As storied as Gainesville High School football is, it took 99 years for its first state championship, remarkably winning it in 2012, the first year the school jumped two classifications into AAAAA.
The Red Elephants, however, had come close several times and might well have been unofficial state champions during their most successful years 1923-25, going undefeated while rolling up huge scores and holding the opponents to no or a minimum of points.
The streak started in 1923 when fans lined the sidelines or sat on the embankments at City Park to watch the games. No grandstands, no lights. Players wore thin leather helmets and next-to-nothing pads. Enrollment at GHS was just over 200. Legendary teacher “Miss Sue” Johnson was just beginning her career.
Nobody saw the 1923 team’s success coming as it had lost some key players, and the lineup was littered with newcomers. Fabled Coach Joel Pittard worked them hard at camp near Helen during the summer. Gainesville won the opener 73-0 over Cornelia, which was playing its first season and completed but one pass during the game. Ralph “Fatty” Pierce scored three touchdowns.
Fulton fell to the Elephants 44-0 and Marietta 40-0. Cy Bell, who joined the team from Braselton, scored on an 85-yard run against Marietta. Quarterback “Little Tom” Paris was described as hitting the line “with the strength of a giant.”
Gainesville scored all its 32 points in the first half, shutting out Winder in the next game. Bell scored twice.
Next, it pasted Toccoa 39-0.
Commerce was the next victim, also 39-0, as the Tigers couldn’t stop Bell. This was in the days of the drop-kick, when a player would drop the ball nose first and kick it as it hit the ground, aiming between the goal post uprights. Bennie Rothstein hit one in this game. Fifty Elephant fans drove to Commerce to watch.
So in its first six games, Gainesville had held its opponents scoreless; the closest any team had come was the 35-yard line. That set up the next crucial game with Decatur, also undefeated.
Gainesville’s defensive goose-eggs came to an end, but the Elephants prevailed 15-7. Rothstein drop-kicked another field goal and ran 50 yards for a touchdown. Milton Hardy blocked a Decatur punt, which was covered by Louis Moseley in the end zone. Decatur’s formidable defense had stopped Gainesville twice on the 2-yard-line and 6-inch line.
Athens had beaten Gainesville seven straight times and led in the first half. But a touchdown by Bell and another field goal by Rothstein sealed the deal for the Elephants, 16-12.
One more game that year against Madison, and it proved as tough as the previous two. Rothstein scored early in the game, and the defense put up another zero, 7-0. There was some discussion that Gainesville would play an extra game against Griffin, perhaps for a state championship? But it didn’t happen.
An Athens newspaper, however, “concedes the championship in football to Gainesville High, whose unbroken victories for the entire season remain unchallenged ... (among) high schools contending for the supremacy of high school circles ...”
Gainesville at the time was a member of the Georgia Accredited High School Athletic Association. Nevertheless, local papers reported the 1923 Red Elephants only as the North Georgia Champions.
As successful as that team was, the best was yet to come.
People who lived in mill villages can identify with New Holland native Vic Wilson’s book, “MilliKids,” about growing up in the Milliken mill village on the outskirts of Gainesville.
Larry Pardue grew up in Gainesville Mill and, similar to the MilliKids, had a secret window to sneak in to the village gymnasium. He and his friends played basketball at night by the light of a street light beaming through the gym windows.
They would take broken bats from the mill’s baseball team, nail them back together, tape them up and use them with a baseball, most likely a foul ball they had “found” and secured.
Four Gainesville Mill boys were on the Gainesville High School 1949 state champion baseball team: John Hulsey, Harold Griggs, Marvin Free and Pardue. The latter three all lived on Dunlap Street in Gainesville Mill.
Vic Wilson will sign his book 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the New Holland gym.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.