LORAN SMITH ON THERON SAPP

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Cold day in ‘57 a warm Georgia memory

By Loran Smith

Through the years, when Georgia has ended its season against Georgia Tech there have been some bad weather afternoons, and few have been colder than in 1957 at Grant Field, although it is unlikely there will ever be a day in this ancient rivalry which will ever bring more warmth to the hearts of Bulldogs.

This was not a game in which the nation took much interest. After all, Georgia was destined to finish with a losing record and Tech ended up 4-4-2.

But the Georgia players treated it with emphasis normally reserved for major bowl games. It had been eight years since the Bulldogs had defeated the Yellow Jackets, and it was time to bring back balance to the heated in-state skirmish.

The record book doesn’t reflect the importance of Theron Sapp’s blast through the Tech defense in the third quarter for the only touchdown of the afternoon. One-yard runs are not listed in the records, but there have been few Georgia scores that outrank Sapp’s plunge in importance.

When the game ended, the crew-cut Sapp walked off the field with people reaching out to touch him. Grown men, with tears in their eyes, grabbed for his hand. Women kissed him. His own teammates mobbed him.

When he finally reached the privacy of his dressing room, he took off his red jersey . . . Georgia Tech always wore white at home under Coach Bobby Dodd . . . folded it neatly and set it aside. He never washed it, leaving it just as it was when he scored that memorable touchdown.

He kept the jersey, No 40, in a prominent place throughout his eight-year professional career with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When he settled down in Augusta after his NFL days, becoming a full time restauranteur, he put his jersey in a safe place, but later let his son Theron Jr. wear it on occasion before offering it to Georgia for permanent display in the Butts Mehre Building.

In the spring of 1959, following his senior season with the Bulldogs who had then defeated Tech twice in a row, there was an outpouring of emotion from the Georgia people to retire his jersey.

Check the record book today, and you won’t find Theron Sapps’ name in it. He made all-conference but never All America. There have been countless backs to pass through Athens before his time and afterwards whose statistics far outstrip that of the Macon native, but few backs have been appreciated more affectionately than Sapp, including Frankie Sinkwick, Charley trippi, Fran Tarkenton and Herschel Walker.

It was Sapp who took the Bulldog faithful out of bondage. It was he who nade the chapel bell ring all night on November 30, 1957.

Last week as we sat at his new restaurant on the Atlanta highway-T.J. Outriggers-he reminisced about his unforgettable moment. “We wanted to beat Tech bad,” he said, not meaning to run up a score but badly to win the game. “But I didn’t realize the magnitude of the importance of winning to the Georgia people. When they thanked me, it was obvious it was coming from the bottom of their hearts. I haven’t been to the Butts Mehre Building to see the jersey but once, but when I did, I had two thoughts. How warmly the Georgia people reacted to us winning and how hard my teammates worked. I got more attention than I deserved out of it, and when somebody brings up the score, I privately think of the Georgia players. We believed we could beat Tech. We expected to change things, and we did.

Sapp’s plunge still tugs at the hearts of the ole timers. His touchdown will always command an important place in Georgia history, but he should also be remembered for at least one other attribute.

In the spring of his senior year while lying in a Macon hospital, recovering from a broken neck, suffered from a swimming accident, the late Wallace Butts walked in his room and told him not to worry. His scholarship would be honored. “After that, I was determined to recover and make a contribution to the Georgia Bulldogs,” Sapp says.

For my money, nobody who has ever worn the red and black, has ever made a greater commitment to the Bulldog cause. Theron Sapp loved to plat football. He loved Wallace Butts, and he loved being a Bulldog.

It is only fitting that fate smiled his way on a cold and windy Grant Field on November 30, 1957.

 

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