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June 7, 2014

This Program Needs Another “Hit Man”

Image of the Hit Man's card from the 
Anti-Orange Page's Gallery
I recall around this time 25 years ago, or entering the 1989 football season, when I was handed by my father the first few of the many packs of the "Georgia's Finest" football cards I'd collect.  For those of you old enough, do you remember those?  I'll never forget opening what may have been my very first pack, thumbing through Georgia's best football players, only then coming across an individual I had barely heard of before (and at 14 years old, I knew my UGA football history pretty well back then too)—flanker Butch Box. 

The "Finest" cards had the players' yearly statistics on the back, and when I flipped Box's card over and observed some rather meager receiving statistics, I remember asking my dad something on the order of "how can a guy with six catches and just one touchdown for his entire career be one of 'Georgia's Finest'?  Who is this guy?"
That's when this admittedly football stat geek was taught for the first time in his life that often in sports, statistics don't tell the whole story.  And, when it came to the tough-as-nails Butch Box, arguably the greatest special teams coverage man in the history of UGA football, the saying couldn't be more true.  
Before arriving at UGA, Box had been a blue-chip wide receiver—one of the greatest in the annals of Alabama high school football.  In fact, his 51 career touchdown receptions from 1970 to 1972 at Tarrant High School, located just North of Birmingham, was an Alabama state record until the late 1990s, and still remains tied for the third-most ahead of notables Ozzie Newsome (49) and Julio Jones (43).
At Georgia in 1973, Box actually played back when you had to be extra special to see the field as a mere true freshman on head coach Vince Dooley's varsity squad.  Box returned kicks, held on placekicks, played a little at wide receiver, and was eventually even tried out at defensive back.  Returning a kickoff in the Tennessee game, Box broke his leg, but Dooley still allowed him to travel with the team for the rest of the season, including to the Peach Bowl in win over Maryland.  By season's end, Box had earned a letter.  He was one of just three, along with placekicker Allan Leavitt and receiver Gene Washington, to eventually become the first Georgia players to earn varsity letters in four seasons (1973-74-75-76) after freshmen became eligible to play college football in 1972. 
In the season opener of 1974 against Oregon State, Box scored his aforementioned lone touchdown—a 28-yard scoring reception on a halfback pass from Horace King.  However, standing at just 5-foot-9, weighing 170-something pounds, and with the Bulldogs loaded in depth at wide receiver, where Box could be utilized was the question.  The answer came in his uncanny ability on special teams coverage, especially on kickoffs.

"Coach [Erk] Russell was in charge of the kickoff coverage team, and he’d let me lineup anywhere," Box informed me this past week from his home in Birmingham.  "When Allan Leavitt was about to kickoff, I’d lineup anywhere—far left, far right, in the middle, wherever. ... We had a bunch of good guys on special teams then.  We weren't all that big, but we were fast and always fired up."
As this video of Box on a couple of kickoffs against Vanderbilt in 1975 demonstrates, he was indeed fast, routinely beating all his teammates down the field on coverage: 
"I don’t know if I was necessarily better than anyone else, I just hustled down there full speed and always wanted to hit somebody," Box responded after being asked how he stood out from everybody on coverage.  "Even when Allan would kick it out of the end zone or a guy would call fair catch on a punt, I'd just hit the closest guy to me.  Back then, you could do that.  Nowadays, you'd get penalized.  Even on offense (playing wide receiver), we ran the ball a lot, so often a defender was just standing there [as the play was ending] and I’d come up to him and jack ‘em!"

By his later years at Georgia, Box had become such a nuisance for opposing teams on kick coverage, he started to actually get double teamed at times (yes, on special teams!).  "But, that left one of our men not blocked, so they could make the tackle," he added.

This is according to a fellow wide receiver and coverage man of the time for the Bulldogs, Steve Davis.  You'll notice Davis (No. 80) on the first clip of the video, assisting Box with the tackle:

Butch was the best special teams player at Georgia the entire time I was there, and ever since from what I've seen.  He was always the first guy down the field on kickoff coverage even though not the fastest player.  He had no regard for his body, throwing himself into harms way, and was a great tackler.  Butch just had a knack like no other when it came to special teams play.

Although he wouldn't tell you so, Box was a fan favorite while at Georgia, as well, and was given a number of nicknames by the Bulldog Nation and the media, including the one mentioned on the back of his "Finest" card—the "Hit Man."

"We played back when the stadium wasn't enclosed and there were the track fans," Box recalled.  "We’d get off the bus [prior to entering the locker room before the game], and all those people on the railroad tracks would holler. I don’t know why, but some would specifically holler at me.  That’d really fire me up!  They'd call out my nicknames to me.  From the fans, or maybe a newspaper article, I was also nicknamed the "Wild Card" because you never knew where I'd lineup on kickoffs."

Box celebrates with a fellow special
teamer in 1975.  See those black stars
on his helmet's white stripe? Those
were given out each game to the top
UGA player on special teams... and
Box starred often.
I just had to ask the "Wild Card" what did he think was the problem with Georgia's recent coverage units.  The expert on kickoff/punt coverage remained humble, prefacing his answer by calling himself "only a couch coach." 

"All I know is that you need speed to get down there; size doesn’t matter.  A speedster doesn’t have to fight a block; he can dodge blocks.  You see what happened in that Auburn-Alabama game when ‘Bama tried that field goal with all them hogs out there (referring to Auburn's game-winning return of a missed field goal for a touchdown last season when Alabama's special teams unit consisted of primarily big, slow linemen)."

After graduating from UGA, Box quite appropriately, eventually became a firefighter for nearly 30 years.  He made an attempt at retirement but "just couldn't stay still," according to his wife, Freida.  Butch and Freida will be celebrating their 40th anniversary this December.  They were married during Butch's sophomore season and, get this, had their honeymoon in Orlando during Georgia's trip to the 1974 Tangerine Bowl.  Currently, Box works for Jay Electric Co., an industrial service and manufacturing business headquartered in Birmingham, in its mining market.  For a time, he—and again, appropriately—had the responsibility of going down into mines more than 1,500 feet deep and eight miles wide.

When it comes to Georgia football, Box still bleeds red and black.  "My whole family are big Dawg fans here [in Alabama]—my wife, my daughters and son," said Box, who is especially proud of his family.  "I got a great daughter-in-law too, and she and my son have one child, Ashlyn.  My granddaughter is very special to me.  Of course we all have to deal with those Alabama fans, and some Auburn fans that turned up this past year (laughing)."
Box has two daughters, Fran and Beth.  His son, Jody, was born at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens during Box's senior year.  Jody is married to Lorie, and their daughter, Ashlyn, is seven years old.
As we closed our conversation, the special teams great, who is even more so a great man, commented that it was "real sad"—sad that several players he had played with had passed away, including Jeff Sanders fairly recently.  He added, "But, I had a real good time seeing old friends at this past G-Day, and we're planning on coming to the Troy game for the lettermen's reunion on September 20th."
I'd like to add maybe in the meantime, Coach Richt can check to see if Butch has any remaining eligibility.  Playing when simply being "always fired up"  and really hustling—aspects perhaps missing from Georgia's coverage units of late—and not necessarily featuring defensive starters, made for special special teams play, Box was absolutely one of "Georgia's Finest," and he remains so—so much, I believe on kickoffs, the "Hit Man" could still jack 'em if need be. 


South FL Dawg said...

Nice writeup. No doubt he was as tough as he was fast. DGD.

Anonymous said...

Back in the '70s,Loran loaned me a film of Butch Box hits. The hits were timed to music and would get you so jacked-up you couldn't sit still. It was unreal! I think just watching that film would improve any kick-off coverage team. Hope someone can find it and put it on u-tube or give it to UGA coaches. Its great.

Anonymous said...

I worked with Butch in the fire department and there was no tougher firefighter. Always a fun-loving guy, but tough as nails when it counted most.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't be prouder to call him my daddy! What an awesome article you wrote about our dad! We are so proud...it made me tear up. Thank you for the hard work on this article. (Fran Box-Butch's daughter)

Patrick Garbin said...

Thanks for everyone's comments and kind words.

Anon 10:30, you might be thinking of a segment of Georgia's 1976 Highlights video which consisted of exactly what you're talking about--Butch's best hits on kick coverage (the video clip from the post is from the 1975 Highlights). Anyway, I have the '76 Highlights somewhere. As soon as I find it, I'll post the video montage of Butch's hits on my Facebook page.--Patrick

Patrick Garbin said...

You should be very proud! And, thanks so much for reading and your comment. Your dad was one of the nicest interviewees I've ever encountered, and it was my pleasure to speak with him.--Patrick

Anonymous said...

wow...I remember 1st watching Ga between the hedges with my Dad during the 74 and 75 seasons. He told me...."John, watch #22 Butch Box, he's an excellent special teamer". He sure was.