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August 9, 2013

Just Another Opposing Player

The '50 Dogs made history with an infamous tie,
of all results, against a lowly western program
one year away from being defunct.
"Now, you're going way back to the Neanderthal days," Marion Campbell, the "Swamp Fox," declared from his home in St. Augustine, Florida, when I recently asked him what he recalled from the 1950 Georgia-St. Mary's football game. "All I really remember is that we were supposed to beat them badreal badbut the game ended in a tie."

I had to remind the former standout Bulldog and NFL player, and college and pro coach, the real significance of Georgia's second game that season, and it had little to do with the Bulldogs' 7-7 upset draw against the host Gaels.

"'Pop' Warner was in attendance," recalled Zippy Morocco, Georgia's star halfback in 1950, when I asked him the same question. Apparently, the then-living coaching legend was part of a small crowd of only 5,000-7,000 spectators to show up on a Friday night at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. But, was there anything else?

"What about John Henry Johnson of St. Mary's?" I asked Zippy. "Oh, yeah! He was unbelievable!" he said. "Johnson knocked the hell out of about four of our players, and each of them really didn't want to go back in the game after that!"

I then added the significance of the game: With his appearance against the Bulldogs, St. Mary's star sophomore fullback, Johnson, became the first African-American athlete to compete against a college football team from the state of Georgia and against a UGA athletic team in any sport.

By the end of the 1940s, many major college football programs outside the South featured black players. On the contrary, most southern teams wouldn't even face other squads that carried African-American players. However, by the start of the 1950s, southern teams, like Georgia, had little choice but to play outside the region in order to maintain a national profile, meaning the possibility of facing a black player, which meant modifying its Jim Crow policies of opposing integrated games.

Southern teams soon began facing intersectional competition, including African-American players, on the road. However, the southern programs wouldn't dare invite the intersectional, integrated opponent to their site the following season for a meeting in Dixie. Case in point, Georgia Tech traveled and faced Notre Dame and its first black player, Wayne Edmonds, in South Bend in 1953. However, there would be no trip to Atlanta for the Fighting Irish and Edmonds the following year in 1954.

Nevertheless, during the summer of 1949, Georgia announced it would travel to California to play little St. Mary's College in the fall of 1950, and then the Gaels would actually travel south to play in Athens the following season.

Leading up to the teams' initial meeting, one would think all the focus would be on Johnson, or more so his skin color, and the fact the southern Georgia boys would be opposing him. Instead, all the talk centered around how the Bulldogs would easily win out West in a walk. 

"From all we could tell before the game, we were about to play a high school team," Morocco said. Years after the game, according to an opposing Gaels player, "We had a scouting report on [Georgia] and there wasn't a player anywhere with a weakness."

Georgia had upset 15th-ranked Maryland the week before in its opener, while St. Mary's had been routed 40-0 by the College of the Pacific. The Bulldogs outweighed the Gaels by an average of 25 pounds per starter. Georgia entered the contest favored by anywhere from 28 to 31 points on the road. The game was thought to be such a snoozer that it wasn't broadcasted locally on Georgia radio because of the late 11:30 EST kickoff, but scheduled to be rebroadcasted the next day.

Still, in what was envisioned to be a very one-sided affair, The Red and Black's Jim Minter, who would soon embark on a long, successful career with both of Atlanta's two major newspapers, somewhat forewarned the traveling Bulldogs: "But they must stop a dangerous, powerful runner in John Henry Johnson, Negro fullback."

In the first half of the game, Georgia twice reached inside St. Mary's 5-yard line but came away with no points. The contest was shockingly scoreless at halftime, but that would soon change to begin the third quarter as the Bulldogs indeed couldn't stop the dangerous, powerful Johnson. 

Grabbing the second-half kickoff at his own 9-yard line after it had literally bounced off a teammate, the 6-1, 191-pound Johnson first headed towards the sideline, and then streaked untouched for a 91-yard score. The scoring return was just the second of what would be only nine touchdowns scored against the Bulldogs in 11 regular-season games. More detrimental to Georgia, after the successful PAT, St. Mary's had a 7-0 lead.   

Soon after Johnson's spectacular return, he assisted the Bulldogs in scoring a touchdown of their own, fumbling inside his own 5-yard line. Two plays later, Georgia quarterback Mal Cook scored on a 1-yard sneak. Bob Walston's PAT knotted the score at 7-7. Later in the third stanza with the Gaels positioned near the Bulldogs' goal line, Johnson leaped for an apparent touchdown; however, before crossing the goal, Johnson fumbled into the end zone where Claude Hipps gathered his third forced turnover of the game (two fumble recoveries, one interception).

Late in the contest, the Bulldogs were threatening to score following a 39-yard pass completion from Cook to Morocco. However, Georgia's bid for victory was thwarted by Johnson, who broke up a potential scoring pass, securing the surprising tie for St. Mary's.

The Gaels might have been outgained nearly 2-to-1 (147 total yards to Georgia's 292), outclassed, and outmanned, but because of Johnson's kickoff return, his stellar defensive performance, and despite his two costly fumbles, St. Mary's, in a way, prevailed. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, would soon board a plane bound for home after a result described as putting "Southern football back fifty years," while the Georgia faithful listened back home to their radios of a "rebroadcast of the slaughter."

Ten years ago, the Oakland Tribune ran a story on the same notable game where a former Gael curiously indicated that race had been an issue during the skirmishes on the field. It was "the Civil War all over again," the player recalled. "In that game, we heard a lot (said) against John Henry."

"I remember reading or hearing [that Georgia players made racist remarks]," Morocco said. "But, honestly, I don't remember anything like that going on."

"There wasn't anything to [the racial aspect]," Campbell stressed. "To us, Johnson was just another opposing player."

A report from the game collaborates with the Bulldog players' account, indicating both Johnson and his opposition assisted the other by helping one another up following plays, plus "the Georgia squad agreed [Johnson] was a gentleman when the play was done."

The Bulldogs would end their season losing just two regular-season games and made their seventh bowl appearance in 10 years. St. Mary's would win just two games the entire season, resulting against opposition who finished with a combined 2-18 record. Soon after the season concluded, the college disbanded its football program in early January of 1951. However, prior to doing so, according to a fairly recent article from St. Mary's College, evidently "Georgia officials would back out of the second year (1951) of the [UGA-St. Mary's] deal because they weren't ready for a black to take the field in Dixie."

Following St. Mary's tie with Georgia, John Henry 
Johnson is carried off the field by adoring fans, who 
then waited outside the locker room for another 30 
minutes to catch a glimpse of him.
I did not discover any evidence of Georgia backing out of the deal because "they weren't ready for a black" to play in Athens, and find it unusual that the cancellation would have occurred likely while the 1950 season was still in progress. Maybe this portion of the account is an exaggerated snippet to add to an already memorable story, like another report which stated Georgia was favored over St. Mary's by "anywhere from 6 to 10 touchdowns" (when in reality it was more like four touchdowns). Perhaps UGA officials weren't "ready for a black to take the field in Dixie" in 1951 simply because St. Mary's no longer had a football program.

As did several other of his SMC teammates, John Henry Johnson transferred to Arizona State after football was disbanded at the college. He was all-conference in 1951 and selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 18th overall pick of the 1952 NFL Draft. Notably, in San Francisco, Johnson was a teammate of Georgia's Campbell for two seasons. Upon his retirement from the league in 1966, Johnson's 6,803 career rushing yards was the fourth-most in NFL history. The four-time Pro Bowler would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. After suffering from Alzheimer's for more than 20 years, Johnson passed away in 2011 at the age of 81.

Finally, although Georgia wouldn't feature a black varsity football player of its own until 22 years following the St. Mary's game, remarkably, less than a decade after the program was integrated, 43 percent of the Bulldogs' national title team of 1980 was African American. Currently, that percentage has risen to more than 75 percent.  But, perhaps it was a whopping 63 years ago—back in the Neanderthal days—when the seed was planted in the form of John Henry Johnson—just another opposing player—and the integration of the UGA football program was first rooted.


Anonymous said...

Great article... I'm an Auburn fan but grew up in Georgia. So it would be nice to finally see UGA get over the hump

Anonymous said...

The Auburn fan would like to see UGA "finally get over the hump". I guess we'll have to settle for owning Auburn in the meantime.

Auburn's last title was 1957 until they bought a banished Florida player and won a title a few years ago. The theory in Auburn has always been "worry not about how many times you cross that line, just don't get caught doing it". Kudos.

rugbydawg79 said...

Patrick another great article-I could be wrong but it seems I saw John Henry Johnson play for the Steelers during the Falcons first year in 66---thank you for the great job you do with UGA history
Bruce Lauriault

Amanda said...

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