Buford, West Rome share ultimate football glory

Buford's successful pursuit of a record-tying fourth consecutive state football championship was a popular topic at one of oldest pharmacies in downtown Rome last week. Longtime customers at Winslette Pharmacy made it known they were rooting against the Gwinnett school in the Class AA title game.

The pharmacy is owned by the brother of Charles Winslette, who was West Rome High School coach in 1985 -- and responsible for the fourth of four championships in a row, making it the first and only other program to pull the feat.

"I talked to some of them and they were putting all kinds of jinxes on Buford," Charles Winslette said with a laugh. "Some of them were really hoping that Buford wouldn't win it, wouldn't tie the record. I guess records are made to be tied and broken. And, from what I hear, with what Buford has, as far as coming back for next year, I think they have an excellent chance of winning No. 5."

In the North Georgia town, a Sam's Warehouse has been erected on the grounds once used by a hallowed football program that routinely played to overflowing crowds. West Rome High disappeared, too, consolidating with East Rome after the 1991 season.

"I grew up in Georgia and played high school football [at Marietta] in the 80s," Buford coach Jess Simpson said. "I knew about West Rome's success, as did everybody else. But it was never a focus point for us at Buford this year. You never get to the top of the mountain by staring at the mountain. You do it by looking at your next step and keeping your mind in the present moment."

West Rome had three different head coaches during the four-year championship stretch. Winslette was preceded by Rodney Walker, who led the Chieftains to the 1984 championship before he was hired away by Cartersville after one season. Mike Hodges coached the first two title teams and got the dynasty started.

Hired away by Thomasville High, Hodges is retired from coaching and still lives in the Thomasville area. Winslette coaches at Greene County; Walker at Mary Persons. Hodges wasn't disappointed to see Buford tie the record.

"That's really not me to think that way," Hodges said. "What I was able to be part of at West Rome was as good as it gets. I don't get caught up with what I was part of compared to what Buford is doing. I have tremendous respect for Buford. A lot of things have to fall into place to win one state championship. To win four in a row, that's an amazing feat."

West Rome no longer exists, but the football memories remain vivid. Hodges and the other coaches have gathered with their former players for championship reunions.

"I guarantee you that a lot of people in Rome were watching that Buford game last weekend," Hodges said. "West Rome may not be standing, but there are still a lot of former fans, players and boosters in the area. They are still passionate about those days. It didn't slip their minds, I can assure you."

More than two decades later, Walker still marvels over West Rome's four years of dominance, which included three undefeated seasons and a collective 59-1 record.

"I think it's a sacred record," Walker said. "A lot of people with three state championships in a row would've like to have tied that record. Great programs such as Parkview and Valdosta come to mind. It's difficult to win one state championship. Everything has to fall right and sometimes the best teams don't win it."

Ironically, Hodges and a couple of Buford coaches, including Simpson, have become good friends. Buford has been bringing its offensive linemen to Hodges' summer camp at Middle Georgia College for years.

After Buford tied the championship record on Friday, Hodges was one of the first to call and congratulate Simpson the next day. During their conversation, nothing was said by either coach about the historic achievement.

"I congratulated Buford for winning state -- I do that every year, not because it was their fourth in a row," Hodges said. "I'm sure the Buford people are aware of the record, but it's not that big of deal to me where I would point it out during a conversation."

Simpson saw no need to bring it up in the conversation either.

"If you know me and how we go about things, we don't really put a lot of focus on records," he said. "But like I've said before, I've been at Buford during a special time. And when the Buford program and community gets to be part of history with a legendary program like West Rome, it is certainly something special."