Thursday, September 16, 2021

Athens Trio Helped Reshape Georgia Football Forever

UGA Sports Communications

They were an Athens trio — Richard Appleby, Horace King and Clarence Pope — part of a trailblazing quintet that reshaped Georgia football forever.

Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1971, the three friends and teammates at Clarke Central High School, and the all-Black Burney-Harris High School before that, joined Chuck Kinnebrew and Larry West to become the First Five, the first African-American players in the program’s history. All five will be at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, along with their coach, Vince Dooley, to be honored before the Dawgs’ game against South Carolina.

“When we went to the University of Georgia, we got lucky,” Appleby said. “The three of us from Athens, Chuck from Rome and Larry from Albany — we were all nonviolent and we were all supportive of each other. We were in it together and we had the support of the community.”

Appleby, a wide receiver, is part of one of the most famous plays in Georgia-Florida history. But it wasn’t because of a pass he caught. In 1975, with the Dawgs trailing 7-3 in the fourth quarter, Dooley went up to Appleby and told him that they were going to run a trick play that they had been saving.

With a little more than three minutes remaining, Appleby got the ball on an end-around and fired it downfield to tight end Gene Washington for an 80-yard touchdown and, ultimately, a 10-7 Georgia win.

“That’s my biggest moment,” Appleby said with a big laugh from his home in Hawaii, where he’s lived for many years and worked in the tourism business.

That moment came about because of King, according to Appleby. If it wasn’t for King, who was a star running back at Clarke Central, Appleby wouldn’t have had the big senior season that he had and caught the eye of the coaching staff at Georgia. King actually threw a pair of touchdown passes to Appleby in their first game at Clarke Central, which had just merged Burney-Harris and Athens High their senior year.

King was the first Black player to score a touchdown for Georgia and Appleby was the first to throw a touchdown pass.

“It all starts with Horace King,” Appleby said. “If it’s not for Horace King, I don’t get a scholarship to the University of Georgia. If not for Horace King, Clarence Pope doesn’t get a chance to walk on and earn a scholarship at the University of Georgia.”

King went on to become the first Black player from Georgia selected in the NFL draft, spending nine seasons with the Detroit Lions. King, who later had a long career at General Motors, said his time at Georgia has meant more and more to him as the years have passed.

“I’ve been trying to wrap my hands around how I really feel about all this after this time has passed,” he said during a Zoom interview alongside Kinnebrew and West on Tuesday. “Just this morning I was thinking about what a Tuesday during the season actually would have been like for me there on campus. I always had a first-period class because I’m an early riser, and usually I tried to spend some time over in that weight room that Coach John Kasay put up for us.

“Going back and just thinking through those moments and that time and how I lived each day on campus. Though I grew up in Athens, it was like I moved to another town a little bit further away because of how big that university was and how busy I was with trying to be the best student-athlete that I could be. And the time commitment to doing that.

“It’s a short period of time and it’s a long period of time. I’m thankful that I had that great opportunity, especially after being a local fellow that grew up right there in Athens and coming from Burney-Harris to go to Clarke Central. And to end up on that big stage in Sanford Stadium, shoot, I’m getting cold chills just thinking about it now. It has been just a joy to have been part of that institution and the people.”

Pope, a linebacker, walked on before earning a scholarship. Growing up in Athens, he used to hear the cheers during games from his house.

“Being local and always going to the University of Georgia games, and I’m in the backyard and I’m hearing the cheers of Sanford Stadium, it was like an echo chamber,” he said in a Georgia video earlier this year. “I could just imagine how it was and I used to just throw the ball up and catch the ball like I was scoring.

“When I found myself on the other side of that dream, it was meant to be.”

For all three men from Athens, as well as Kinnebrew and West, the significance of being the first African-Americans to play football for Georgia wasn’t lost on them at the time. They knew they were in the spotlight, they knew what happened after their arrival would hinge in some ways on how they did on and off the field, and they embraced all of it.

“We were recognized as pioneers,” said Pope, who was a firefighter for Athens-Clarke County for many years as well as a pastor at a local church. “I liked the term because it recognizes individuals that cut a trail, and that’s what we did. We removed a lot of obstacles just by being ourselves.”

“In every aspect of my life, it impacted it,” King said. “Just that whole Athens, Ga., community, I’m proud to be a product of it and to at least represent it as one of the five that actually showed up on campus.”

The moms deserve a lot of credit, too.

“To stay home and actually play ball, which my mother decided that was going to happen that way — I enjoyed it. Every minute of it,” King said.

Appleby didn’t initially want to come to Georgia. He was a receiver and Georgia was a program that focused on running the ball.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I could catch a lot of passes. Once we got the offer, I told my mom that I didn’t want to go. And she told me, ‘Richard, somebody has to be the first Black to go over there.’ At that point, I had no other choice,” he said with a laugh.

“Moms know best. And I don’t regret it at all. I’m proud and I feel good about everything we did while we were there.”

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