On Wednesday, March 14, Gainesville lost a local legend who was larger than life in both stature and charisma.
Billy Martin, a football star at Gainesville High and Georgia Tech before spending five years in the NFL, died at 75. Former teammates still remember Martin as The Jolly Giant, a nickname he earned in high school for his towering frame and infectious personality.
“The Jolly Giant, that’s what he was,” said Charles Smithgall III, who played alongside Martin at both Gainesville and Georgia Tech. “He was one of the most likeable, good-natured people who ever came down the pipe. He was absolutely a great guy.
“Even when he was a big star, he was very humble and never forgot his friends.”
Funeral arrangements are being handled by McDonald & Son Funeral Home in Cumming.
Born October 27, 1942, in Chicopee, Martin collected numerous accolades during his football career, including All-American status as a Yellow Jackets senior in 1963. The former tight end joined Georgia Tech’s Hall of Fame a year after his professional career ended, and he was a 1997 inductee into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
But he got his start right here in Northeast Georgia, where he dwarfed other children as far back as third grade.
Smithgall recalled when the area sixth grade all-star team traveled to Waycross for a series of games, only for Martin to be told he couldn’t participate because he weighed 7 pounds more than the 103-pound limit.
Even when he got to high school, his classmates never caught up to him in size.
“He was the largest guy on our football team,” said Red Elephants teammate Bobby Lawson. “He was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and this was back in 1958 and 1959. He was the largest guy on our squad, but also a very nice person.”
Martin put his frame to work as a tight end and defensive end, forming a formidable duo alongside quarterback/kicker Billy Lothridge, another local legend who went on to play at Georgia Tech and in the professional ranks.
“(Martin) was one of the two most talented players on our team; one of the Two Billys,” said Bobby Chambers, a fellow defensive lineman for those Gainesville teams. “He was a great person and a great teammate. He carried us at times on the football field.”
One particular instance still stands out to those who witnessed it.
Gainesville and Avondale met in a clash of the state’s two top-ranked teams in 1959, with the Red Elephants hoping to dethrone their rivals and the defending region champions. Trailing by a touchdown in the second half and with Martin sidelined due to a recent appendectomy, Gainesville was in desperate need of a boost.
Martin decided he’d be the one to provide it, and he convinced coach Graham Hixon to let him in the game. Both Lawson and Chambers said Martin rushed onto the field and shouted to the Avondale players, “Here’s fresh meat!”
“It kind of picked us up on defense,” Chambers said.
Local legend had it that Martin’s appendectomy occurred just days before the game. The 1960 Gainesville High graduate later disputed the claim, clarifying that two weeks had passed between his procedure and the big showdown with Avondale.
Either way, he helped turn the tide. Lawson said Martin caught a few passes to set up Lothridge’s go-ahead score, and he made a late interception to seal the Red Elephants’ 13-12 win at City Park Stadium that clinched the region title.
Gainesville finished with a 10-2 record as a state semifinalist, with Martin garnering all-state honors for his contributions.
But he didn’t limit his talents to just the gridiron. Martin was a three-sport athlete for the Red Elephants, even pulling in another all-state nod as a basketball player and spending his springs on the baseball diamond.
Lawson said the Gainesville basketball program lost in the state finals in Martin’s junior and senior seasons.
“He never looked like he was trying real hard or working real hard on the football field, but he was awesome,” Smithgall said. “He was naturally a great athlete. He was good at a lot of sports. Basketball, baseball, he could do it all.”
Smithgall watched as that athleticism blossom in Atlanta. A highly coveted recruit, Martin started at tight end and linebacker as a sophomore and soon became one of the most revered players in Georgia Tech history.
He caught 56 balls for 777 yards and six touchdowns — mostly from high school teammate Lothridge, the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1963 — over three seasons under legendary coach Bobby Dodd. On top of being an All-American and All-SEC selection as a senior, Martin was picked for the program’s all-time team in a 1991 fan vote.
Naturally, professional squads wanted his services. Both the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and NFL’s Chicago Bears drafted him in the second rounds of the leagues’ respective 1964 drafts, though the Hall County native opted to stick with the latter team.
Martin spent two years with the Bears before the Atlanta Falcons plucked him away in the 1966 NFL Expansion Draft. He played two seasons in his home state, as well, and wrapped up his career with the Minnesota Vikings in 1968.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Martin played in 70 games and made 58 receptions for 705 yards and four scores.
“Obviously, he had a great career in both (college and professional football),” Chambers said. “I always watched him when he was on TV.”
Martin stepped away from football at 26 to pursue a career in business, transitioning into an executive position with an Atlanta-based development corporation. He later ran a building and developing company in Flowery Branch.
Yet Martin remained the same jovial, upbeat person as always, even after tasting fame at both Georgia Tech and in the NFL.
“It didn’t change him at all. If anything, it made him friendlier,” Lawson said. “He never thought he was any better than anybody else and was always down to earth.”
In fact, the man who stood taller than most of his peers for his entire life never forgot the little slice of Northeast Georgia where it all started.
“He always stayed in touch with Gainesville,” Lawson said. “He would come to high school reunions, and everybody loved him to death.
“It’s a really big loss. We’ll miss him.”