Americus produces titles, big-time names

AMERICUS — The road just before the hill, the one that leads up the hill, was once one of the busiest in Georgia. Drivers would come through, with their business, their money and their minds, and they would go right up that hill, past the sign that read "Americus, established 1832" and head right into town.

Then, years ago, the interstate was built too far away, and the businesses took another road. And now Americus, which once was the eighth-largest city in Georgia, ranks 42nd. Up that hill, a few downtown blocks stand frozen in Victorian time, while the rest of the town moves slowly, too.

But that's not the whole story. Because while economic booms may have passed Americus by, football greatness has not. The town, one of only 17,000 people, boasts a list of native sons who would make most cities proud: Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves, Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, New England Patriots safety Victor Green, a one-time NFL leading tackler; Washington Redskins backup defensive end Otis Leverette, and current Florida State star Alonzo Jackson.

"I think No. 1, it shows coming from a small town does not mean small dreams," Green said.

The list also includes a former NFL first-round draft choice, Kent Hill; a multitude of players who went on to play at Georgia, Georgia Tech and other national powers. And with seven state championships to Americus High School's credit, the town boasts a tradition and year-to-year expectations out of proportion to the town's size.

"Just like everything, there's a common bond that puts us in a select fraternity in that we played at Americus High School," Gailey said. "When you shake each other's hand, you have that special bond that other people don't really have. The uniform has changed, the school has changed, but the team keeps winning."

It's an era which might be nearing an end, at least in name. Americus High School is set to be consolidated with Sumter County High School into one school for the 2003-04 year, barring some hang-ups. And according to principal Juanita Wilson — whose son, John, played football for Americus before going on to Tulane )— possible new names for the school do not include Americus. (Sumter, Sumter County, Jimmy Carter and Robinson & Robinson are among those under consideration).

Today, Americus begins its run at a third straight state title. The team is once again loaded with college prospects; Gailey is trying to rebuild Georgia Tech and said he'd love to get some of the Panthers on board.

This is a town that loves its football — and sports in general. It's been that way as long as anybody remembers.

"Everything was packed, no matter how it was, the weather, whatever," Reeves said. "I can remember even summer baseball games everyone being there. People are just really into athletics."

eeves grew up on a farm in Andersonville, about 10 miles from town, but everything was in Americus, so he played recreation sports there. Like many from that era, he credits a man named Jack Finkley, who was in charge of the summer sports program. That program continues today. "They had a lot of people who took a lot of great pride in having a great sports program," Reeves said. "It's just a great town. In my opinion, if you had an ideal situation where you wanted to work and live, Americus would be it."

That's an opinion shared by most people who live in Americus. It has to, since the town lacks major industry and doesn't get many new residents.

"I don't think the whole city's grown that much," said Alton Shell, who coached the football team in the 1970s. "From year to year, I think it pretty much stays the same. It's a nice town, and everybody likes to live here. But not a lot of folks move in."

One of the few who has moved in is Erik Soliday, a native of West Virginia. But it was football that brought him here, taking over the program four years ago.

"There's not an over-abundance of industry here," Soliday said. "It's not on an interstate. There's not a great pipeline to Atlanta. Business aren't beating down their door to come here. Our facilities aren't any better than anybody else's. We've got a pretty nice stadium. But everything's starting to get some age on it. The school is starting to get some age on it."

Gailey said he could remember when going to Red Lobster on Slappey Boulevard in Albany was the big night out. Green also remembers going to Albany to have fun, but not all the time — which is why Americus may have an advantage.

"Albany just has so many things to do to get into trouble with," Green said. "I'm not saying that's the reason, Americus not having as many other things. But in Americus people spend their time practicing basketball or playing football instead of hanging out in the malls or, you know, doing other activities."

Americus is not without its detractors, however. One Albany area coach said Americus benefits from being on a seven-period-a-day system, in which a player only needs to stay eligible for five classes and be on track to graduate in order to stay eligible. Dougherty County has six periods, and players must pass five of them.

"We don't lose too many players to eligibility," Solliday concedes.

And Leverette is critical of the school system. He said he made an 840 on his SAT five years ago, but his grades weren't high enough and his college prep courses at Americus were insufficient to qualify. After attending junior college, Leverette ended up at Alabama-Birmingham, where he got a dual degree in sociology and African studies.

"I really feel that the school system, a couple of people there, the system there failed me, and has failed others," Leverette said. "I imagine that if you pull the track record back a few years and saw the guys who got the scholarship opportunities, got the college offers, but didn't have the classes to qualify.

"In certain cases, I didn't take school as serious as I could have," he added. "But I did get some bad counseling. When I got to junior college, they looked at my transcript and said, 'You might as well have not taken these classes.' The lady at the registration office almost laughed."

But Fabian Walker, who set state passing records around the time Leverette was also at Americus, disagreed with that assessment.

"The help is there," said Walker, who is now the third-string quarterback at Florida State. "You just have to find it."

Walker's former and current teammate, Jackson, said some of the best players he saw at Americus never actually played. He remembers a running back in middle school who was the best he'd seen but who dropped out before his freshman year.

"Most of the time, the best athletes, the best ballers, never make it out of there," Jackson said. "That's because of grades; that's because of poverty, people just doing other things that aren't beneficial to them. I know so many."

But Jackson is lavish in his praise for Americus' coaches. Dan Ragle was his coach before leaving for Ware County.

"I believe my coaching staff at Americus High; I had the best coaching staff in my career. And right now I'm at Florida State," Jackson said. "I knew more than almost anyone else when I came here. I knew more about techniques, leverage angles, just parts of the game."

Jimmy Hightower was the coach at Americus when both Reeves and Gailey were there. He and his successor, Shell, also coached the likes of Michael Harris and Malcolm King, who went on to Georgia Tech. And they both still live in Americus.

"It's an excellent small town," Hightower said. "The people here have an excellent attitude about athletics. They're taught the right things about athletics. They learn how to compete, they learn how to win."

Shell is uncertain of the school's future. But not the town.

"This could be the last year of Americus High if they consolidate with Sumter County," he said. "Something's fixing to change. It's just a town that's always had good football players. I think it's going to keep coming, because the feeder system is so good."

Through the years, the Americus greats who hit it big have at different times been scattered across the country. Reeves coached in Denver and New York, Gailey coached the Dallas Cowboys, Kent Hill played for the Los Angeles Rams, Green and Leverette are in New England and Washington.

Slowly they've come back, at least to Georgia. And they all still have family in the area. Their hearts are also still there.

"Your life takes another direction. It ends up taking you different places you didn't expect, and you settle down somewhere," Reeves said. "But if I got the opportunity, if something came up to go back to Americus, I'd do it in a second."

This story originally appeared in The Albany Herald on November 22, 2002.

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