They existed in a bond that was broken by death.
From their first meeting on Ridgewood Avenue in Gainesville to the final time they were together at Alta Vista Cemetary in Gainesville, Billy Martin and Billy Lothridge were bound to one another.
“I walked in from Billy’s funeral and sat down,” Martin said. “Barbara (Martin’s wife) was there and said, ‘It was rough wasn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yea. We’ve done everything in our lives together, but this is one thing I want to pass on.’”
From the days of their youth, the two football players who would become All-Americans had done everything together, from playing sports to dating girls. They won championships together, lost together, went to college together, lived together and got in trouble together.
And even with Lothridge’s passing, they remain together, as one of the most notable sports duos Gainesville has ever produced.
On the streets of Gainesville
Martin was born in Chicopee, Lothridge in Cleveland, both during World War II.
“My dad was in the service, so my mom and my brother and I moved in with my grandaddy and grandmama until he got back,” Martin said.
When it was time for him to start school his family moved from Quilan’s Corner to Ridgewood Avenue. Lothridge and his family soon followed from Cleveland, moving in right down the street from Martin.
“We played out in the street our whole youth,” Martin said. “You know, eight, nine, 10-years-old. There wasn’t any traffic, so we played football out there and baseball and everything else.”
They dated the same girls. In fact, Martin’s wife Barbara (formerly Crumley) was Lothridge’s high school sweetheart.
“Everybody knew they were going to get married,” Martin said of Lothridge and Crumley. “We were going to Florida and Billy wasn’t going so he asked me to keep an eye on Barbara, take her to dinner one night or something.”
Martin didn’t want to, he wanted to be single on his trip to the beach.
“To make a long story short,” Martin said. “I came back from the trip and he asked if Barbara behaved and I said, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got a problem.’ He asked me what the problem was and I said, ‘I fell in love.’”
From B team to big time
Gainesville coach Graham Hixon was quoted in The Daily Times as saying, “... if some of our B team boys come through we could be tough in our region.”
The article was dated Aug. 18, 1957, the day before sophomores Martin and Lothridge had their first practice as varsity players for Gainesville High.
Hixon went on to say that, “This Lothridge has poise ... but he may still be a year from top varsity performance.”
The two started their first varsity game, an 8-6 loss to Cherokee, Martin on defense and Lothridge as the punter and kicker. His first kickoff went into the endzone.
It wasn’t until the second game of that season that Hixon handed the offensive reigns to Lothridge. He didn’t disappoint.
Gainesville won its next four games, and with Martin leading the defense, three of those four were shutouts.
In his third game as the starting quarterback, Lothridge shone brightly in Gainesville’s 31-0 drubbing of Druid Hills on Sept. 27. He passed for one touchdown and rushed for two more.
“Billy was the same way through his entire career,” Martin said. “Billy wasn’t the best thrower around. He was always the best punter and place kicker. He wasn’t the best runner.
“He was average-to-good at all those things, but when he got into the huddle, there was a different attitude.”
The Red Elephants finished Martin and Lothridge’s sophomore year with a record of 6-3-1.
More importantly, Gainesville finished the season knowing that Martin, the leader of the defense, and Lothridge, the starting quarterback and kicker, would be back for two more years.
Boys to men
Lothridge to Martin: That often-repeated phrase was first written following the opening game of the duo’s junior year.
The 16-0 win over Fairburn was Martin’s first varsity start at tight end, the position he would play in the National Football League.
“I was a kid that grew real fast,” Martin said, “and if it hadn’t been for some high school coaches working with me, I never would have gone past that.
“They did things that made a big, gawky guy that could step on cracks in the sidewalk and get hurt, successful.”
Gainesville began the Billys’ junior year, their first year as captains of the Gainesville squad, 4-0-1.
Lothridge’s ball handling at the quarterback position went from, “the key to a victory,” in the season opener, to “magical,” by the third win.
Martin’s play at tight end went from, “sure-receiving,” to his first score in a 19-13 win over Decatur.
That Decatur game also had a different kind of Lothridge-to-Martin connection.
“It was near the end of the ballgame. We had scored real early several times against them and then they just beat us up,” Martin said. “And they were driving. It was near the end of the ball game and time’s about to run out, and Billy came over and said, ‘Bill, why don’t you lead us in a prayer?’”
It was during a timeout so the Red Elephants knelt, held hands and began saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“We stood up, went out and Billy intercepted a pass in the endzone to stop the drive,” Martin said.
“Those are good memories. That’s not anything, 7-6, 20-5, six touchdown passes. Those things aren’t important. Being a man is.”
The Jolly Giant and Mr. Cool
Both Martin and Lothridge were named All-State following their junior year, but Gainesville had failed to make the playoffs during the tandem’s first two seasons.
As if to foreshadow the year that would be, the duo, nicknamed The Jolly Giant and Mr. Cool by Jackson, opened their senior season with a bang.
In their first game, a 41-0 win over Campbell High, Lothridge scored two touchdowns on punt returns of 52 and 70 yards, caught two passes for 48 yards, completed three passes for 65 yards, kicked 5-of-6 extra points and averaged 40 yards per punt. On both of Lothridge’s punt return scores, Martin had the freeing block.
Gainesville opened the season 3-0. Its fourth game was played at City Park against the No. 3 team in the All-Classification poll and subregion rival Avondale, which had knocked Big Red out of playoff contention the year before. A win would put Gainesville atop the subregion standings and give them the No. 1 ranking in Class AA.
“Avondale was a huge high school, “Martin said. “Three times the size of Gainesville. It was our biggest rivalry.”
Avondale won back-to-back region titles and, with a win, would win its third straight.
According to local legend, Martin had an appendectomy and played against Avondale the following Friday.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Martin said. “I played a couple of weeks later. Coach Hixon wouldn’t let me play,” he added.
“Finally my dad and P.K Dixon went down and told coach it was OK because I was dying (to play). I’d looked forward to playing them again all year.”
Avondale was leading12-6 when Martin entered the game.
“I went into the ballgame and the first play Billy throws me the ball and it starts a drive and we score and beat ’em,” Martin said. “That’s a great memory.”
Martin also intercepted the pass that sealed the Red Elephants’ win and broke Avondale’s 19-game winning streak.
The play of the senior duo propelled Gainesville to a 10-2 record, a subregion title, its first region title in eight years, and berth in the state semifinals, where the Red Elephants lost to Rossville.
“The whole time was fun, if it hadn’t been fun we’d have quit,” Martin said.
“It was a camaraderie with a lot of people, and Gainesville High School, the Elephants, had a long history. You knew who the football players were and you idolized them.
“I guess the best example of that is (1954 Gainesville grad) Walt Snelling,” he added. “He still picks on me unmercifully and I respect and admire him very much. There were a lot of people like that from Gainesville.”
Martin and Lothridge ended their senior campaign with All-State honors and received honorable mention honors on the Wigwam Wiseman Prep All-American team. Lothridge also played in the North-South All-America game and kicked the winning field goal for the South.
Father knows best
Martin and Lothridge’s parents traveled to games together and would talk about their children’s futures.
Our dads decided we were going to Georgia Tech,” Martin said laughing. “Being in highway construction, they were around engineers all their life. They got to talking about it and said, ‘They could be like those engineers we work with on the highway. They make all kinds of money and don’t work like we do.’”
By the time they entered their junior years, Martin and Lothridge were being recruited by Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida State and, “just about everybody in the Southeastern Conference,” Martin said.
“They (Lothridge and Martin’s parents) liked coach Dodd,” Martin said. “He was a sweet man, a great man, great leader.”
So the dymanic duo from Gainesville went off to Georgia Tech — an all-boys school at the time — as roommates and teammates.
“We almost changed to Georgia at the end of the recruiting season,” Martin said with a laugh. “They had girls.”
Tandem at Tech
Mirroring their time at Gainesville, Martin and Lothridge spent their freshman year on the B team and started their first college game as sophomores.
Martin was a tight end and linebacker, and Lothridge was the punter and kicker.
By the third game of his sophomore year, Lothridge was also the starting quarterback.
“We had some really great passers when we were in college,” Martin said. “They threw spirals.
“But Billy just got in the huddle and I guess you’d say he played quarterback more with a linebacker mentality,” he added. “You’d look around the huddle and everybody’d be sweatin’ with nicks on their hands and arms and a little blood here or there and he’d be the same way.
“He was a guy that was intense at winning, very intense, and that rubbed off on everybody.”
Over Lothridge’s three years as starting quarterback for Tech he amassed a 21-10-1 record including appearances in the Gator and Bluebonnet Bowls.
He scored 33 career touchdowns (15 rushing, 18 passing) and was responsible for 204 points, including 51 point after attempts and two field goals.
Lothridge was named an All-American in 1963 and earned All-SEC honors in 1962 and 1963, Martin earned All-American and All-SEC honors in 1963.
The greatest accomplishment, however, came in 1963, when Lothridge finished second to Navy quarterback Roger Staubach in the Heisman race.
“Billy should have won it just because he was a great leader, Martin said. “He didn’t have good passing statistics, but he led a team for three years to a lot of victories. He punted, kicked in every game for three years, and was the starting quarterback in every game for three years.”
As was the case in many instances throughout their careers, Martin and Lothridge shared a common stance where individual accolades were concerned.
“It meant little to us, the Heisman wasn’t worth much to him,” Martin said. “We played for fun and to win. Sure we read the paper, but it didn’t mean anything to us.”
Martin regards the 7-6 win over No. 1-ranked Alabama during their junior year as the pair’s crowning acheivement while at Tech.
“Alabama went for it on fourth down and only had a couple of inches to go, and they came to my side,” Martin said. “There was a sea of people, but I saw the official set his foot down and from where I was laying it looked liked a first down.
“I took my forearm and hit the ref’s foot and it (moved). Here was a first down and here was game over, and I promise you they didn’t make the first down. I’ll never forget thinking, ‘I’m smarter than I think I am.’”
All good things must come to an end.
Such was the case when Martin was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft by Chicago and Lothridge in the sixth round by Dallas.
Together they made their mark on Gainesville and Georgia Tech, but history would be made separately in the pro ranks.
With the Bears, Falcons and Vikings, Martin played with Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Lothridge played with the Cowboys, Rams, Falcons, and earned a Super Bowl ring in 1972 with the Dolphins, his last year of playing football.
Martin was given the game ball after his first game with the Vikings. They were playing against the Falcons and his best friend Billy Lothridge.
“I was a punter for Minnesota. Billy had taught me to punt as were growing up and next thing you know I’m getting paid to punt,” Martin said. “I out-kicked Billy that game.”
He was given the game ball, however, for his performance at tight end where he caught two touchdown passes.
“They didn’t know I was on an incentive program with the Vikings,” Martin said. “Every touchdown pass I got paid. If I got to the 5-yard line, I got to running real hard.”
The two joined forces one last time while playing for Atlanta, both retiring soon after being released by the team.
To infinity and beyond
Lothridge and Martin were both inducted into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame and the Northeast Georgia Hall of Fame, their plaques hang together.
Lothridge is also a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, he was inducted in 1986.
After his death on Feb. 22, 1996, he was given the distinction of being named one of the 50 greatest Georgia Tech athletes of the 20th century.
“He couldn’t stand to lose at anything,” Martin said of Lothridge, “shooting pool, we played bridge, ping pong. He couldn’t stand to lose and that rubbed off on me, it rubbed off on everybody.”
Martin spoke to his friend the week he died, and still considers Lothridge’s funeral one of the toughtest days of his life.
“As kids growing up we’re bulletproof and invincible, especially as athletes,” Martin said. “It just didn’t occur to me that he would ever be gone. And I certainly never thought it would be because his heart gave out.”
Lothridge was eulogized by former teammates Rufus Guthrie, Bill Curry and Tommy Nobis. He was carried to his final resting place by, among others, Billy Martin.
Former Times sports writer Clay Lambert wrote following Lothridge’s funeral, “...true legends are made of memory.”
From his office in Cumming, where he also lives, to his weekly visits to his old stomping grounds in Gainesville, Martin carries his memories of Lothridge and, with them, the legend of one of the greatest sports duos in Hall County history.