Valdosta, Albany and the controversial 1929 football season, Part I

For as long as there have been sports, there have been controversies over plays. From kids arguing over fouls in backyard games, to the 2017 Georgia High School Association state championships, there have been disputes.

Every team has one they can point out.

The “Holy Roller” and “Immaculate Conception” are two from National Football League history. Georgia and Florida argue over the number of wins in their football series. Peach County feels they were robbed of the Class AAA football title last year.

One of the biggest controversies on the high school gridiron during the first half of the 20th century occurred in 1929 when Valdosta High disputed an Albany High touchdown and walked off the field.

Valdosta’s 1929 season was more than a single play. It was a season of incidents that affected multiple games. Many of the individuals from both season and game ended as big names in their communities and the state.

This is an attempt to tell what happened.

High school football was a different animal in 1929, compared to today.

The sport was still relatively new in the southern half of the state. Valdosta’s program began in 1913. Moultrie began that year, too, as did Albany.

Among the other teams on Valdosta’s 1929 schedule, Quitman had played a single season in 1915, but had only permanantly begun playing in 1919. Sylvester’s first team was in 1920, Cairo’s and Ocilla’s in 1922, Douglas’s in 1923. Only Waycross’ team had been around longer than the Wildcats, with their earliest game documented in 1909.

There were no formal state championships until 1947 in Georgia. A handful of playoffs between conferences had occurred in years prior for claimed state titles and there were many more claims of championships based on even shakier grounds.

What existed in 1929 were conferences. The Southwest Georgia Athletic Association had Valdosta and Albany as members, as well as Thomasville, Bainbridge, Cairo, Tifton, Moultrie, Fitzgerald, Ocilla, Pelham, Quitman, Sparks-Adel, Sylvester, Camilla, Blakely and Seminole County. Albany and Valdosta had usual opponents, most from within this conference, but unlike the college ranks and Southeastern Conference, there was no round-robin schedule.

Valdosta and Albany later belonged to the South Georgia Football Association. North Georgia had an association, too. The GIAA had a league, and consisting of the bigger and fancier metropolitan schools, it was the closest thing to a true state league. There were conferences for six-man football during its short-lived craze. Black schools had conferences (and briefly, a black school six-man conference).

Football was wilder and woolier in other ways.

In 1922, a Waynesboro-Millen game devolved into a fight when Waynesboro’s timekeeper ran on the field and interfered with the referees. He was upset that a Millen player attempted to strike a Waynesboro player after a play.

Times were not just different for the game, but for the people who ran it.

1929-09-26 Valdosta Times (Mike Herndon)
Mike Herndon, Valdosta’s head coach in 1929. From the September 26, 1929 Valdosta Times.

Far from the modern expectations of seasoned head football coaches, Valdosta head coach Mike Herndon was only 31 during the 1929 season and had been 26 when he took over the program in 1924 (1930 census records give Herndon’s age as 26, but death records confirm he was born in 1898). Herndon had been a collegiate player at Mercer.

Young coaches were the norm in the area. David “Dode” Phillips of Moultrie was 30 in 1929 and Tifton’s G.O. Bailey was 29. Thomasville’s James K. Harper was the old man of the bunch, turning 33 during the season.

Valdosta High was 5-2-2 in 1928 after starting 5-0. Fifty years before the city was known as Winnersville, football had already made a strong mark. The Wildcats won conference titles in 1920, 1923, 1924 and 1927. In 15 seasons of play, they had only finished below .500 twice. Valdosta also had a permanent playing field on school grounds, Cleveland Field, something few schools could broadcast.

Expectations were high as usual in the city in 1929, but VHS’s campaign got off on the wrong foot.

Douglas was supposed to play in the opener on September 27, but flooding in the Douglas area prevented even the trains from getting through. Coaches agreed to call off the game for now, but to keep it open as a postseason possibility.

The season finally started October 4, with a 20-0 victory over Quitman. Frank Garbutt scored on a 32-yard run and Dorris returned a muffed punt in the first half for their second touchdown. Garbutt scored again in the second half. One of the touchdowns featured an extra point kick by quarterback Rudy Brown.

The next two weeks saw Sylvester fall, 61-0 and Cairo menaced by a 32-0 score. The Wildcats quickly moved into preparations for the next Friday’s contest against Ocilla – then with one of the state’s all-time great nicknames of Orphans – but there was trouble in the land.

On October 25, The Valdosta Times announced that Brown was out for the year after being ruled ineligible to play by the Southwest Georgia Athletic Association, the conference to which Valdosta and a handful of other area high schools belonged.

CRYING Out Loud, the Times’ local sports tidbits and opinion column, said Brown had played too many years.

1929-09-26 Valdosta Times (Rudy Brown)
Rudy Brown, pictured in the September 26, 1929 Valdosta Times.

“Brown, it seems, participated in one game of football in 1925. He was a sub in 1926 and 1927 and broke into the varity lineup in 1928. Brown himself did not know that he had played in 1925. He registered at school, but quit at the end of the first week to go to Florida, returning the next fall. But he was here long enough to have been substituted in the third quarter of the Bainbridge game of the 1925 season, the play-by-play account of the game as recorded in the files of The Times showed.”

Seasons started later, of course, in the 1920s than they do now. School also started later. While commonplace by the 1950s to start around Labor Day, the schools of Lowndes County (but not Valdosta) began the 1929-30 school year on October 7.

Earlier in the 1929 season, said The Times, Vice-President Hugh Mills had ruled Brown to be eligible. While our Valdosta columnist had hoped Herndon would have appealed the case, the paper concluded, “But rules are rules, and they are excellent rules.” CRYING Out Loud went on to defend the four-year rule in the same column and also wished the academics rule was stronger. At that time, a player had to pass three subjects during the season itself.

(CRYING Out Loud was the handiwork of DeWitt Roberts, according to The Albany Herald and Macon Telegraph. Census records for 1930 seem to confirm, giving Roberts’ job title as a news editor.)

The Valdosta Times did not mention any penalties outside of Brown being ineligible for the season. Those seem to be first brought up by The Albany Herald on October 29.

Announcing that Cairo was now the top team in the conference, the Herald said, “Quite a shake-up occurred in the Southwest Georgia Conference standings with the forfeiting of several games played by Valdosta.”

After going over the current week’s schedule, the Herald gave further details.

“Due to the playing of ineligible men Valdosta forfeited the games which had been won from Sylvester and Cairo, while the Quitman-Valdosta game is counted as a loss to both teams.”

The Quitman game was a double forfeit as the Pirates had also used in ineligible player, Virgil Moon. Moon was being paid to play by outside sources, according to the Macon Telegraph. In addition, the conference said Sparks-Adel had to forfeit any wins with James Brinson and Albert Brinson on the field as the two were over the age limit.

New standings were published, with Valdosta’s record changed from 4-0 to 1-3.

Though Valdosta High had not appealed when The Valdosta Times broke the story of Brown, Valdosta city schools’ superintendent A.G. Cleveland eventually did ask for Brown to be reinstated.

On November 11, The Albany Herald said the conference’s board of control declined to reverse its previous decision.

Besides Brown, another player, a tackle surnamed Miller, was ineligible because he was over 20 years of age. Mills said if Cleveland could get a written statement from Miller’s mother ascertaining his age, Miller would be reinstated.

Brown’s case was murkier. Cleveland and VHS Principal J.P. Mott gave the Board of Control their records. They were unable to prove Brown absolutely did not play in 1925.

On October 25, the day The Times mentioned Brown’s ineligibility, saw Valdosta smother Ocilla, 70-0, without Brown in the lineup. Bud McKey took over the role of quarterback, having already been a major contributor to the squad. Nine players scored touchdowns, with a 10th adding an extra point. Ocilla was praised for its continuous fight, but the game was so ugly, the coaches agreed to an early ending in the fourth quarter.

While heralded, Brown was not a necessity for the Valdosta steamroller.

Waycross fell, 26-0, to the Wildcats. Thomasville went down, 13-6, Tifton following by a 40-7 score. Valdosta defeated Glynn Academy, 13-0 and Moultrie, 27-0. The Moultrie game was on Thanksgiving. After that was played, the only team left for the regular season was Albany.

To be continued in Part II.

Sources: Macon Telegraph – Oct. 29, 1929, Dec. 11, 1929, Dec. 22, 1929, Sept. 7, 1930, May 19, 1932, Oct. 26, 1932; Augusta Chronicle – Dec. 1, 1922, April 30, 1943, July 1, 1976; The State (S.C.) – May 31, 1925; Morning Star (Rockford, Ill.) – Jan. 20, 1924; The Valdosta Times – Sept. 26, 1929, Sept. 28, 1929, Oct. 5, 1929, Oct. 25, 1929, Oct. 26, 1929, Nov. 26, 1929, Dec. 4, 1929, Dec. 5, 1929, Dec. 7, 1929, Dec. 10, 1929, Dec. 11, 1929, Dec. 12, 1929, Dec. 13, 1929; The Albany Herald – Oct. 12, 1929, Oct. 15, 1929, Oct. 29, 1929, Nov. 11, 1929, Dec. 5, 1929, Dec. 7, 1929, Dec. 9, 1929, Dec. 10, 1929, Dec. 11, 1929, Dec. 12, 1929; Thomasville Times-Enterprise – Nov. 11, 1929, Dec. 7, 1929, Dec. 12, 1929

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