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‘I think we surprised ourselves’

Fifty years after bringing home Statesboro High’s first state title in football, the 1956 Blue Devil

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    It was a dark and dreary day when the Statesboro boys went to load the buses. It wasn’t raining during the game, but as the story goes, there had been plenty of bad weather leading up to kickoff. The football team of Statesboro High, however, wasn’t concerned with trivial things like the weather — they had a game to play.
    The Blue Devils were on their way to play Carrollton for the football championship of Georgia’s A class. This team hadn’t lost a game all year, and wasn’t about to lose one now.
    Their opponent, Carrollton, wasn’t about to lie down for anyone either, and the Trojans quickly took a 6-0 lead early in the first quarter. From there, the contest turned into one of the all-time mud bowls in Georgia High School football history. As the players tell it, you couldn’t even tell who was on your own team because of the wet slop that covered the uniforms. The field was under water and some of the players had to change their uniforms at halftime.
    But that was just a formality. The Devils knew exactly who was on their team, mud or not, mostly because they were such a close bunch.
    The Devils grew up together, played on many of the same recreation league teams, bonded on long bus rides to places like Eastman, Swainsboro and Dublin and hung out at the college pharmacy after games. George Hagins still remembers the night when Joe Oliff lost his contacts during a contest and his mom searched the field after the game with a flashlight, finally finding the lenses.
    The boys walked to an old dirt field off of East Grady St., to practice. They’d leave each session together with bloody knees and scraped elbows.
    There was Coley Cassedy, the all-state quarterback; Oliff, the all-state tackle; senior end Phillip Howard; tackle William Stubbs (‘who they called the life of any party’) and running backs Johnny Deal and Hagins.  
    “I don’t think we knew we’d be so good,” said Stubbs. “But we had respect for our coaches and they instilled confidence in us. We were average athletes that played great as a team. I think we surprised ourselves.”
    Ernest Teel was the coach. He played professional football and baseball and had already served one stint as SHS’s head coach. When he returned in 1954 from Gadsden, Ala., he installed a single-wing offense, something many of the teams in the area had never seen before. The Devils began to get better each year.
    “He was a damn good coach,” said Howard. “One of the best coaches I ever had.”
    Teel and assistant coach Ray Williams (a Marine) led SHS to a 10-0 record and a berth to the state playoffs. It wasn’t easy along the way.
    “Coach Teel got there when I was in the 10th grade,” said Cassedy, who they nicknamed ‘Murder on the Gridiron’. “We went 4-4-1, then 6-3. I don’t think there was a better coach in the area.”
    The turning point may have been a 14-7 win over the team from Sylvania. Led by fullback W.H. Black, who would later become the town’s police chief, Sylvania trailed by seven in the fourth quarter but was threatening on the SHS 1-foot line. Black couldn’t squeeze through the SHS defense, and Statesboro stuffed Sylvania each and every down to hold on for the win.
    “It was a tough region,” said Cassedy. “Teams like Swainsboro, Dublin and Sylvania were all good and we had to throw the ball a lot. The game was a little different. The clock ran for most of the game, you couldn’t go to the sideline to talk to the coach and almost everyone played both ways.”
    Statesboro won their next four games by a combined score of 110-13 to finish out the season and drew a date with Ellijay in the state semifinal.
    “Ellijay was a big team…huge,” said Deal.
    Big or not, SHS handled Ellijay, handing them a 20-0 defeat and setting up the trip to Carrollton.
    With Carrollton nursing a six-point lead, prospects of becoming State Champions were beginning to look as gray as the storm clouds hanging over head. But then the Devils caught a break as Carrollton fumbled a punt. The Blue Devils were in business and Cassedy carried the ball in from five yards out to tie the score at six.
    Howard began to prepare for the game-winning extra point, cleaning the mud off his cleats with a stick. Little did Howard know, the Devils weren’t kicking.
    “I think only Coley and coach knew,” Howard said.
    Teel decided to run the ball and go for two.
    “We decided to go off tackle,” said Cassedy. “But that play hadn’t worked all night.”
    Hagins, who they called ‘Muscles’, said they should have won it. Howard was surprised and said they should have kicked it. Cassedy was stopped at the goal line and the game ended in a tie, 6-6.
    There were 11 seniors on that team, 10 of them went on to college and one went into the military. Fifty years later, they’re still close.
    The boys of ’56 still get together at class reunions, or Friday night’s at Womack Field, the current home of the Blue Devils, or when they step outside to check the mail (Deal lives across the street from Stubbs). Each time they do, they can say they were the first champions of Statesboro High.
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