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'The forgotten season'
Day 4 practice WEB
Georgia Southern players kick up dust on the fourth-ever day of practice, October 1, 1981. Head coach Erk Russell can be seen in the center. - photo by FILE

    The Georgia Southern Eagles played their first collegiate football schedule of the modern era in 1982, but today, as we approach the season that marks 30th anniversary of the first year of the new era of Georgia Southern football, we take a look back at 'Erk's Eagles,' and the three-game club schedule they played during the fall of 1981 — the forgotten season.

    Before the six national championships, before Jayson Foster, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hill, Raymond Gross and even Tracy Ham, before Paulson Stadium and before there were even numbers on the sides of Georgia Southern’s helmets, there was Erk Russell and a whole lot of walk-ons.
    In the record books, Georgia Southern’s first win — and Russell’s first win as a head coach — came against Central Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. on Sept. 11, 1982.
    But before there was even a college schedule for the Eagles to play, Georgia Southern College had a season.
    You won’t see the stats in any media guides, and there were only three games at the club level, but for Russell and ‘Erk’s Eagles,’ 1981 was when it all began.
    What follows is a brief retelling of the forgotten season as recorded by the staff of the Statesboro Herald at the time — Steve Brunner, Dan Rahn and Rahn Hutcheson.
    It was a season that saw Georgia Southern’s first team, first practice, first game, first win and first time in front of the home crowd.
    In the books, it may not have counted, but to Russell, the Eagles, the community and what was a decade away from becoming Georgia Southern University, it was the start of something incredible.

    Monday, Sept. 28, 1981 — The first practice
    Erk Russell took to the GSC tennis courts wearing a T-shirt that read “Eagles GATA” and found out just exactly what he was in for at the first Georgia Southern practice.
    He watched as 128 athletes — ranging from a spry 132 pounds all the way to a hefty 249 — tentatively approached, ready to try out for a college legend who had yet to coach a single game.
    As the hopefuls came upon their would-be leader dressed in shorts and tennis shoes, they heard the first words Erk ever spoke to his Eagles.
    “Get those motors in gear when you’re coming over here,” he shouted.
    There were no footballs involved with practice that day. While established programs across the nation already had their seasons in full swing, Russell didn’t even know who his quarterback was.
    The day was spent running drills and clocking 40-yard dash times.
    The fastest — 4.56 seconds — was legged out by 6-foot, 177-pound receiver David Shields.
    “I’ve never worked with a bunch this raw before,” Russell said about that first day. “It’s a new experience for me, and I guess it’s a new experience for them, too.”
    Russell had a lot of work to do to put his team together, but he didn’t have to go at it alone. He had a staff of two full-time coaches and handful of assistants.
    Ben Griffith was in charge of the offense, and Mike Healey was in charge of the defense.
    The rest of the staff was a patchwork of former Georgia Bulldogs, assorted coaches and even a GSC English professor.
    The UGA student assistants were Hugh Nall, Al Pollard, Ricky McBride and Pat McShea. The rest of the coaches were Chuck Conley, Hinton Deloach, Steve Pennington, Ken Hall and Barney Hester.
    Pat Spurgeon came from the GSC faculty to coach the kickers and handle scouting.
    “We’re probably the only college with a PhD in English on its football coaching staff,” Russell said of Spurgeon.
    Things moved fast for Erk’s Eagles after that first day of practice as players came and went.
    Russell told the Statesboro Herald on Sept. 30 that he had around 140 players, although he was quick to correct himself — “140 people.”
    One reporter wanted a tour of GSC’s facilities, so when Russell took him into his office, which was inside a house trailer, he showed him the sunken bathtub and built-in bar.
    “You won’t see that in too many offices,” he told the reporter. “I’d feel a whole lot better, though, if they’d take the wheels off this thing.”

    Saturday, Oct. 31, 1981 — The first scrimmage
    The first Blue/White game wasn’t played in Paulson Stadium. It wasn’t even played in Statesboro.
    An hour and a half up the road in Dublin at Shamrock Stadium, a paid attendance of 2,006 watched as Erk’s Eagles played their first organized football game on Halloween at Dublin High School.
    The athletics director at the time, Bucky Wagner, happily counted the profits from the game and said, “We might just be better off having 11 Blue/White games next year.”
    White dominated the game, winning 28-17 in front of an enthusiastic crowd. The score was a little high for the defensive-minded Russell, but it had served its purpose.
    “It’s hard for me to say this,” Russell said, “but I guess I was pleased that we were able to put a lot of points on the board. People like to see that.”
    Transfer quarterback Rob Allen led the first drive of organized football for the GSC offense, and did it well.
Fullback Bill Parr had five carries for 28 yards on the 17-play, five-minute drive, and a 15-yard pass from Allen to former Blackshear teammate Wade Britt got the White team down to the 3-yard line.
    Allen scored on an option keeper for “The first touchdown in Georgia Southern history.”

Monday, Nov. 16, 1981 — The first game
    For the first time in the infancy of Georgia Southern football, the Eagles loaded on two yellow school busses — busses that remain iconic symbols of the GSU football roots to this day — and headed to a football game.
    The Eagles traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., for a Monday bout with the Florida State junior-varsity Seminoles, and for three quarters and 10 minutes had the upper hand.
    Trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, FSU needed a conversion on 4th-and-12 for the go-ahead touchdown. Seminoles running back Manny Carballo scored a pair of touchdowns with less than two minutes remaining, bringing his total for the game to four.
    “I told our players and our coaches I didn’t want any of them to feel good about this,” Russell said. “I hope our people don’t ever feel good about losing.
    “The disappointing thing is we got beat. You can learn so much more from victory.”
    The Eagles, led by William Carwell’s 75 yards, rushed for 207 yards. The FSU defense was allowing only 79.1 per game until that point.
    Nate Hirsch and Roy Akins handled the call on the radio.
    Saturday, Nov. 21, 1981 — The first win
    As if a bunch of walk-ons facing a team full of future FSU Seminoles wasn’t a tough enough test, the Eagles hadn’t seen anything yet.
    Less than a week after falling to FSU, 30-20, GSC was about to face a potential NFL starter who was biding his time until he was eligible to go pro.
    Leamon Hall was a former college starter who led Army to a 7-4 season in 1977. It was Army’s first winning record in five years.
    In 1981, he was playing quarterback for the Fort Benning Doughboys as he fulfilled his post-college commitment to the Army, much like former Heisman Trophy winner and Navy quarterback Roger Staubach.
    The Doughboys featured members of the armed forces as old as 37-years-old.
    “I’m going to take an Alka Seltzer before the game and freak out the poor kid across from me,” said Ft. Benning defensive tackle Alan Cornett. “He’ll see this old man foaming at the mouth.”
    The Eagles weren’t intimidated.
    Hall couldn’t buy a break as he completed only 38 percent of his passes and GSC’s Pat Douglas, a transfer from Georgia who came to Statesboro with Russell, tallied five interceptions.
    The Eagles won 33-26 at Doughboy Stadium in Columbus.
    “I think that was the finest exhibition by a defensive back I’ve ever seen,” Russel said about Douglas, “regardless of classification.”
    Douglas was assigned to cover Elyon Zeigler, Hall’s favorite target, for the entire game.
    The Eagles put up 446 yards of offense, and though the Doughboys made it close at the end, led 33-14 in the third quarter.
    “I thought we were going to lose that darn thing at the end,” said a smiling Russell, remembering the FSU game only five days prior.

    Saturday, Dec. 5, 1981 — The first home game
    Statesboro High’s Womack Field hosted the first Georgia Southern football home game in 40 years.
    It wasn’t even close.
    The Eagles were all over the Jacksonville Magnum Force squad, running away with a 49-27 win to end the short-but-exciting season for Erk’s Eagles.
    Russell, UGA’s former defensive coordinator, had an unexpected reaction to the season finale.
    “Well, we didn’t look too good today,” he said.
    Russell couldn’t really find anything positive to say, but finally, after he was prodded for something positive, he said, “Forty-nine points is more than 27.”
    And that was that.
    But perhaps after the Eagles rushed for six touchdowns in the game and passed for one, it was a sign of things to come for Georgia Southern — a program that was about to blow away everybody’s expectations.

    Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.

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