Hall's home fields
In honor of high school football season, The Times today begins a series on Hall County's high school football stadiums. Each week, we'll talk to fans from each school to share memories from key games and tell how each field got its name.
The year was 1959.
Gainesville High School’s Red Elephants were losing 12-7 late in the fourth quarter against Avondale High School’s Blue Devils.
Avondale had a top-of-the-line quarterback, Frank James. Gainesville had two future All-Americans, quarterback Billy Lothridge and tight end Billy Martin.
While the Red Elephants struggled to come back, Martin was on the bench, begging his coach to let him on the field.
“I’d had an appendectomy a few days before. Usually that meant you didn’t play,” Martin remembered. “The doctors and coaches were holding me back.”
Walt Snelling, the voice of the Red Elephants and a former nose guard and offensive left tackle for the team, watched as Martin “aggravated” P.K. Dixon, the team’s physician, to put him in the game.
The officials relented, and Martin was off. Lothridge threw a pass to Martin, who “cleared the entire left side of the Avondale defense” and scored, winning the game.
It was the best game Snelling ever attended on Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park.
“It was a slugfest like you’ve never seen,” Snelling said of the game. “Avondale was No. 1 in the state. People started lining up at 10 that morning. They were lined up all the way to where the Subway is now. It was a fun game to say the least.”
Another game that stands out in Martin’s mind is a 1958 matchup with Decatur High.
“We beat Decatur that night. It was the last game they lost that year,” Martin said. “We made a goal-line stand at the end of the game.”
One of the more recent big games was the state semifinal in 2009, when fans packed the stands.
“It was Gainesville versus Flowery Branch. We had Blake Sims,” Snelling said. “That was an unbelievable ballgame and either the first or second-largest crowd ever at City Park.”
The Falcons came and were “leading us pretty bad,” Snelling said.
But in the end, the Red Elephants, led by quarterback Sims, who now plays for Alabama, were victorious. They won 29-21 to reach the 2009 state final.
Over the years, the field at City Park has been tread on by the greats: Jack Roberts, a member of the University of Georgia’s 1952 SEC Championship team and pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system; “Brick Wall Bert” Doss, who later served on the Gainesville City Schools Board of Education; Nenion Conley, who Snelling described as “one of the best guards we’ve ever had;” Tommy West, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Preston Ridlehuber, who later played for several teams in the National Football League; and Cris Carpenter, the 1983 Red Elephants quarterback, former UGA punter and major-league baseball pitcher who now teaches social studies at the high school.
It was home to state championship games against St. Pius X, Waycross High School, Bainbridge High School and Southwest Dekalb High School.
“I used to go when the Fair Street (High School) Tigers played Thursday nights. They were really good,” Martin said.
When the Red Elephants faced Athens High School every year, fans flocked from miles around to see the teams take the field.
“It was estimated there were between (7,000) and 8,000 people there in the 1940s and ‘50s,” said Gainesville resident Sammy Smith. “It was played on Thanksgiving night. There was little TV, no bowl games, no Black Friday … just the biggest rivalry Gainesville had for about 40 years.”
Jean Gruhn, the wife of the late Gainesville High coach Bobby Gruhn, couldn’t pick a game that was the biggest in her mind.
“When it’s your way of life, all the games are big,” she said.
And football itself was big in the city. Martin remembers families walking down Green Street to City Park every Friday night, sidewalks packed with Red Elephant fans.
“In 1964 they had ‘Billy Day’ in Gainesville,” Martin said. “That was the year Billy (Lothridge) and myself got named
All-Americans. There was a parade and people standing in the streets like it was the Fourth of July. The whole community was there.”
Things have changed since 1964. Though the stands are still never empty at City Park, the name of the field and the press box have changed to honor some of the school’s most memorable supporters.
“I was born a Red Elephant and I’ll die a Red Elephant,” Snelling said.
It was this charge that helped make the decision to name the press box at the field after Snelling. Those in charge tried to keep the name a secret, but a reporter for The Times spoiled the surprise, calling up Snelling to get his reaction.
“I was stunned and I’m still stunned. I was just thrilled to death,” Snelling said.
He said he’s most thankful for all the children and players he’s met on the field through the years.
“It was named at the Gainesville versus White County (High School) game about eight years ago,” Snelling said. “Why they did that, I don’t have a clue, but Bobby Gruhn Field deserved to be named for Bobby Gruhn.”
Bobby Gruhn came to Gainesville High in 1954 and retired in 1992. It was the only place he ever coached.
Gruhn posted a record of 256 wins, 103 losses and five ties. The field at City Park was named after him in 1985.
“He was one of the finest Christian gentlemen I’ve ever met,” Snelling said. “My first experience with him was a damn nightmare … He came walking in, hyped up all over me and said I had my shoulder pads on wrong.”
Snelling said he has no idea how his pads were on incorrectly, but attributed the incident to Gruhn asserting himself as a leader on — and off — the field.
“He was a much-loved figure,” Gruhn said. “The rarity with Bobby, he wasn’t an egotistical man. It sounds cliché but he literally gave credit to other coaches and players when it was due, and he meant it.”