SMITH COLUMN: Remembering the great Bill Godfrey

Published 10:30 am Saturday, January 22, 2022

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While December is for celebrating the holidays, it can be a down time for those who lose a member of the family, which is why this tribute is overdue.

One of Georgia’s most competitive, hard-nosed and exciting players moved on to that gridiron in the sky in the final month of last year.  The aforementioned description of Bill Godfrey is less than adequate for a man who gave no quarter on the football field in the fifties which were not good to his coach, Wallace Butts, who had won three Southeastern Conference titles — the Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls in the forties — with high octane offenses, led by Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi and John Rauch.

Then came the hard times, the drought years, an eight-year losing streak to Georgia Tech. The drought was broken in 1957 with Theron Sapp’s touchdown on Grant Field which initiated a four-year win streak over the Yellow Jackets, Butts’ fourth SEC title and a third trip to the Orange Bowl. 

It became a Hallelujah moment for the Bulldogs who were the toast of the state. The celebration was unending across all 159 counties. Everybody wanted to backslap the team and coaching staff. Georgia’s P. T. Barnum, the late Dan Magill, was ready. He orchestrated a coronation party (crowing the champions) that resonated in the Athens/UGA community and the state which left partisans both humble and entrenched in a celebratory mood.

Georgia players were overwhelmed by the overt hospitality which caused Godfrey, one of the most colorful players ever to wear the Red & Black, to whisper to Butts, “Coach, ‘ain’t’ folks nice to you when you win.”

Learned philosophers could not have been more graphically insightful when it comes to the business of defining the mood of a constituency which has just enjoyed championship fulfillment.

I thought of Bill’s poignant line and a few other sprightly quotes he authored during his playing days in Athens when he passed away in his adopted hometown of Colquitt where he lived out his life among the farmers, rural soothsayers and passionate outdoorsmen in Miller County. They loved Bill and his generous laugh. They greatly respected his underscoring of the work ethic which was ingrained in his DNA.

When Bill and his pretty wife, Lola, a one-time majorette with UGA’s Redcoat band, settled down on her family acreage, “Tater Bug,” as Bill was known by his teammates and close friends, was like a rabbit being thrown into the briar patch. It was a perfect fit for him. He would work hard, but he could, when downtime allowed, fish and hunt to his heart’s content.  He enjoyed a nice career with the Farm Service Agency which was aided by his former teammate Paul Holmes who recommended him for the FSA job.

In addition, Bill had a farming connection on the side with his father-in-law and eventually developed a hunting preserve which he and Lola operated for years.

Godfrey, who was a native of Charlotte, had an abundance of the competitive gene. (That is why players never want to retire and also why coaches have a hard time laying their whistle aside).    

The NFL was not in Bill Godfrey’s future, but working for a government farm agency and rubbing elbows within the expansive agri-business community was a near perfect connect for this passionate Bulldog.

The following reflects how Bill Godfrey played college football. In the Tech game in Athens in 1960 which turned out to be Butts’ last game, Godfrey played every snap, a 60-minute performance that was not uncommon in his era but, nonetheless, represents an unforgettable iron man performance.  He was in the lineup for every snap as a fullback on offense and linebacker on defense. He was on the field for every kicking situation — both punting and placements.  He weighed 196 pounds at kickoff and tipped the scales at 178 pounds at game’s end.

His close friend, Pat Dye, lined up at end in defensive kicking situations and blocked a field goal attempt and an extra point attempt by the Yellow Jackets which was the margin of victory, Georgia winning 7-6. Godfrey’s touchdown plunge and Durward Pennington’s PAT accounted for the Bulldogs offensive point production.

It is doubtful that any Georgia player ever gave more of himself in a critical game. Bill loved his sharp-witted coach and often testified to that at every opportunity. He was proud he helped Coach Butts leave coaching by defeating his arch-rival in Butts’ final game.

If Godfrey was anything, he was loyal. He never forgot that Paul Holmes helped him get a big break professionally, he never forgot that Coach Butts offered him a scholarship and he held his highest affection for recruiter Jim Whatley who recommended him for that scholarship.

Academic excellence was not always a companion of Godfrey’s, but he was determined to get a degree. He kept at it until that became reality. No Bulldog letterman was prouder than Bill when he attended graduation ceremonies a few years following the Tech game in 1960.

When the graduation ceremony was over, Bill drove over to Whatley’s house on Hampton Court in Athens and tearfully thanked Big Jim for that scholarship offer and for being his friend.

Hard work, determination and a team first attitude was what Bill Godfrey was all about.  High school athletes with a college career on their mind, would do well to adopt the mantra of this Bulldog hero—play your tail off with the objective to claim the prize that comes with victory, but show appreciation to those who help you along the way.

This parting shot from the life and times of Bill Godfrey.  The rugged Bulldog fullback had a penchant for wry self-deprecation.   His oldest son Ty was born when he and Lola were still enrolled at Georgia.  Bill told the Athens Touchdown Club that in excitement of his son being born, he returned to the hospital the day after his birth and met with the doctor whereupon Bill asked the doc, “Is today the day you are going to castrate my boy?”

The puzzled physician, replied, “You mean circumcise your boy?”

With that, Bill slapped his right fist against his left palm and exclaimed, “That’s the word.”

Bill Godfrey was the most colorful of characters, who had the heart of a lion when he was competing on the football field.  Away from competition he had a heart for good neighborly ways where it was deeply appreciated among his friends and neighbors in Southwest Georgia. Bill gave of himself for his team, and when he began his life after football, he gave of himself to his neighbors and his community.  That is a resonating epitaph that any of us can appreciate.