SMITH COLUMN: Remembering Don Soberdash

Published 9:30 am Thursday, June 10, 2021

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In your mind’s eye, you often flashback to scenes of the past, recalling highlights that linger indelibly with the passing of time.

When the news rocked me last week that Don Soberdash, captain of Coach Wallace’s Butts last championship team, had passed away, I immediately recalled No. 37 slipping through the line of scrimmage and catching back-to-back passes that moved Georgia into scoring position against Auburn that led to Tarkenton-to-Herron to SEC championship glory in unforgettable November 1959.

A native of Connellsville, Pa., Soberdash was elected captain in pre-season, but all too soon his name topped the Red Cross roster, his knees becoming compromised from scrimmage combat. He missed several games before regaining “old-self” status. It could not have come at a more propitious moment than on that late November afternoon between the hedges. 

This is the way it was in that serendipitous moment that returned Georgia to Southeastern Conference prominence. With the Bulldogs leading 7-6, quarterback Charley Britt, in the searchlight position in punt formation, backed into Bobby Walden’s punt which resulted in an opponent’s touchdown which enabled Auburn to take the lead 13-7.

With time elapsing, hearts furiously beating, and bleating, both combatants spawning edge of the seat drama seldom seen before or since in Sanford Stadium, Auburn’s mission was to run out the clock. One first down might be enough.

Tiger quarterback Bryant Harvard, a son of Georgia (Thomasville), took a snap from center, rolled to his right, looking for room to advance the chains, palming the ball precariously in his right hand. The Georgia defense swarmed the intrepid signal caller. Bill Herron forced a fumble with the ever-present Pat Dye, making another big play — this one for the ages — as he pounced on the bouncing ball at the Auburn 35-yardline.   

Before the snap, Auburn partisans went from “game over” to oh (expletive).  Georgia had not moved the ball all day against the rugged Tiger defense, anchored by All-Americans Zeke Smith, Ken Rice and Jackie Burkett.  The Bulldogs had not scored an offensive touchdown and gained only 122 yards rushing, which today’s running backs expect to collect on a single afternoon.

Butts, who could be openly caustic about a player’s shortcomings, complained, often without restraint, about Fran Tarkenton’s lack of physicality, immediately sent Tarkenton’s team from the sideline to the field. (In those one-platoon days, most college teams actually lined up two teams of near equal talent to accommodate limited substitution rules). 

Tarkenton’s precociousness was never more graphic. Although he had never been there before, this scenario fit hand-in-glove into his wheelhouse.

Remember, quarterbacks called their own plays in that era. Tarkenton, on third down, called on a now-healthy Soberdash to fake a handoff, slip past the line of scrimmage into an open pocket in the defense, running a hooking route. Perfect call, perfect route, 16-yard gain and a stadium reeling with raucousness.

The cogent quarterback, undaunted, went to the well again this time to Soberdash for nine yards to the Auburn ten-yard-line. The Auburn defense reared its ugly head once more, breaking up a pass and throwing Bobby Walden for a four-yard loss on a halfback pass. Sanford Stadium was like Mudville with one strike remaining. It appeared there would be no joy for the home team, but never doubt Tarkenton, the kid from Nanthala Ave.

You surely know the rest of the story.

Tarkenton, improvised in a calm huddle, telling Herron, his left end, to block down at the line of scrimmage for three counts, one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three — and cut to the left corner of the end zone.  Tarkenton then rolled right, suddenly pulled up and threw back across his body to a wide-open Herron for the touchdown. Durward Pennington’s extra point clinched the SEC title.

Soberdash’s catches were critical to victory, but were overshadowed by Tarkenton’s heroics. Don’s back-to-back receptions gave the Bulldogs confidence and momentum, especially when they came about in rapid fire fashion with precious time on the clock, slipping away.

Tarkenton, saddened by the news, said last week: “Don Soberdash was a terrific football player and a damn fine teammate.” Succinct, but on the money. As the captain, Soberdash certainly contributed to the calmness that prevailed in the huddle on that long-ago afternoon.

With those bad knees, he nonetheless enjoyed two seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian League after his campus residency.  He retired from football and became very successful in the coal mining business. When my son, Kent was growing up, he became a Terry-Bradshaw-Steeler-era fan. We flew to Pittsburgh for a father-son trip and visited the Steeler training camp at Latrobe moving about in Don’s helicopter. Big deal for both of us.

Soberdash often spoke sentimentally of the friendships he made in Athens and always enjoyed returning for lettermen’s activities in the spring. He especially appreciated anyone who found their way to Somerset, Pa.,  where he lived out his life.

Soberdash earned the deep and abiding respect of all his teammates, perhaps the most enduring compliment an athlete could have.