Jenkins Co. (5-3, 1-3) at Portal (2-6, 0-5)
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Portal Athletic Complex
PORTAL — The Portal Panthers celebrated their homecoming two weeks ago, but a few more alums will get an encore performance when Jenkins County comes to town on Friday night.
Members of the 1974 and 1975 Portal teams — the first in the school’s history — will reunite during the game, walking the Panthers’ lush green field that is a far cry from where the program began.
Lannie Lanier, who spends each Portal home game up in the press box as the Panthers’ P.A. announcer, has helped to coordinate Friday’s event and will step aside from his normal post to join his former teammates to be recognized.
“The years have gone by and we just thought it would be nice to get those first couple of teams back together,” Lanier said. “A lot of those guys have stayed around town and are familiar faces. But there are others who have moved on. It will be great to see some people that we haven’t been in touch with.”
In the spring of 1974, Donald Williams decided that putting together and coaching a football team would be good for the students and community of Portal.
Just as it is today, a small school enrollment made the task of fielding a football team a challenging one for the Panthers. Even more challenging was the fact that hardly any of the boys in school had any organized football experience outside of youth recreational leagues in Statesboro.
“It was a big learning process for all of us,” original Panther Eric Thompson said. “We were told that we could have a team if we found the players and the equipment.”
Much is made around Statesboro of Georgia Southern famously scrounging used gear from other schools. Portal did the same to help build its program, using donations from Southeast Bulloch and Statesboro High.
“They were about to throw out old equipment, but we needed it,” Thompson said. “Our principal at the time, Billy Bice, let me borrow his truck to drive to those other schools and bring us back what we needed to practice.”
Facilities were just as hard to come by.
The first Portal practices were held in a lot behind a factory and would only begin after the open space had been scoured for rocks and broken glass. Even when the Panthers were able to utilize the old Portal baseball field for practices, games had to be scheduled for Saturday afternoons at Womack Field after Statesboro had played on Friday night.
“At the beginning, we were just a bunch of kids starting from square one,” Lanier said. “It was mostly guys from the baseball and basketball teams. We had to learn basically everything, but coach Williams did a good job of teaching us and we were able to win a few games.”
Forty years down the line, the perseverance and effort put forth by those first two teams is still going strong at Portal.
The bright lights, grassy field and big bleachers have all brought the Panthers up to speed with other football programs around the area, but there are still hints of what grew the team from the ground up.
“We knew that if we wanted a team, we had to work hard at it,” Thompson said. “There were a lot of guys out there throwing a football around for the first time, but we had some big, strong guys that knew how to put in hard work.”
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.