Sports Talk is written by Coach Earl Lewis
Even though they could not be successful without offensive linemen, pass receivers, running backs, and defensive players, most people consider the quarterback to be the most important player on any football team.
Most any championship team at any level from high school to the NFL has a great quarterback with superior football talent. Those championship QB’s also usually have great football savvy, excellent leadership ability, confidence, toughness, intelligence, and character. Does that sound like I just described Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa? The obvious answer is, yes it does; and we’ll talk more about his exploits as we discuss quarterbacks.
Perhaps some of you remember, as do I, two championship quarterbacks from Alabama’s two major universities who didn’t exactly fit the mold. In 1957, a fellow by the name of Lloyd Nix led Auburn to its first National Championship. He was very athletic, but was not big, he couldn’t throw the ball 60 or 70 yards; but he was tough, smart, and a great leader. Most of all, he was a winner; and he was surrounded by great players such as Red Phillips and Zeke Smith.
A few years later, in 1961, Coach Paul Bryant’s all-time favorite player, Pat Trammell, quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to Bryant’s first National Championship. Trammell was an accurate passer, but he wasn’t normally going to beat you with a 70 yard bomb. What he was, was one of the toughest players at any position to ever wear the crimson jersey. He was a truly great leader, a strong runner, and he was supremely confident and smart. He led the Tide to an 11-0 record aided by a defense that only gave up 25 points during the entire season. And, Trammell certainly defined the word, “winner”.
At the high school level, we (the SHS Aggies) had back to back quarterbacks in the 1953 and 1954 seasons that, at a different level, were very similar to Nix and Trammell. In 1953, Robert “Little Red” Collins quarterbacked the Aggies to a 9-1 record losing only to Alex City which was led by future Auburn All American, Jimmy “Red” Phillips. Collins did not have a big arm, but he had those same qualities of leadership, toughness etc. He was noted for running the Naked Bootleg to perfection. After his outstanding career at SHS, he played two years at Itawamba Junior College and two years at Mississippi State; but lacking the special skills of a big-time quarterback, he spent his college days as a running back.
The following year, 1954, a junior, Cayce Rumsey, inherited the QB slot from Collins and directed the Aggies to a 10-0 record and the Class 2-A State Championship. Like Collins, Rumsey did not possess the skill set or the size of a big-time quarterback; but he had the intangibles. He was tough, a strong runner, and a good ball handler. Additionally, he had the luxury of handing the ball off to three of the best running backs in SHS history – Jerry Lessley, Rooster Grice, and Ralph Moseley. Obviously, he did lots of things right as he directed traffic for a 10-0 season.
As a footnote to the description of both Collins and Rumsey, it should be noted that Jerry Lessley did much of the passing In both ’53 and ’54 from his running back slot. He either received a pitch from the quarterback after the snap or had the ball snapped directly to him through the quarterback’s legs.
Football has changed so much in the past 30 years or so that it is dangerous to compare players of different eras. The athletes are generally bigger, faster, and stronger than ever. They have the advantage of attending camps, watching film and learning from college and professional stars. Honestly, they are simply better than athletes from the older days – not because of God-given ability, but because of training advantages and nutrition.
Just this year, there are three high school quarterbacks from the Birmingham area that may be the three best of all time. Thompson’s Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua’s little brother), Pinson Valley’s Bo Nix, and Hewitt-Trussville’s Paul Tyson (Coach Paul Bryant’s great-grandson) have all put up stats that would not have been in the wildest dreams of Nix, Trammell, Collins, or Rumsey. I always thought that Pat Sullivan was the best high school quarterback I had ever seen when he played at John Carroll, but these three may all be better than he was.
There have been many good quarterbacks from Talladega County over the years. Childersburg produced Johnny Shoemaker (Howard College/Samford) and Bobby Weaver (Georgia/Miami) and Lee Carpenter (Auburn). From Comer there was Troy Deason (from 1939), Harold Price, Ray Phurrough, Gary Howell, Bebo Tilley, Jimmy Holmes, and Tellie Embry (Auburn).
Also there have been several more from SHS. One who graduated at Sylacauga in 1952 and who played halfback for the Aggies, but did most of the passing, was Bill Statnton. He went on to Mississippi State as a quarterback and was the Bulldog starter in 1953 and 1954. In fact, he was called the best in the SEC by Coach Shug Jordan after he engineered an upset of Auburn. He was later a long time SEC official.
Three of Coach Tom Calvin’s field generals received scholarships in the 1960’s – Chris Mitchell (Georgia Tech), Steve Rivers (Mississippi State), and Ken McLain (Troy State). Rivers is the father of current NFL star, Phillip Rivers. Some of the other special ones were Ray Collins (Howard/Samford), Dan Gaddis, and last year, Keaton Wilson (West Alabama).
Now back to Tua Tagovailoa. None of us alive today have seen anything to surpass – or even equal – him. Thirteen straight wins as a starter; six touchdowns against Auburn; leading a comeback in his first significant playing time in the national championship game last year; and that’s not all – the list of accomplishments is actually unbelievable.
I have had the privilege of seeing all of Alabama’s great quarterbacks since 1950 play in person – Butch Avinger, Bart Starr, Clell Hobson, Bobby Jackson, Pat Trammell, Joe Namath, Steve Sloan, Kenny Stabler, Terry Davis, Richard Todd, Gary Rutledge, Jeff Ruthledge, Steadman Shealey, Walter Lewis, A.J. McCarron, Jalen Hurts and more. All of these were great, but Tua has just about wiped all of their names from the record books, and he is just a sophomore.
The 2018 college season began with quite a few quarterbacks mentioned as All Star candidates, but Tua has made us forget the others except for Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. So, what’s next for Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa? CAN YOU SAY HEISMAN TROPHY? It may happen!