They were the first Camden football champs

The 1960 football team at Ralph J. Bunche High School didn’t have the fancy uniforms, high-tech weight room and stadium-style field of today’s Camden County Wildcats, but that didn’t matter to the Hornets. 

With barely enough second-hand uniforms to outfit the team, they danced off with the Class A state football championship that year — in spite of their lack of resources. 

They were rich in discipline. And they understood from an early age the importance of supporting their teammates. 

Those 30 men, those who are remaining, are still doing that today. A handful of them gathered Tuesday morning at the Kingsland Historic Depot to share memories and reflect on what that time meant to them and to the community. 

Camden’s first state championship team is one of many that will be highlighted next month during the traveling Smithsonian exhibit that will stop in Kingsland on a tour throughout the state. The free exhibit will be on display at the Camden County Library from Oct. 1-Nov. 12, said Paula Chamberlin, local coordinator. 

Chamberlin said the 1960 Hornets embody the spirit of hometown teams and how they serve to inspire and lift up their communities. 

“This display is amazing … it is about not just football but every kind of sport, old and new,” she said. 

Indeed, said the Hornets players, the entire community celebrated the win by the county’s black high school. Even when the black and white schools were integrated in 1970, there was more unity than discord. Many of the players attributed that to the tone set by a well-respected principal, Peter Baker.

“I think Camden County had one of the smoothest transitions to the integrated school system,” said Mayor Kenneth Smith, a player from the 1960 championship team. “The children are the most forgiving. The problem you usually run into is with the adults … children can teach us more than we can legislate.”

But perhaps the racial harmony was not so surprising because in many ways, Camden was already a blended community at that point, said the players. 

The county’s young football players had already been working together in teams at the recreation league level and many of their parents had already worked together for years at Gilman Paper Company, said player Robert Cummings. There, the racial lines were already blurred as hard-working people focused on the job at hand.   

But until the schools were integrated, the students at Ralph J. Bunche only got hand-me-downs, the players said. When students at the white school got new books, the students at the black school got to use their old ones. 

“Back in those days, Georgia was Georgia. We got the leftovers,” said player McArthur Hill, a former Woodbine City Council member.

The same went for their football uniforms. Sometimes players did not travel to away games because there were not enough uniforms to dress out everyone for the game.     

Yet the players said they understood, even in their youth, that if a better player was on the roster ahead of you, then you stayed at home or sat on the bench. They were taught that you could not be selfish when thinking of what was best for the team. 

“We looked out for each other,” Sullivan said. 

That inherent sportsmanship often extended to opposing players they met from years of playing them away and at home. In fact, the Henry County players they defeated to win the state championship stayed at the homes of Hornets’ players the night before the big game in Woodbine. 

“Once we won, we went and had lunch with the (other) team. We sat down and laughed and joked with each other,” said player Mack Sullivan.

Back then, teams didn’t have a travel budget and for those with black players, many hotels and restaurants would not have accepted them even if they had.  The Hornets always returned after their games, even if it meant getting home at 4 or 5 a.m., Smith said.

Leading up to the title game, they played a grueling three teams in the space of a week, in addition to their schoolwork, with the championship being clinched on their home field. Back then, players were on the field for both defensive and offensive possessions, so they got few breaks during the games.

Teammates were more than just friends for Sullivan, who played alongside three of his brothers during his years on the team. He said his mother claimed she could tell if they won or lost by how her boys looked coming in the door after a game. 

The coaches — led by head coach Jack Clifford Paul — were stern and his assistant coaches sometimes meted out physical punishment with wooden boards, the players said. And yet, they admired and respected him for his consistency and the example he set for being a good team.

“He was a brilliant man. As someone said earlier, he was before his time because of his innovative ways and coaching programs,” Smith said.

Cummings said, “He understood what it took as a team.”

“You’ll always be there for each other,” player Lemon Dawson added. 

They learned to work hard on the field and take their jobs seriously. And they prayed before every game, not a "sinful prayer" that they would win, but a prayer that they would simply play their best. 

The players said the teachers and coaches helped shape them by example.

“In the beginning it was our parents. It started at home,” Smith said. “… It was continuous leadership training that we got. It was a whole community of people who worked for us.”

Cummings said the vast majority of the players also got good grades in the classroom.

The players said that discipline and those leadership skills would serve them well later in life. For just a few years after that game, many of them had been drafted into the military to serve in Vietnam. Their discipline and commitment to team would also be tested there. 

Smith, who is serving his third term as Kingsland’s mayor, took his Hornets letterman jacket all over the world and back while serving three tours in Vietnam. Hill, who was known as “Tank” on the football field, later became a tank commander and did two tours in Vietnam.  

After the war, many of them returned to Camden County to make a life. Some of them like Sullivan and Smith, even married cheerleaders they dated while at Ralph J. Bunche. 

One player, Kenneth “The Road Runner” Ellis, even went on to play for the Green Bay Packers. 

Quite a few of the team members have served as local elected officials, business leaders and church elders — still giving back to their community after all these years. 

And many of their sons and grandsons continued that proud football tradition and helped Camden County build the legendary high school football tradition that it has today. 

Tribune & Georgian

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