Athletic ability wasn’t the only consideration for playing time the first year a Camden County high school football team won a state championship.
There weren’t enough hand-me-down uniforms to dress every player on the all-black Ralph Bunche High School team during its 1960 state championship run.
And those who started for the Hornets got plenty of playing time. Most players stayed on the field the entire game, playing both offense and defense.
Lemon Dawson, a wide receiver/right tackle, said it was even a challenge convincing the superintendent of Camden County schools to authorize a bus to take players to an away game. And when one was approved, it was often one of the smaller buses that prevented the entire team from making the trip.
“It came down to the superintendent,” Dawson said. “If she had a good day, we got one.”
While it never happened during the state title year, there were times when parents had to drive players to away games.
Home games were played on the same field in Woodbine where the all-white Camden County Hurricanes played. The difference was white spectators were the ones who stood outside the fence surrounding the field when the Hornets played.
Away games provided more challenges than just getting a bus. Motels were segregated at the time, so players had to stay with athletes on the opposing team if the game was too far to return that night. There were plenty of away games where the team would return to Woodbine at 4 a.m. or later, players said.
They were not allowed to stop for meals in restaurants, so they brought bagged lunches. Players were banned from restrooms at businesses, so the bus had to pull to the side of the road.
“We were used to all that stuff. We grew up in Georgia in the old days,” said McArthur Hill, a fullback on the team.
Mac Sullivan, quarterback/punter, said coach Clifford Paul was a disciplinarian who had high expectations for his players on and off the field. He taught the shotgun formation and the spread offense years before college teams adopted them.
“He gave us the ability to think like football players,” Sullivan said. “Every football game, I knew we were going to win.”
Despite his confidence, the team was runner-up for the state title in 1958 and 1959, before winning it the following year with a 10-1-1 record. Perhaps the biggest challenge that year was surviving the rigors of playing three playoff games in one week to win the state title.
In what would have been a clear violation of high school athletic rules nowadays, the Hornets played three playoff games in one week, including one on a Tuesday. They avenged the team’s lone loss of the season to a Douglas County team in the first round of the playoffs 14-0. The state championship game was played a week later in Woodbine, where a Henry County team got blown out 45-2.
More than 3,000 black and white fans filled the grandstands for that game, celebrating the victory afterward together.
Ken Smith, a right tackle on the team, credited stern teachers and coaches for the team’s success. He said he stuttered when he spoke in high school until a teacher selected him to read in public.
“She took me in the room one day and said, “you will read this with proper pronunciation,’” he said.
Smith, who has served as Kingsland mayor since 2002, said the teacher helped him overcome his struggle to speak in public.
Ralph Bunche and Camden County high schools merged in 1970, in what former players said was a very smooth transition.
Robert Cummings, a backup quarterback on the championship team, credited Gilman Paper Co., the county’s largest employer at the time, with helping with a transition. The paper company, which employed as many as 1,200 employees at its peak, hired a racially diverse group of employees.
“The children were able to work together. They were already together,” he said.
The players always wanted a chance to play the all-white Camden team before integration, but players said the two teams only faced each other one time for one scrimmage, and the Hornets were the superior team.
After integration in 1970, the new high school was nicknamed the Wildcats. In the decade of the 2000s, the team won three state football titles.
Former Ralph Bunche players believe Camden County’s first state title in football has been forgotten by most people because of the recent success of the Wildcats.
That will end when a traveling Smithsonian display, Hometown Teams, comes to the Kingsland library Oct. 1 through Nov. 12.
The team will have memorabilia on display as part of the exhibit.
And players on the team have been named grand marshals of the Kingsland Catfish Festival parade that begins 8 p.m. Saturday.
Dawson said memories of the team remain vivid and players on that championship team still maintain close contact.
“Anytime you bleed together, work together, train together, you keep that bond,” he said. “You can never forget that.”