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June 1, 2012

More than Met the Eye with "Sky"

Like many of you, I was saddened with the news from the other night that the Bulldog Nation had lost one of its own -- UGA football All-American and Athens icon Craig Hertwig, better known as "Sky."

Personally, I first knew of the 6-foot-8 Sky in the early-90s as simply the "really tall guy" I saw jogging on Milledge Avenue during the day, and the same friendly bar owner I observed walking around Sky's Place at night.  Nevertheless, I soon discovered there was much more to Sky than met the eye.  For one, Hertwig had been a fine football player at Georgia during the 1970s... even though he almost wasn't a Bulldog to begin with.

On a Friday in mid-September of 1969, Vince Dooley traveled to Macon to witness a cross-town matchup between Lanier and Mark Smith high schools.  Like every other major-college coach in the country, Dooley was in hot pursuit of Lanier's highly-recruited running back Isaac Jackson.  Jackson and the Poets routed the opposing Bulldogs that night by 30 points, while Dooley would eventually lose the recruiting battle for Jackson, who would attend Kansas State.  However, even in defeat, so to speak, the head football coach would still land a big recruit from Macon. 

Mark Smith High's Hertwig appeared to be a "big, awkward looking guy," according to Dooley.  However, he "moved well for his size," so Georgia decided to do something no other Division-I school was willing to do -- take a chance on the nimble giant.  Soon afterwards, a Bulldog assistant visited Hertwig and offered him one of the final scholarships for UGA's 1970 incoming class.

After playing on the JV squad as a true freshman, and later the scout team in 1971, Sky began his sophomore year as Georgia's starting tight end.  When the Bulldogs had a difficult time running the football the first couple games of the 1972 season, Hertwig was promptly moved to the right tackle position, where he remained through his first-team All-American campaign of 1974. 

After being selected in the fourth round of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, Sky had somewhat of a difficult time adjusting to life after college; not necessarily adapting to professional football, but adjusting to the actual geographical location of his team.

In September 1975, Hertwig indicated to a newspaper that he was homesick for Athens.  "You know, the food up here [in Detroit] ain't so good," he said.  "I got desperate one night, so I stopped by what was supposed to be a southern fried chicken place.  I've never eaten worst-tasting chicken in my whole life.  What I wouldn't give for some good ole corn bread and black-eyed peas."

Sky would play three seasons in the NFL, all with Detroit, and the final two as one of the Lions' starting offensive tackles.  After his pro football career, he would eventually return to where there was plenty of southern food to be found and a remedy for his homesickness -- Athens.  In 1980, Sky bought the Fifth Quarter on the Atlanta Highway, beginning a business career as the owner of a number of bars in the Classic City for more than 30 years until his recent passing.

Sky leaves a legacy as a big guy -- the biggest, in fact, to ever play football at UGA, at the time of his arrival -- who utilized his size to become a successful football player both in college and in the NFL after hardly receiving a Division-I scholarship.  But more so, Sky was big-hearted, easy going, and friendly, while being one of the most devoted, passionate Bulldog enthusiasts, who despised the opposition to the fullest.   

Speaking of his hatred for Georgia's rivals, not too long after his return to Athens, Sky was asked in 1982 about his thoughts on the approaching, highly-anticipated Labor Day night game between Georgia and Clemson -- the No. 1-ranked teams of the two previous seasons.  How were the Bulldogs going to fare against the country's best team from the year before?

"Clemson ain’t nothing but an imitation," said Sky.  "In [Clemson's] Atlantic Coast Conference, they play imitation football.  I even hear they’re going to put up imitation grass in the stadium up there [at Clemson] so the homecoming queen won’t graze on it."

Blocking with Randy Johnson (No. 63) for Richard
Appleby (No. 84) against Miss. State in 1974, the 
6-foot-8 Sky (No. 74) always stood out in a crowd.
Clemson wouldn't replaced its natural grass surface at Memorial Stadium, but Sky's bold prediction and quick wit about its football team seemed rather appropriate following a 13-7 Georgia victory.

In reading comments online yesterday in remembrance, I was intrigued with the remarks about Sky's anticipated ascension into Heaven and how "Heaven is a better place today."  One individual posted how Sky likely first approached Erk Russell and Larry Munson, shaking their hands, upon his arrival. 

High above in Paradise, I'd like to think that Athens' "Big Man" also soon sought out fellow Macon native Isaac Jackson, who passed away in 1999, and thanked him for being such an extraordinary high school football player.  For if it wasn't for Jackson, there would have been no UGA scholarship for Sky, and with that, one of Athens' biggest Bulldogs might not have been a Bulldog at all.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patrick- not sure if you personally knew Sky or not but I did. I worked for him for a few years and we remained good friends. I can tell you that this is a fantastic piece on a true gentleman and Sky would reallly find it flattering. Thanks for putting together a great post on a great person.