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NFL legends present ASHS with golden footballs

By MICHAEL MURRAY

AMERICUS – Americus-Sumter High School (ASHS) had three very special visitors on the morning of Feb. 17. As a part of the National Football League’s (NFL) High School Honor Roll initiative that recognizes schools and communities that have contributed to Super Bowl history, former football players, Dan Reeves, Kent Hill, and Leonard Pope visited their alma mater (ASHS) to present the school with golden footballs to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Super Bowl.
After an introduction from ASHS principal, Kimothy Hadley, and a speech from current ASHS head football coach, Erik Soliday, the former NFL athletes addressed the ASHS student body, discussing their time at Americus High School and the impact that the school’s administrators and coaching staff has had on their lives.
Before Pope presented the first ball to the school, he discussed his time in high school, saying, “I remember when I was sitting in those same bleachers when Kent [Hill] came over and passed his ring around… and [talked about] the stuff that he had to go through to earn that ring…” Pope discussed some of the adversities that he faced on his way to becoming a a professional football player and participating in Super Bowl XLIII with the Arizona Cardinals. Pope encouraged ASHS’ current students to work hard to achieve their goals, citing some of his own experiences. “Keep going. Keep doing your best, and keep your head down,” he advised the students.
Hill then presented his award to the school, opening his speech by congratulating the 2015-16 Lady Panthers on their exciting season. Hill also congratulated Pope on his recent completion of his degree program at the University of Georgia. “I mention that because, one of the great things… that we talk about all the time in football is ‘finishing’. You can do half of a block or make half of a tackle, but it doesn’t really count if you don’t finish it,” he said to the students. “The thing I say all the time about accomplishing things… [is that] anything that you want to accomplish, the biggest key is believing that you can and being willing to prepare…”
Hill went on to say that, when he graduated in 1975, he was nowhere near the best athlete on the football team. “One of the things that kept me… [ahead] was the fact that I was a good student,” he continued. “It was about preparation in the classroom… Just understand that the way that you conduct yourself… the education that you’re getting and the way you apply yourself, these things matter right now” he advised the students.
Reeves then addressed the students before presenting the third golden ball. “This is where it all started,” Reeves began, referring to his time at Americus High School prior to embarking on one of the most prolific NFL careers of all time. “The first time that I ever put on football pads was right here at Americus High School,” he said. Reeves went on to praise former summer league coach, Jack Finklea, as well as former Panther coaches, Jimmy Hightower, Melvin Kinslow, and Jack Matkowski, among others. “I just have to thank those guys because they taught me an awful lot about life and about football. It was great to be a part of Americus High School. We won championships in basketball and baseball my senior year… We had a great athletic program. I thank god every day for the teachers that I had here who told me, ‘Dan, you can be the greatest athlete to ever come out of the state of Georgia, but if you don’t have the right grades, you’re not going to be able to get into the college of your choice.’”
“The thing that I want to stress to you… is your education,” he concluded. “A sporting career… can be gone in a New York second, but your education will stay with you throughout your life.”
Reeves went on to thank the NFL for the opportunity to present the award to his alma mater. “I think this is awesome,” he said. They came up with the idea of presenting these gold footballs to the schools. That’s where it starts. Also, with this, [the school] can apply for a $5,000 grant to help with the football program… It’s a thrill for me to present this…”
The three Super Bowl participants spoke with the Times-Recorder after the ceremony.
Asked how it feels to return to his alma mater and his former coach (Soliday), Pope said, “It feels great. This is where it all began. I had a seven-year career [in the NFL]. It all started right here. The one thing that Coach Soliday always told me was to overcome adversity. I did that on the field and in the classroom here at Americus High and at UGA. I had to translate that through life because adversity happens all the time… The older I got, I started to realize that adversity is in every aspect of everyday living. I’m honored and I thank the coaches and the principal. I’m just very grateful to be here.”
Asked how it feels to be back on his old campus, Hill told the Times-Recorder, “It’s a fantastic feeling. I’m really very honored to be here. My goal is to encourage somebody else and let them know that they have an opportunity to cause what they want to cause in their life…”
Asked if his experiences on the 1974 Panther state champions football team with head coach, Alton Shell, had a profound effect on his later career in football, Hill stated, “Undoubtedly… I often reflect on that now in some of the work I do… Coach Shelton and the rest of the staff did an outstanding job in making us believe… that we could succeed and that we belonged. They also sold us on the benefit of hard work. We believed that we that nobody worked as hard as we worked… In fact, when I went to Georgia Tech, I went there with that attitude, thinking, ‘I deserve to be here. I worked hard to get here, preparing for this. Nobody out here has worked harder than me, so I’m just in the right place to do it.’ When you develop that, it’s one of those things that follows you along the way. All during my career as an offensive lineman, at least in my group, I was one of the better conditioned players. That whole work ethic and the belief that we can be what we want, it started right here with our coaching staff. I say Coach Shell is a master at it.”
Asked about the influence that the Americus High School coaching staff had on his career, Reeves told the Times-Recorder, “Coach Finklea, with the program that he had here kind of got me interested in coaching for the fist time. Coach Hightower, Coach Kinslow, Coach Samblin, and Coach Matkowski, the coaches that I had, they taught me an awful lot as well as every single teacher that I had. I owe it all to them.”
“Coach Hightower meant so much to me,” he continued. “He taught me everything I know about the quarterback position and he let me call plays when I was a senior. He got me involved a little bit more in a leadership role… He was a great basketball coach. We won the state championship with him. He was just a good friend…”
“The summer program that we had here with Coach Jack Finklea is where it really started,” Reeves added. “As you got older in high school, you ended up being the coach, so you got more involved in it. Coach Finklea was really great from that standpoint. When I got into High School… it turned over to Coach Hightower, Coach Kinslow, Coach Samblin, and Coach Matkowski. Those coaches taught me so much about life, not just football and baseball and basketball, but about life and how you had to be dedicated and make good grades. All the teachers that I had at Americus High School… It was just a fantastic place to grow up. I thank God every day for being a part of this community.”
Pope helped lead the Americus High Panthers to a pair of state championships during the 2000 and 2001 seasons before joining the University of Georgia Bulldogs on the gridiron after graduation. In 2009, Pope helped lead the Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII.
Hill was a member of the Panthers’ 1974 state championship-winning football team in Americus. Hill then attended Georgia Tech and was selected in the first round of the 1979 draft by the Los Angeles Rams. As a rookie with the Rams, Hill participated in Super Bowl XIV in 1980.
Reeves graduated from Americus High School in 1961 and went on to play football and basketball at the University of South Carolina. Reeves participated in Super Bowls V and VI as a player with the Dallas Cowboys. He served as assistant coach of the Cowboys in Super Bowls X, XII, and XIII and as head coach of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV. As head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Reeves led the team to Super Bowl XXXIII.