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Legendary GSU quarterback Tracy Ham joins Georgia Sports Hall of Fame
W Tracy Ham
Legendary Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham will be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame tonight in Macon. - photo by Photo Courtesy of Georgia Southern University

 Tracy Ham has a lot of ground to cover tonight when he gives his acceptance speech at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony in Macon.

That shouldn’t be a problem for the former Georgia Southern quarterback, the first player in college football history to run for more than 3,000 yards and throw for more than 5,000 yards in a career.

“I’ve got so many memories, even from the first day I stepped on campus and met Coach (Erk) Russell in the trailer (temporary football office), to winning a national championship, to winning it back-to-back,” Ham, 47, said. “Just the people on the teams, your teammates, the coaches. There are just so many memories because there were so many things happening. You don’t really realize the significance of that moment because you’re in the moment. But when you step back and you try to put it into perspective, it’s really, really difficult to put into perspective.”

Ham should be fine reciting his thank you list. He’s had plenty of practice, having been inducted into GSU’s Athletics Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame (2007) and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2010).

Tonight at 7 at Macon City Auditorium, Ham will be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame with former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz  and four others.

“It certainly is a big honor,” Ham said. “Each one of them, you kind of leave separate because the College Hall of Fame, you know, I thought that was large because I went in with Emmitt (Smith), Bobby Bowden and Charlie Ward.

“And the CFL was just as big, because I think they measure you against your peers. But I think what makes this one really special is what it brings not only to me and my family but also to the Statesboro community. Georgia Southern has just been a pillar in southeast Georgia, and it’s always been kind of the small school in the state when you talk about Georgia and Georgia Tech.

“To be able to get in with this class, it’s certainly an honor. I’m really looking forward to representing not only my family but also Georgia Southern University. Georgia Southern certainly is earning its keep in this state with its athletes and coaches.”

Ham helped put Georgia Southern on the sports map. The High Springs, Fla., native came to Georgia Southern College (now university) from Santa Fe High School in 1983, a year after Georgia Southern restarted its football program.

Other colleges recruited Ham as a defensive back. Georgia Southern’s Russell, and offensive coordinator Paul Johnson, now the head coach at Georgia Tech, took a chance on him at quarterback.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Ham was a dual threat at quarterback because of his ability to run and throw. He masterfully engineered the “Ham-bone” offense, a variation of the wishbone, to lead Georgia Southern to back-to-back NCAA Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision) championships in 1985 and 1986.

Ham’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Johnson with 10 seconds remaining gave Georgia Southern a 44-42 victory over Furman for its first national championship. He was selected First Team All-American as a senior in 1986.

“The greatest moment has to be the pass to Frankie to propel us into national status from I-AA,” Ham said. “But then guys on the team would probably say one of the greatest moments was when we beat Middle Tennessee (28-21 on Dec. 7, 1985), who just really had our number. We couldn’t get past them. They had beaten us twice in an eight-month span. To go up to Middle Tennessee when they were ranked No. 1, to go up there and beat them and go to the semifinals, to me that was one of the greatest moments.”

Ham was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the ninth round (240th pick overall) of the 1987 NFL Draft. He decided to play in the Canadian Football League, where he was given an opportunity to play quarterback, and did so for 13 seasons (1987-99)  with the Edmonton Eskimos, Toronto Argonauts, Baltimore Stallions and Montreal Alouettes.

Ham was a member of two Grey Cup championship teams (Edmonton in 1987, Baltimore in 1995). He won the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1989 and was the Grey Cup MVP in 1995.

“The CFL, that was a good place for me at that time the way football was for African-American quarterbacks,” Ham said. “The CFL was certainly a good place for me to continue playing quarterback.”

Ham said his fondest CFL memory came later in his career.

“I’d have to say winning the championship with Baltimore, an American team with very little history,” he said. “To come and win the championship in the second year was probably the most exciting moment I had in the CFL.”

Ham, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sports recreation at Georgia Southern, works for Sony Electronics as an account manager for stadiums and arenas. He and his wife, Valarie, live in McDonough, about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. They have two sons, Tracy Jr. and Caleb, and frequently return to Statesboro to watch GSU basketball games because Tracy Jr. is a freshman guard on the team.

“It’s a different GSU, but it’s our school,” Ham said. “Both me and my wife attended so, obviously, she’s just as proud as I am about it.”

Ham was Georgia Southern’s first All-American. The school retired his No. 8. He said he vividly recalls the smell of Russell’s cigars after victories.

“The memory of Coach Russell, after a victory, lighting up his cigar,” Ham said. “It was something that we just took for granted. And now you miss the smell of his sweet cigars. After every victory, Coach Russell would light up a cigar and we would go crazy in the locker room when he lit one up.”
    Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.