Hall's home fields
In honor of high school football season, The Times continues a series on Hall County's high school football stadiums: Their histories, key memories and what makes them unique. Next week: Tom Riden Stadium at Buford High School. Fans who would like to share their memories can email Dallas Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the Knights of the Round Table did centuries ago, the Knights of Johnson High School do today.
They work hard and play hard, marching their way against opposing teams they meet in the Dungeon, the sunken battlefield in south Hall County.
The Knights have defeated the Gainesville Red Elephants and, more than once, the West Hall Spartans in the annual Battle of Oakwood.
They have such notable alumni as University of Tennessee-Martin linebacker Paul Martin and Mike "Moonpie" Wilson, a standout offensive lineman for the Georgia Bulldogs and in the NFL, where he played in the 1982 Super Bowl with Cincinnati Bengals.
"It takes perseverance (to be a Knight)," head football coach Paul Friel said. "It's overcoming obstacles. The kids who play, they go pretty hard."
Friel said the Dungeon, because it is more in the ground than other Hall County school stadiums, is a special place.
"The Dungeon plays upon the time and the motif of the Knights," said former Johnson High faculty member Gordon Higgins, director of community relations and athletics for Hall County Schools. "I don't remember the first time I heard that attributed to the stadium, but it was something highly identifiable with a place the opposing team would not like to be. I always liked that."
Yet the Dungeon is just a nickname for the Knights' hallowed ground. Ten years ago, the field was officially dedicated to Billy Ellis, one of Johnson High's most well-known leaders.
Ellis started teaching and coaching basketball at Johnson High in 1976, school documents show. When he left in 1998, he left behind a 23-year legacy none would soon forget.
He served as assistant principal starting in 1987 and was named principal in 1993. Ellis chose the school's motto, "Commitment to Excellence," and was key in Johnson being named a Georgia School of Excellence in 1996.
In 1998, Ellis accepted the position of Hall County Schools assistant superintendent, where he served until his death in 2001.
Higgins said it was no surprise to him when the stadium was named for Ellis.
"It's a lasting tribute to a very important person in the Johnson High School community," he said.
Ellis' lasting contribution to Johnson High was in the roles of athletic director and principal, Higgins said.
He said Ellis did much to upgrade athletic facilities, including creating indoor batting cages for the baseball team.
"He really excelled in the role of leader. There was never any doubt about his loyalty to Johnson," Higgins said. "He used to say he was a true blue Knight and bled (the school's official color) Columbia blue."
Hall County School board member Bill Thompson worked at Johnson High with Ellis for 21 years, including a stint as assistant basketball coach.
"As a basketball coach, he really believed in discipline, good character and doing the right thing.
One thing about Billy, everything he did, everybody had a lot of respect for him. His players loved him and he loved them too," Thompson said. "He made sure they had what they needed to be successful at school. He made sure their grades were kept up and he was like a parent to them."
And for those who didn't play for Ellis on the court, the effect he had was still "tremendous."
Thompson said it was Ellis who began the Big Blue J Day celebration, where Knight athletes, students and fans would gather for a massive community barbecue. Ellis also started the Eagle Award to honor seniors with outstanding school spirit. One of those honorees was Thompson's daughter, who was killed in a car accident in 2009.
"She loved Johnson High School. That Eagle Award still sits on our mantle and reminds us of them both," he said.
Ellis never coached football, but the gymnasium at Johnson High was already dedicated.
"The community in South Hall was adamant about doing something to recognize Billy as a leader at Johnson High School," Thompson said.
On Sept. 28, 2001, the school board approved the community's proposal, and Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium became the official name of Johnson High's field.
"The place was packed. It was a well-deserved honor," Thompson said. "There's an area of dedication, a historical marker-type thing. There are bricks put down that people could write on about Billy Ellis."
Amid the bricks is the one Thompson created to memorialize the longtime educator, leader and coach.
It simply says, "I'll miss you, my friend."