Mercer center is grandson of Georgia Tech legend

To Georgia Tech fans, Jimmy Southard was a Yellow Jackets legend, a three-year starter quarterback for coach Bobby Dodd in the late 40’s.

To Kirby Southard, he was Papa, a loving grandfather who didn’t say much about his hallowed football career.

Saturday, when Tech plays Mercer at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the grandson will take the field once graced by the grandfather. Kirby Southard, Mercer’s starting center, called it a dream come true.

“It’s definitely special,” Southard said.

Southard’s family has held Tech football season tickets for decades, and Southard grew up going to Bobby Dodd Stadium to cheer on the Jackets. As a fifth-grader, he went on the field at halftime as part of a promotion, trying to land a football in a shopping cart. His pass bounced in and out, he said.

“I didn’t get booed, so that was good,” he said.

Southard’s list of favorite players indicates a life of dedication – Kelly Campbell, Daryl Smith, Jonathan Smith, P.J. Daniels, Calvin Johnson.

Southard’s grandfather was, likewise, a favorite of a previous generation of Tech fans. He started 1947-49, helping the Jackets to a 24-7 record in that span, including an Orange Bowl win and two wins over Georgia. His fourth-quarter touchdown on a quarterback sneak in the 1949 game against Georgia helped give the Jackets a 7-6 win and began Tech’s eight-game winning streak over the Bulldogs. He was inducted into the Tech athletics hall of fame in 1994.

“I watched him play,” said Pepper Rodgers, the former Tech quarterback and coach who arrived on campus shortly after Southard’s graduation. “He was a favorite quarterback of mine.”

A father of four and grandfather of 11, Jimmy Southard lived in Decatur with wife Bettilu and died in 2015 following complications from strokes suffered 16 years earlier.

“I can’t tell you how lucky we were to have them as parents,” said John Southard, Kirby’s father and Jimmy and Bettilu’s youngest son.

A team captain at Johns Creek High, Kirby Southard had hoped to play for the Jackets, but his size prevented him from reaching the FBS level. He chose Mercer, which began play in 2013 after disbanding the team in 1941. Southard has started all of the team’s 36 games. Mercer coach Bobby Lamb calls Southard and quarterback John Russ, a Mill Creek High grad who has started all 36 with Southard, the “heart and soul” of the Bears offense.

“It’s definitely been an incredible experience, being able to be close to home and starting a new program and seeing how far this program has come, and in five years how much the school has changed, how everything has changed with the football program coming in,” Southard said.

Mercer started in a non-scholarship league but jumped into the Southern Conference in 2014. While the Bears were 2-5 in the league last year, they finished in the top half in the league in scoring offense, passing efficiency, rushing offense and sacks allowed. Over 305 pass attempts, Mercer allowed eight sacks, the third lowest total in the country.

“Kirby, he’s anchored our offensive line,” Lamb said.

Saturday’s game is one he has anticipated since it was scheduled in 2013. The same goes for his teammates; he is one of 69 players from inside state borders, many from metro Atlanta.

“It’s definitely going to be a special thing, running out on the field and being able to play and compete at that kind of level,” he said.

Southard remembered his grandfather for his modesty. He was not one to bring up his football exploits, he said.

“He was the greatest,” he said.

Southard has already earned degrees in accounting and business management. When his career is over, he’ll join the family’s commercial hardware business, one that his grandfather likewise joined after his football days ended.

Saturday, about 20 family member and friends will be there to support Southard and the Bears. It will be a moment to cherish – the grandson playing in the stadium where he grew up cheering for his grandfather’s team. John Southard, Kirby’s father, said that his parents, “wherever they are, they’ve got 50-yard line seats.”