University of Georgia athletics director Damon Evans wasn’t blind to the obvious during the Northeast Georgia Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony Saturday at the Georgia Mountains Center.
In fact, Evans, a Gainesville High graduate and former Georgia football player, made a point during his keynote address to joke about the high number of Georgia Tech athletes recognized as part of the five new members of the Northeast Georgia Hall of Fame.
"I couldn’t help but notice that three of the five new inductees were Georgia Tech guys," Evans said, which brought a laugh from the crowd. "But that’s okay, it’s a great rivalry for us at Georgia — when we win."
It was hard for those in attendance not to see the humor in that many athletes with ties to Georgia Tech — including current Yellow Jackets football players Jaybo Shaw and Daniel Drummond, both Flowery Branch High graduates — having their picture snapped on stage beside Evans, the head of Georgia’s athletics programs. Shaw and Drummond were two of the athletes selected to the Elite 10 for their accomplishments as the top high school athletes to come out of Northeast Georgia this decade.
"Yeah it was kind of funny being on stage with Georgia’s AD," Shaw said. "As soon as I received my plaque, he leaned in and said, ‘you look good, you Yellow Jacket.’"
The athletes recognized during the ceremony, which will join the display at the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University, come from all sports backgrounds. Athletes from football, baseball, basketball, golf, swimming, running and wrestling were all brought together to recognize their individual achievements during their career. The Jefferson High wrestling program was also recognized as the team of the decade as a result of bringing in a combined 17 state titles (nine traditional titles, eight in the duals) since 2001.
"This is a very nice honor for our program, and I know it is well appreciated by our athletes," Jefferson coach Doug Thurmond said. "It is a great honor because there are so many great teams that come out of this area and Northeast Georgia."
The newly inducted to the Northeast Georgia Sports Hall of Fame include: former Gainesville High baseball coach Wayne Vickery, who won five state titles as coach of the Red Elephants; Stephens County High and Georgia Tech graduate Pat Swilling, who was a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the New Orleans Saints; Gainesville High graduate Victor Menocal, a part of three Red Elephants state title teams and four-year starter at shortstop for the Yellow Jackets; Gainesville High graduate Sam Morgan, a two-time All-American swimmer in the mile at Georgia Tech; and Johnson High graduate Jodie Briggs Blacklock, who won the 2002 National Rifle Association’s Intercollegiate Pistol champion while at Truett-McConnell College.
Though many of the athletes have vastly different playing experiences, they could all appreciate what it took to get to the top of their respective sport.
"It’s a great honor to get back here to Gainesville and be a group of such a great group of athletes," Menocal said. "I appreciate this honor very much."
During his speech, Evans pointed out that sports is at the core of what we do. As he put it, sports makes us cry, brings out the competitive juices, makes us hug one another and teaches us all about life in general.
"None of us want sports to end, just ask Brett Favre," Evans added.
The Elite 10 was just as diverse as the new Hall of Fame inductees. These athltes spanned the realm of high school sports and more than one sport each for many of the athletes. Those recognized included: Gainesville High graduates Lauren Darnell, Morgan House, Tasha Humphrey and Micah Owings. Drummond and Shaw were the two inductees from Flowery Branch to the Elite 10.
North Hall High graduate Nick Long, now a cross country and track runner the University of Georgia, along with Bulldogs football player Tavarres King, a Habersham Central grad, were honored. Former Jefferson High wrestler Hunter Garner, a four-time individual state champion, and Dawson County High graduate Charles Ryan Leveille, a part of the 2004 Winter Olympics as a speedskater, were also recognized.
"It’s a huge honor to be recognized with such a great group of athletes," Long said. "These athletes weren’t just great locally, but doing stuff all over the world."