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May 15, 2013

UGA Should Retire a 5th Football Jersey

Bob McWhorter -- my opinion of UGA's
most valuable football player of all time.
Unless its fully warranted, I'm not a big fan of the retirement of jersey numbers.  I personally feel a particular player should have been the best of the very best during his time in order for a college program or professional organization to retire his number.
Primarily because of a single drought-breaking performance against Georgia Tech in 1957, Theron Sapp's jersey No. 40 was retired by Georgia a few months following the end of a respectable collegiate career.  However, besides Sapp's curious retirement, the Bulldogs have upheld a tradition of retiring the jerseys of only the very best players in their storied history: Frank Sinkwich (No. 21), Charley Trippi (No. 62), and Herschel Walker (No. 34).  

Fairly recently, even the jerseys of the NCAA's all-time winningest quarterback (David Greene) and Georgia's most decorated defensive player of all time (David Pollack) have remained active, and rightfully so in accordance to the program's seemingly lofty standard for retirement.  Still, there is a jersey from long ago that has been wrongly omitted from joining the program's elite, although no player was likely more valuable to a Georgia team before or has been since.

A number of years ago, I only knew of halfback Bob McWhorter as Georgia's first All-American, the first UGA player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (along with Sinkwich in 1954), and the would-be career record holder for touchdowns scored at Georgia if the school considered statistics prior to the 1940s as official.  However, upon conducting research for my first book, I soon discovered the extraordinary back whose value to Georgia, as a sportswriter declared a century ago, "cannot be fully expressed in mere words or even figures."  But, I'm going to make an attempt at it.

To help understand Bob McWhorter's impact, you first have to be somewhat aware of the state of UGA football prior to his arrival.  From 1899 through 1909, the Red and Black won only about one-third of their games (26 of 76).  As horrifying, during the same 11-season span, Georgia averaged just 7.2 points per game.  However, UGA hired the Gordon Institute's Alex Cunningham in 1910, and the head coach brought with him from Barnesville to Athens his star halfback.  And, just like that, a struggling football program instantly turned into one of the more prominent ones in the South.

With McWhorter lining up at right halfback from 1910 through 1913, Georgia achieved a remarkable 25-6-3 combined record while averaging 24.2 points per game.  In 1914, with McWhorter having departed, the Red and Black relapsed, recording just a 3-5-1 mark while being shutout in four of nine games.

As I pointed out in October of 2010, McWhorter should be the school's single-game record holder for the most touchdowns scored...and the second-most, and the fourth-most.  For his career, crossing the opposition's goal line in nearly every conceivable way offensively, defensively, and returning kicks, McWhorter tallied 61 touchdowns in 34 games (he was also regarded as the team's best passer and threw for a number of touchdowns).  Herschel Walker, Georgia's official touchdown record holder, scored four fewer touchdowns playing in two additional games. 

Notably, during their legendary careers, McWhorter and Walker both scored 45.2 percent of their teams' total touchdowns, which rank as the highest amongst Georgia players to have their jerseys retired:

Pct. of Team Touchdowns (Career TDs of # of Teams' TDs)*
45.2- Walker (57 of 126)
45.2- McWhorter (61 of 135)
23.4- Trippi (32 of 137)**
22.6- Sinkwich (30 of 133)
13.7- Sapp (7 of 51)
* Number of touchdowns include those from bowl games played in by Walker, Trippi and Sinkwich, and their teams. 
**Since Trippi missed first four games of '45 season because of military service, touchdowns scored by Georgia in those games aren't figured into team touchdown total. 
Carrying the ball, which is circled, and wearing the jersey
which should be retired, McWhorter runs vs. Auburn
in Atlanta in 1913 during his final game at Georgia.

Besides scoring records, McWhorter would undoubtedly also hold school rushing marks if sufficient documentation was available.  In the season opener of 1913 against Alabama Presbyterian, it was reported he had SIX rushes of 50 yards or more.  Besides likely gaining more like 400, if not 500 yards, what makes McWhorter's individual 300-yard rushing performancethe would-be only one in the history of UGA footballeven more astonishing is that it was achieved with him playing in only two quarters of the game.

In all but a few of his 34 games, McWhorter played the entire 60 minutes of each contest.  This included the 1912 season opener against Chattanooga when McWhorter scored three touchdowns while playing the entire game despite suffering with a heavy cold, and get this, malaria!   Including the '13 Alabama Presbyterian game, McWhorter was taken out on occasion during a Red and Black blowout victory; however, just once in four seasons was he relieved during a game because of injury (Alabama, 1912).

To cap a brilliant career, McWhorter was named first-team All-American in 1913 by Parke H. Davis, selecting for The New York Herald.  In an era when southern football and its players were hardly recognized by the mainstream media, the recognition was much more of an accomplishment than simply becoming Georgia's first All-American.  Consider the following: McWhorter was only the third first-team All-American ever selected from a southern school and, of the 54 players in 1913 named first, second, or third-team All-American by recognized selectors, remarkably, 53all but McWhorterplayed for schools in the Northeast or Midwest.

In 1913, McWhorter was also selected first-team all-conference for the fourth consecutive seasonthe only Georgia player to accomplish such a featback in a time when only 11 players were picked to a squad and more than 20 schools were part of the Red and Black's "conference" (the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association).  McWhorter, who was also an All-Southern center fielder, nearly signed a contract out of college to play for the Class-C Augusta Tourists before spurning baseball to attend law school at the University of Virginia.  McWhorter eventually made his way back to Athens, where he entered business, taught at UGA's Law School, and later served as the city's mayor.

In 1960, McWhorter passed away at 68 years of age on what was called "one of Athens' saddest days."

I've read before there is no way to actually retire Bob McWhorter's Georgia football jersey number because players didn't have numbers on their jerseys in McWhorter's day.  However, UGA football doesn't retire numbers; the program retires "jerseys." 

There are plenty examples of retired jerseys in sports where the retiree didn't actually wear his retired number.  Examples include number "85" for Gussie Busch of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball club, which retired that particular number since the former owner was 85 years old when his retirement ceremony was held.  Also, the NBA's New York Knicks have retired "613" for Red Holzman because that's the number of games he won as a head coach.  And, several jerseys have been retired honoring athletes who predated uniform numbers, but were given the equivalent of a retired number ceremony.  Something similar should have been done, or should be, to honor Georgia's McWhorter.

I recently brought this subject up to a fellow enthusiast of Georgia football history, who responded with "But, McWhorter is already inducted into UGA's Circle of Honor."  Yes, he most certainly is along with more than 20 other Bulldog football players, including Sinkwich and Trippi.  The Circle of Honor is obviously quite an honor; however, Bob McWhorter also belongs amongst the best of the very best of Georgia football. 

The Bulldogs have retired the No. 21 jersey for their first Heisman winner, No. 62 for the school's greatest athlete, No. 34 for its all-time most outstanding player, and even No. 40 for an individual performance during about an eight-minute span of time in the third quarter of the '57 Tech game.  Accordingly, Georgia should also retire the football jersey of the most valuable player in the program's history.

As far as an actual Bob McWhorter-worn jersey that could be displayed during a retirement ceremony, I assume that particular piece of uniform  would be rather difficult to locate after a century.  However, as far as what numbered jersey should be retired in his honor, I have a suggestion.  McWhorter's number "100" could be retired during this upcoming season, signifying how many years since the completion of a brilliant Georgia football career, and how long it actually took to recognize someone who should have been honored so much longer ago. 


epgrimes said...

This was such an informative article. I really enjoyed it. Bob McWhorter was my great uncle, married to my Aunt Lib. I never had the privilege of knowing him but my family really loved him. Thanks for the article. Elizabeth Partlow Grimes

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Anonymous said...

As a diehard Ga football fan,I always enjoy learning things that I don't know about the history of such a traditional and statewide loved program.Thank you for this article,teaching me something I didn't know,and I assume your a UGA fan.Thank you for having the red and black in your veins as we,Georgians,do.GO DAWGS !!!!!