Fla., outside of Tampa when he died July 9, 2012.
Trainer, the starting right defensive end on the 1952 national-championship team, served in the Army and worked for Southern Wood Piedmont Company and United Wood Treating Products in Spartanburg, S.C. He died there Oct. 16, 2012.
Brannon, the captain of the 1949 Brown team, was the starting defensive left halfback for Tech in 1952 and intercepted six passes that season. He became a geometry teacher and long-time high school football coach in Atlanta, compiling a 143-101-6 record, most notably at Atlanta’s predominantly black Douglass High five miles from where he grew up. Brannon died July 16, 2014.
Campbell had his Tech career cut short by knee injuries. He served in the Army and the Korean War. He became a painting and decorating contractor. A father of three girls, he coached softball for many years. His AJC obituary offered competing theories as to the origin of his nickname, Pig. Campbell died Dec. 15, 2016.
As a defensive guard in 1951, Carithers was the first of the seven to crack Tech’s starting lineup. He married his high school sweetheart while at Tech. He worked most of his adult life in office supply sales. “Bulldog” Carithers died Jan. 3, 2017.
Rodgers had been living in Reston, Virginia, since retiring in 2004 from his last job, a position in the Washington Redskins’ front office. Rodgers, the final survivor of the seven, died May 14. He was 88.
Guy Sillay turned 89 last month. He could’ve played college football at South Carolina, he said, but was drafted in 1951 and served in Korea, then got a degree at Georgia Tech and worked as a textile designer. Sillay and his Brown sweetheart, Martha Ann, married for 70 years, live in Cumming.
Sillay knows of only one other surviving starter from 1949. Don Cox, the center and defensive play-caller, lives in Vinings and is not in good health, Sillay said. Buddy Young, the left guard, died in 2014. David Colcord, the left tackle, was living in Spain as a missionary when Sillay lost contact several years ago.
“I’ll never forget any of them,” Sillay said. “I happened to be one of the starting 11 on that team, and now that Pepper is gone, there’s only a few of us left. I’m blessed that I have memories. I treasure every day that I spent with them.”
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