From the archives: Taking a journey through AHS’s historic 1965 season
By MICHAEL MURRAY
Editor’s Note: Here at the Americus Times-Recorder, we’re very proud of our area’s rich history of sporting excellence. One of the area’s most celebrated historical periods of athletic prowess was the Americus High School Panthers’ 1965 season, in which the team went undefeated, rolling over opponent after opponent on their way to a sweep of the state championship series.
While delving through our back issues and expansive archives, we have uncovered a wealth of photographs and articles written by former Times-Recorder sports editor, the late Clarence Graddick, during that era.
In our last installment of the series, we read all about the Panthers’ hard-fought victory over the Thomson Bulldogs, which culminated in the team leaving the field as the South Georgia champions.
With yet another win under their belts, the Panthers began their preparations for the upcoming state championship, to be played against the Commerce Tigers.
As the team prepared to take on the North Georgia champions, Graddick published a series of Times-Recorder articles detailing the team’s condition. According to Graddick’s writings, several of the Panthers’ key team members were plagued with injuries in the week leading up to the game. Danny McGowan had twisted his knee during the region championship and would join Pete Smith on the sidelines during practice, as Smith was suffering with a sprained ankle. Ronnie Adkins and Phil Saunders were also banged up during the South Georgia Championship, both suffering knee injuries. In the days leading up to the match, it was also unclear whether or not Harold Horne would be able to participate, as he was troubled with a shoulder injury.
Fortunately for the Panthers, each of these players, with the exception of McGowan, would be cleared to play by game time.
Graddick went on to discuss the Commerce crew’s potential to bring serious competition to the match, saying, “During the season, the Tigers gave up only five touchdowns to opponents in running up a record of 10 wins and no defeats. In the two playoff games, only six points have been scored on the team’s defense.”
He said that Commerce would be bringing 17 senior players to the match, including talented quarterback, Johnny Nix, and Commerce’s leading ground-gainer, Steve Gary. Gary, Graddick said, had racked up 843 rushing yards up to that point in the season and, would surely be looking to add more in the championship game.
All signs pointed to the upcoming game being quite a test for the Panthers.
When the big day arrived, the Panthers loaded up their gear and headed up to Commerce, determined to return home victorious.
The December 6, 1965 edition of the Times-Recorder’ sports page included an article on three of the Panthers’ team members, Gary Reeves, David Reeves, and Ronnie Adkins, who had just been named “Players of the Year” in their respective positions by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The main focus of the sports page, however, was the previous Saturday’s action-packed game in Commerce. Graddick described the game in vivid detail in an article titled, “Panthers Win Class A Football Crown”. A portion of this article is shared below
PANTHERS WIN CLASS A FOOTBALL CROWN: Defense Stops A Good Tiger Offense
By CLARENCE GRADDICK
SPORTS EDITOR, TIMES-RECORDER
COMMERCE, Ga., – The Americus high Panthers pushed across a touchdown in the first and third quarters and used a tight defense to come up with a 14-0 victory over the Commerce Tigers and wrap up the 1965 Championship of Class A football in the state.
Americus was stymied twice by the Commerce defense before beginning to roll from the Tiger 45 for its first touchdown. Buck Shiver, fullback, picked up the first first down of the drive with a 12-yard bull-like rush to the Tiger 31 and on the ninth play of the drive, blasted his way over the goal from the three-yard line. David Reeves split the uprights with the point-after kick to make it 7-0 for Americus with only 39 seconds left in the first period.
LOST NO TIME
The Panther offense lost no time putting up another score in the third period after the defense had held the Tigers following the second-half kickoff. The drive started on the Commerce 42 after Steve Gary was the victim of a bad bounce on a short punt that was downed only 10 yards up field.
Shiver, David Reeves, and Bill Chambliss all had a hand in the ground-gaining in this drive with Chambliss having the longest chunk with a 13-yard jaunt around the right end. Chambliss took a three-yard screen pass from Reeves for the touchdown. Reeves’ kick made it 14-0 and the more than 1,100 Americus fans who followed the team breathed a little easier.
Commerce made the only two threats during the game both coming late in the two halves. The Tigers moved to the Americus 22 with two big plays in a drive that began with less than two minutes left in the first half. [Commerce’s quarterback], Johnny Nix broke out of a passing pocket to pick up the first first down of the period and only the second of the game for the Tigers with a 20-yard run. He connected with Gary on a pass for 28 yards and another first down and connected with Max Carnes on a four-yarder.
Harold Horne put a stop to this hot streak on the next play as he picked Nix’s pass out of the air on the Americus 17 and picked up good blocking for a 51-yard return to the Commerce 27. Three pays later, Reeves hit Chambliss with a 10-yard pass as the half came to a close.
PUNTS HOLD THEM
A pair of tremendous punts by Reeves were responsible for keeping Commerce out of scoring range for the rest of the game. The first came late in the third quarter and traveled 60 yards and came to a rest on the Commerce six-yard line. Substitute fullback, Ray Perry, got off the longest running play of the night for the Tigers as he went straight up the middle for 22 yards on a draw play. The Panther defense stiffened here and forced Gary to punt.
Americus was unable to move the ball and, again, Reeves lifted the ball deep into Tiger territory with a 52-yard boot that died on the Commerce 14. Here, Commerce began its longest drive of the night and used up most of the time in the final period.
Graddick went on to write that Commerce’s running game accounted for a pair of first downs before their progress was stalled by the efforts of Mike Fennessy, Randy Robinson, Bo Sullivan, and Pete Smith, who were instrumental in holding back the onslaught. Despite this, Commerce still managed to push their way to the Panthers’ 15.
With the Tigers in the Panthers’ red zone, Ronnie Adkins returned from the sidelines, where he had been walking off a slight leg injury, to land a key sack that kept the Tigers from getting any closer to the goal. Further in the article, Gaddick wrote, “Adkins was a big factor, as he has been all year, in the powerful Americus defense allowing the vaulted Commerce backs only 24 yards in the better part of two quarters he was in the game in the beginning. Phil Saunders also played his excellent type ball before he too was weakened by his old knee injury.”
Graddick continued to sing the Panther defenders’ praises, writing that Smith, despite a sprained ankle, was all over the field, slowing the Tigers from the position of defensive tackle. He said that Jack Szares showcased his talents in the match as well, filling in for Danny McGowan as he alternated with Mike Fennessy in the middle guard position.
“These were not the only players that did outstanding jobs on defense for the Panthers as the entire line came through with flying colors,” Graddick concluded on the teams’ defensive performance. “Not only was the line working overtime to hold down the gains, but the ends and outside linebackers and halfbacks throttled any threat that managed to slip by.”
Graddick wrote that, from an offensive standpoint, the match was likely Buck Shiver’s best of the season as he accounted for over one third of the Panthers’ total yardage in 11 carries. Bill Chambliss’’ performance shone as well, according to Graddick, who wrote that he left the crowd stunned several times throughout the game by going for long yardage and leaving a trail of Tiger defenders in his wake.
Throughout this game, the Panthers’ powerful defensive line held the Tigers to only 81 rushing yards and still, for the first time in the ‘65 season, the Panthers gave up more ground than they gained. Commerce won the air battle, holding the Panthers to only 31 yards on a trio of David Reeves completions, while Nix connected on six throws for 89 yards. Commerce earned nine first downs in the match, as they plowed their way forward for 170 total yards. The Panthers followed close behind, earning eight first downs on 157 total yards gained.
After the Americus crowd counted the final seconds off the clock and the game concluded, the Panthers had cemented their place in history as the toughest football squad in Georgia that year. When the dust settled, the Panthers made their way back to Americus as hometown heroes and the undisputed state champions.
Pete Smith recently spoke with the Times-Recorder and, when asked about the team’s reaction to their final win of the season, he said, “After the Commerce game, we were exuberant about the fact that we’d won state. It had been a while since Americus had won the state championship in Class A. I’ll never forget all the different trophies and things that were presented and how proud we were of all of them.”
“It was like a ticker tape parade when we came back to Americus,” he continued. “There were people standing all over the streets and the roads, holding up signs. It just really made us feel good, you know. That we had accomplished what nobody thought we could accomplish that year.”
All of the other former Panthers interviewed echoed this sentiment as well, telling the Times-Recorder that the fans’ response when the team triumphantly returned was overwhelmingly positive.
“It was crazy [when we returned],” Len Hicks recently told the Times-Recorder. “Everywhere we went… it was like we were all stars… It really was something… We came back and got these little trophy footballs… Of course, the Bamboo Room (where the team would meet on the morning after a game to celebrate their wins and talk with the media) the next morning was absolutely a festival… When we walked down the hall [at school], everyone would clap and cheer and pat us on the back. It was all the accolades that you could ever think of…”
“The thing I remember most about the Commerce game is that it was really cold,” Hicks continued when asked about the game. “It was very, very cold… We had some injuries going into the game which didn’t end up affecting us, but we thought [that they might].”
“I was a lineman, so I don’t have the memory of catching the football or passing the football or running across the goal line,” Hicks added. “I was on the front lines.”
Hicks said that he had recently spoken with Mike Fennessy, who reminded him that the Panthers’ offensive players would always thank the linemen for their roles in the team’s series of successes. “When somebody scored, it was an effort by all,” he said.
“The support that went with us, I mean, [people like the team’s managers], Mike Saliba and Greg Maxwell and John Shipp… was incredible. Nobody was above anybody else. It was a true team that came through… If you had an issue, you could either go to your teammate or you’d go to your coaches. They were there for you… When I look back and think of all of the people and all of the different sports and all of the records and awards and the championships that were won [that year], there wasn’t any one person [who can take credit]… It was a true team effort… It was a community.”
“We had people that had more talent in one finger than most people have [in their whole body] and then, we had players who weren’t as naturally talented as others, but had more heart than anybody,” Hicks concluded.
Throughout this impressive season, the Panthers had amassed an impressive 313 points and given up only 27. The team was, certainly, among the toughest to grace the South Georgia gridiron, past or present, and the memories created by the players, coaches, and fans during this season are bound to stay with them forever.
This concludes our journey through the Americus High School Panthers’ epic 1965 season. Be sure to stay with us as we will continue highlighting more exciting periods in local sporting history soon.