Fifty years ago, a 13-and-under football team led by a local legend captivated the Golden Isles in a run to the Georgia Recreation and Park Society state championship. On Dec. 3, 2020, six former players and cheerleaders reunited at Howard Coffin Recreation Center to commemorate the accomplishment and reminisce on the unforgettable journey.

David Sweat was one of the first to arrive at the recreation center that day, armed with a binder full of evidence from a time before digital record keeping. A time when Davey Sweat was a 12-year-old right half in the power I formation for the Brunswick City Recreation Department Optimist All-Stars.

Kevin Drury filmed a tour of the reception area that housed the hardware he earned at quarterback half a decade ago; not that his wife was a stranger to the building — Donna Cheek Drury cheered on the All-Stars from the sidelines of every game, as did Jayne Stanford Lambright, who was also made her way back to the rec center that Thursday morning.

Rick Lawrence, once an 89-pound right guard, and left end/cornerback Jimmie Lee Bacon completed the homecoming crowd. A limited number of the championship roster of 26 was able to attend the reunion; some have moved too far from the area, others have moved on to their next life.

“First of all, we feel blessed and fortunate to still be here after 50 years,” Sweat said early in conversation.

Half a decade has passed since the team and cheerleaders were together as a whole. In fact, their last assembly may have been the impromptu pool party held at the Holiday Inn on a frigid afternoon in Calhoun following the state championship game.

It would be impossible to discern that from the flowing conversations.

“It’s fun seeing people in the community — not as often as we’d like — but in a situation that we go far back, we have so much history,” Donna Cheek Drury said, standing in the gym of the Howard Coffin Park’s recreation center. “The bus trips, the hotel and motel rooms, staying in the homes — we did that in Hialeah and Lakeland — and just awesome memories of this place right here too.”

While those involved with the Optimist All-Stars undoubtedly house a special recollection of simpler times at Howard Coffin Park, much of the city’s youth from the mid-60s through the early 90s likely has fond memories of the recreation center stemming from one common factor: the presence of department director James Edo “Sonny” Miller.

Miller made a name for himself as one of the top youth football coaches in the country, but his real legacy lives on through the men and women who came through his program, six of which took a moment of silence to honor their late mentor amidst the otherwise joyous occasion.

“It was good to see these guys, and reminisce, and remember all the great times we had,” Lawrence said. “It had a real impact on my life — the whole situation did…

“It was just an awesome experience. I miss Sonny Miller and all the other coaches.”

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Miller began his 38-year career at the Brunswick Recreation Department in 1954. By the time he took over as the director of the department 10 years later, Miller had established himself as a commanding presence that demanded attention when he entered a room.

Lawrence posited that even decades after his time with the Optimist All-Stars, he would have dropped and gave Miller 20 pushups if he asked.

What made Miller such an effective motivator was his fair and balanced hand. A consistent disciplinarian, Miller didn’t play favorites. He expected the same from every young boy and girl who came through the program, and he wanted the best for each of them.

“He was for the ones that didn’t have anything or the ones that had anything they needed,” Lambright said. “He was always there.”

What made Sonny Miller a larger than life figure in the area was his ability to get the most out of players, both on and off the field.

“He didn’t make you do these things; it was that you wanted to do right for him,” Lawrence said. “Now, when it came to grades and stuff like that, I remember you had to bring your report card to practice after you got report cards.

“If you had a C, you had to run so many laps. If you had a D, you had to run, really a lot. And you didn’t even think of bringing anything lower than that.”

Miller didn’t have to yell to get his point across. Simply knowing you’d disappointed Sonny was enough of a punishment most of the time.

But he demanded respect all the same.

“He hung me by my shirt on a hook back there,” Donna Cheek Drury said, gesturing towards a room beyond the gym before being interrupted by a chuckle. “When we were counting uniforms one day because I back talked him. But I only did it once.”

A father figure to the children at the rec center, Lambright postulated that Miller spent more time at the building than his home. And still, it’s likely not even Miller realized the depths of the impact he and fellow department employees made in the lives of others.

Kevin Drury shutters to consider how his life might have turned out without the guidance of Miller, Bill Campbell, Tony Spinelli, Phil Bach, and Harold Baxter. Following the passing of his father, a 10-year-old Kevin Drury went into a shell he says he did not emerge from until his late 20s, early 30s.

“I would sneak out, look, and go back in,” Kevin Drury said of the emotional cavern. “The only place that I really felt comfortable, confident was in athletics.”

Living within a 10-minute walk of the rec center at the time, Kevin Drury spent most of his days there, playing pool and shooting hoops.

The only time Kevin Drury really felt alive was while playing baseball or football — two sports he excelled in throughout his athletic career. Perhaps the only local athlete to play on five state championship teams, Kevin Drury also won a pair baseball state titles with the Brunswick Recreation Department, and he was the shortstop for the Glynn Academy baseball program’s lone state championship team in 1973, which he followed up with a title as a member of the Glynn County Recreation Department Senior League all-star team that summer.

Kevin Drury went on to be selected by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the 1974 MLB Draft and play six seasons of professional baseball up to Class Triple-A. He credits his accomplishments to the life lessons he learned at Howard Coffin Park.

“I think, among other things, the most cohesive things is that back then the men, and there were some ladies too, who worked here were committed to excellence, to discipline, and to work ethic,” Kevin Drury said. “They didn’t let you get away with anything, whether it was on the practice field, a game, or just hanging out… Without a dad, they provided a structure of stability and safety that a kid who was traumatized could come out here, grow up, and be safe. Where can you get that?”

Sweat, who went on to have a strong career as a receiver at Brunswick High, echoed his former quarterback’s sentiment, saying that they learned how to come together as one while playing for the Optimist All-Stars under Miller.

“The experience with the all-star team, under the coaching and guidance of Sonny Miller, it taught us how to win, and how each one of our roles on the team were important,” Sweat said. “We had certain players that we good blockers, we had some very good runners, Kevin (Drury) was a very good passer, and I was used as a pass receiver out of the backfield quite a bit.

“We all learned our role was important.”

While Miller certainly dispensed plenty of life lessons during his time at the Brunswick Recreation Department, he’s got plenty of athletic accolades on his Glynn County Sports Hall of Fame resume.

As one of the best youth programs in the country, the Optimist All-Stars made an annual trip to south Florida to compete against the Hialeah All-Stars prior to the Orange Bowl game in Miami.

“Sonny just knew a lot of football,’ said Murray Poole, formerly the Brunswick News sports editor for 40 years. “He was recreation director, and he did things his own way. He was a character, but he knew his football.”

Poole, who was also inducted into the GCS Hall of Fame alongside Kevin Drury in 2016, can recall one interaction representative of Miller when a former Glynn Academy coach approached the youth coach and inquired about turning the rec program into a feeder system for the high school.

“He said, ‘Would you put in our plays so the kids would be familiar as they climb on up the ladder,’ kind of get a feeder system going here,” Poole said. “Sonny told him, in no uncertain words, ‘Heck no.’ He says, ‘I’ve won more games than you. You run my plays.’”

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Though the Optimist All-Stars were a consistent powerhouse through much of Miller’s time at the Brunswick Recreation Department, the 1970 13u team was unquestionably his pièce de résistance, despite an inauspicious start to the season.

Savannah’s youth all-star team defeated the Optimist All-Stars in the opener, but it would be Brunswick’s lone loss on the campaign that saw them crowned Georgia Recreation and Park state champions.

Following the defeat, the Optimist All-Stars would rattle off 10 consecutive victories, winning games everywhere from Lakeland, Fla., to Lanier Field, and on up to Calhoun. Cheerleaders sold tickets to the game and various handmade goods to pay their own way and travel along with the team on every trip.

“I have to say thanks to the Elk’s Club because they stepped in a lot of times and gave us extra money to be able to go,” Lambright said.

In a sign of the times, members of the Optimist All-Stars football team and cheer squad would spend the night with host families when traveling to games, and vice versa for opponents who made the trip to the Port City.

“The thing about other teams coming to Brunswick and spending the night with us, staying in our homes, to do that, we had the support of our parents very much behind us and that program,” Sweat said. “Then when we’d go to those cities, it meant a lot to stay with their families. So after this experience playing football, a number of us stayed in touch.

“Some went to Glynn Academy, some went to Brunswick High School, and I think the experience we shared here, as you can see to this day, is a shared experience that means a lot to all of us.”

Even 50 years later, the details of that championship season are as vivid as ever in the minds of those that experienced it.

Each goal-line stand and game-winning score was recounted under the roof of the recreation center where the team was born.

“They always bring up that one where I caught that touchdown with five seconds left against Lakeland,” Bacon noted. “Come to find out, we were the only team that Sonny had to beat all the teams in Florida. We made a clean sweep of Florida.”

By the time the postseason rolled around, the Optimist All-Stars were firing on all cylinders. The state semifinal pitted Brunswick against Savannah, and the Optimist All-Stars avenged their only loss in a dominant 22-0 victory.

Bacon intercepted a pass to set up a Kevin Drury’s touchdown pass that gave Brunswick an 14-0 lead before Sweat found the end zone on the team’s two-point attempt. Kevin Drury scampered five yards on a quarterback keeper to score the game’s final points late in the third quarter.

Advancing to the Georgia Recreation and Park Society state championship game in Calhoun, Brunswick’s Optimist All-Stars fell behind the home team 6-0 before scoring 16 unanswered points on a couple of scoring runs by Kevin Drury.

On what turned out to be the game-winning drive, Sweat converted a big 4th-and-2 on a run behind Lawrence, and after Kevin Drury’s touchdown run, the quarterback threw the two-point attempt to Bacon, who made a diving catch to help put the game out of reach at 16-6 for a Calhoun team held to just three total first downs in the contest.

But it turns out the championship celebration was more memorable than the game.

“We played on a Saturday afternoon, and the temperature in Calhoun, Georgia 50 years ago was about 35 degrees, maybe 40 degrees tops,” Sweat said. “And right after the ballgame, we all went back to the Holiday Inn hotel, and everyone jumped into the swimming pool, including Sonny Miller, fully clothed.”

Bacon added: “When we won the championship in Calhoun, we all partied at the hotel. We’re jumping in the pool and all kinds of stuff, like we won the World Series or something. It was a good experience.”

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Youth teams aren’t celebrated quite the same way they used to be.

Families and community members drove more than 370 miles from Brunswick to Calhoun to take in the championship game. Some came from even further away.

“Even my grandparents lived in Michigan, and they came down for a couple of the games,” Lawrence said. “That’s how big of a deal it was. A lot of support. A lot of good memories. A lot of great guys.”

The newly crowned champions weren’t done yet though. The program’s reputation of excellence earned the Optimist All-Stars an invitation to Lakeland, Fla., to matchup against an undefeated all-star team from Sarasota as part of a five-game showcase.

Brunswick was ultimately edged 12-8 by Sarasota in the Lakeland Holiday Bowl, but taking the second-ranked team in the National Junior Football Federation down to the wire was an accomplishment in itself.

“That was one of the biggest moments in the history of this football program,” Bacon said. “Like I was telling Kevin, we only gave up two touchdowns once, and that was against Sarasota. Come to find out later, we were ranked in the nation and we didn’t even know it. Sarasota was No. 2, and there was a team I think in Pennsylvania.”

When Miller wasn’t preparing his program for another heavyweight battle or providing guidance at the recreation center, he spent some time moonlighting as a sports writer.

Results from each of the Optimist All-Star’s games ran in The News, the words coming directly from Miller, who worked to ensure the team got proper recognition in the paper.

“I saved room every time because I knew they were going down there to win,” Poole said.

Even to this day, Poole believes the Optimist All-Stars may have been the most successful team in the area, regardless the level of competition.

Members of the football team speculated about what made that particular group so special, citing the increased frequency of practices 50 years ago and the camaraderie the players had built through years of playing together through a multitude of different sports.

“Every generation of people and athletes will say this, but I believe with all my heart that the group of guys and girls that grew up in our age, and what we accomplished, is probably the greatest group of athletes to come through Glynn County,” Kevin Drury said. “I believe with all my heart, and one of the reasons why is because I played on five state championship teams in seven years, and should have won at least two more. That’s unique. Dave was on three of those teams.

“I don’t know if anybody else in any generation before or after us can say, ‘We won two, three, four, five state championships in a short amount of time playing recreation ball.’ In that regard, it’s very unique. It was a special time.”

The Optimist All-Stars were great. They’re champions. But their lasting legacy might just be the fellowship their greatness brought to the Golden Isles.

“The way they played every year, I think the community was proud of them, and the success they had too,” Poole said. “There’s no question about it. It was unifying.”

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