Memories of a golden year
When the Forrest Rockets reached the quarterfinal round of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) playoffs last year it marked just the second time in Chapel Hill’s history that a team had gone that far.
The first time was the year Elvis died, 1977.
“The big deal for that year was when Elvis died and we got the news as we were getting ready for practice,” said ’78 Forrest grad Steve Turner, who went on to become a standout running back at Tennessee State University and also played in the last Forrest Alumni game in 2015 at the age of 55. “Everyone in the locker room was shocked. I also know my teacher Ms. Todd lost 10 years of life because she played his music every day in her class room until we graduated.”
Turner had suffered the death of his mother (Johnnie Ruth Turner) the previous year and dedicated his 1977 season to her.
“My mind was made up to give all I had as she would have been there watching and would be very proud,” Turner said. “I didn't want it to end. 1977 was the year that I didn't want to let go because everything after that year are just memories for me in Chapel Hill, and I am just thankful for all the teachers and friends who helped me to get through school and life.”
Jimmy Carter was in the White House in ‘77, the first Star Wars movie was released, the Apple II computer went on sale, Seattle Slew won horse racing’s Triple Crown, Roots was on TV, Burt Reynolds hauled 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta in Smokey and the Bandit, the New York Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers as Reggie Jackson donned the name "Mr. October”, the Space Shuttle debuted with its first test flight, and I graduated high school.
For the senior class at Forrest School, the community, and the Rocket football team the day they all remember forever is November 11, 1977 when in an epic, freezing cold night, Chapel Hill traveled to Goodpasture in a David vs. Goliath, Veteran’s Day matchup.
The Rockets had come off a good 9-2 season in ’76 under the tutelage of legendary coach Murrey E. Holton and his assistants Homer Jones and Wayne Aldridge.
“Coaches Murrey Holton, Wayne Aldridge, Wayne "Homer" Jones are three of the best men, coaches, and friends anyone would ever want as leaders,” said ‘77 standout quarterback Jimmy Henson, who went on to play basketball for one semester at MTSU before transferring to Carson-Newman where he played football. “They are lifetime friends.”
Henson went on to work at ICP in Lewisburg until the plant closed in 2002 and returned to MTSU where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Education in 2004 and began teaching and coaching in the Marshall County School system until just last year.
Forrest finished the 1977 season at 9-1 to win the District 12A championship with the only blemish coming in a Week 2, 13-12 loss to intra-county rival Cornersville in Chapel Hill.
“I knew we had a good team and felt very confident about every game,” said Dederick Yeargin, now a Nurse Practitioner and another senior on the squad. “I can say I never thought about losing a game that year.”
Yeargin, who would come up with the game changing play versus Goodpasture added, “We were a close group and played well together as well as having quite a bit of talent for such a small team. It was a fun year for sure.”
The Rockets reeled off eight consecutive wins after the heartbreaking loos to the Bulldogs, setting up the epic night at Goodpasture.
“I turned 17 the day of the big game...this game was our "Hoosiers" game...country coming to town,” ’77 senior Betsy (Johns) Bishop said. “They had about three times the amount of players, they had a band, and we were such the underdog.”
Turner remembers the hype that led up to the game and a game day like he had never experienced before, “I remember the whole town of Chapel Hill was there and the radio station from Marshall County had it live for everyone to hear.”
“It was like playing in the Super Bowl and I have nothing that could compare to that feeling from that night.”
An estimated crowd of 2,700 watched the contest at Madison go the halftime mark with heavily favored Goodpasture holding a 20-7 lead.
When Ken “Pork Chop” Elmore recovered a Cougar fumble early in the second half, the momentum swung to the underdogs, who stormed back to tie the game with less than two minutes to go on a Ronnie Taylor 2-yard touchdown burst.
“The first half was so cold and we were down 20-7...when the boys came back after halftime, we had a new team,” Bishop said.
The comeback epitomized the Rockets that year according to Henson, “Number one we had heart, two we were one, three we had each other’s back, four we were in shape, and five we knew what we (each other) were doing.”
“That's not an arrogant statement, we just knew what everyone was supposed to do.”
Goodpasture won the overtime coin toss and elected to go on offense, starting at the 10-yard line.
An off sides call on Forrest moved the ball to 5-yard line and a one-yard loss made it second-and-goal from the six when fate showed up in Madison.
On the next snap, Turner put a big hit on the Goodpasture running back and knocked the ball loose.
Yeargin saw the ball on the ground and picked it up, racing down the field with Turner as an escort and went untouched 80 yards for walk-off touchdown as the Chapel Hill fans went crazy.
“I remember the last play like it was yesterday, I was hoping that they would come to my side because I was ready for anything,” said Turner, who was playing outside linebacker. “I was saying to myself please pitch it----Guess what, he did and the ball came flying out and he laid on the ground and he couldn't get up.”
“Dederick picked up the ball and ran 80 yards for the TD as I ran along with him just in case he got a cramp he could throw it back because he gets one every game.”
Bishop remembers the feeling as the Rockets came back, saying, “When we tied the game, I can't express the excitement. And when Turner hit the guy, Dederick got the ball, and then scored was one of the happiest memories of my whole life.”
The next week Forrest lost 34-7 to Westmoreland, but it didn’t matter, history had been made in Chapel Hill and it would not be matched for 39 years.
“The best thing that came after that was how people all over town were so proud of us and they still talk about it today, I even tell the story to teams in Nashville and Franklin on how to never give up,” said Turner. “It really touched my heart when David Daniel's dad was on his sick bed as I went to see him and all he could do was smile and talk about that football game.”
“I tell kids all the time they really don't know how much affect it can be to a small town or any town to have people who care about you, so you need to have pride in playing the game and even able to play the game not just for yourself, but for those who can't.”
Yeargin said about the year he will never forget, “I just didn't want the year to end, I loved playing on this team and knowing everyone so well made it even better.”
Henson will never forget either, saying, “Monumental to say the least, we (players) and everyone else still talk about the game today (40 years later). Great memories, lifetime friendships, a lot of love...and of course a lot of aches and pains!!!”
“We were a very special group of guys and very blessed to have each other. Thank God and the city of Chapel Hill for a great moment in our lives,” Turner said.
Yeargin said, “I love that we made a place in history for our school and for the town of Chapel Hill. I am very proud to be a Rocket for life!”
The 1977 team and the cheerleaders will be honored at halftime of tonight’s game versus Loretto.