Once upon a time—and this no fairy tale—the South was so heavily engaged in football that in nearly every city of size there was a heavy duty club devoted to football. Some were named “Touchdown Clubs” and others were “Quarterback Clubs”, but in the end they were all pledged to football—high school and college. (Once in England I happened onto one in London, a bunch of transplanted Americans who gathered each Monday noon, watched a film of the Sunday Falcon game and pledged allegiance to football. That’s right, the Falcons, through thick and thin.)
Nearly every Monday I was booked by one club or another, sometimes two days in a row. Those clubs were football crazy. They invested heavily in speakers, and in awards to the local high school stars of the week. Banquet rooms were filled and rocking with enthusiasm. Then television intruded, as did the NFL. So did racial implications, and players and family. Often honored players were sons of domestics and honest laborers who traveled in circles segregated from club membership, and in many cities, the fan clubs dwindled away. I saw it up close, and it was painful, mainly in smaller towns, but it happened
But while many gave in to social pressures, not Atlanta. The “Touchdown Club”, which was organized in 1938, moved on and above the fray. It lives and it bustles. It was once the most prominent football fan club in the South, and probably still is. (“Fan” is probably not the proper designation. These members are more than fans; they are loyalists, first to their alma mater, then to the game itself.)
The “Touchdown Club” convenes each Monday at Atlantic Station, and it bustles. Over the years the heart-beat of the “Touchdown Club” has usually been one person full of drive and vigor, and in this case his name is Lee Baker. Usually, a college coach is the weekly speaker and in this case, Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech. Only high school players and their coaches are honored. No college players. There are reasons, but I’m not sure what they are.
This past Monday, Blake Sims and Tailer Jones, quarterback and wide receiver from Gainesville, and Grant Ramsey, lineman from Pope High School, were the honorees, and coaches Bruce Miller from Gainesville and Matt Kemper from Pope. Sims will be going to Notre Dame, a student who is at home before audience. When asked if the precarious state of Charlie Weis as head coach might sidetrack his future at South Bend, he said, “I chose Notre Dame for the school and its academics, not the coach.”
Ramsey will be going to Vanderbilt, another player with academics high on his future list. It was more than coincidental that Johnson had attracted a vigorous turnout of old Tech players, dating back to the ‘Yellow Jackets’ national championship team of 1952. Johnson joined in cheering them, but he is a man who lives for the day, not yesterday. A rare cut of a coach in his conduct of a game, somewhat like Bobby Dodd, except that he calls each play spontaneously. Dodd only designated a play now and then, leaning on his lead assistants, Frank Broyles and Ray Graves.
So have times changed on the sideline, but not at the Touchdown Club. The game moves on but the Touchdown Club continues its football mission, as does Paul Johnson, whose coaching theme is: “If we play our game, we’ll be OK.”