Regardless of age, residents embrace high school football. At the front of the city’s stadium stands a reminder that 50 years ago North Augusta was in a similar football fever.
“I remember the citywide support,” former Yellow Jacket and NFL veteran Craig Baynham said. “The school was into it; the adults were into it. Football was a big part of the city and the people.”
Baynham was the running back on North Augusta’s 1961 state championship team, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year. A bust of then-coach Calhoun “Cally” F. Gault stands at the entrance to Lions Memorial Field with a plaque listing the accomplishments of his teams. A small road called “Cally’s Alley” runs between the stadium and a cemetery.
North Augusta hasn’t won a state title since 1989, but the team is hoping to change that this year as the Class AAAA Division II playoffs open Friday with a home game against J.L. Mann.
A balanced offensive attack averaging almost 40 points per game has propelled the Yellow Jackets to a 10-1 regular-season record and a No. 5 seed in the 16-team bracket.
Fifty years ago, North Augusta also stormed through the regular season with just a single loss – to eventual Georgia state semifinalist Richmond Academy. A shutout win over Clinton gave the 1961 team a Class AA state championship.
“I could talk all day about it,” guard Sonny Anderson said. “Coach Gault was a mentor and more than that to all of us. When you look at that team and those 30 guys, it’s amazing what they’ve done.”
Baynham and Anderson said a group of about eight men from the state title team meet regularly and are planning to visit Gault in Clinton, S.C., later this month.
If all goes well for North Augusta’s current team, the former players will sit down to eat with the legendary coach just as the current Yellow Jackets prepare for a return trip to the state semifinals.
The excitement around town might be similar, the numbers are bigger in many ways for the current generation.
Coach Dan Pippin said as many as 8,000 people attended the team’s regular-season showdown against region champion Lexington and home games have drawn an average of 3,000 to 4,000 people.
Aside from football, crowds were treated to pregame festivities including tailgating, motorcycle rides around the track, a T-shirt launcher and parachutists delivering the game ball to midfield.
“That’s one of the things people tell me about after they go to a game,” Pippin said.
“It’s like a small-college atmosphere, and that’s great for the community. Sometimes the hard part for me is reminding everybody that football is still the main thing that night. This is what attracted me to North Augusta.”
The size of the players on the field also has increased. Anderson said the ’61 team had only one player weighing more than 200 pounds. North Augusta’s current crop of senior linemen averages a little more than 233 pounds. Two sophomores are more than 300 pounds.
“These kids are baby elephants today,” Baynham said.
“A lot of my prowess would have been hampered had we had to play against people that big. But the mental toughness is the same.”
The seniors on the ’61 team suffered a key region loss to Orangeburg during their junior year and committed to avenging the defeat the next season. Anderson said the football schedule Gault handed out to his players that summer included dates set aside for the lower state and state title games.
“We resolved among ourselves to do all we could do to win a state championship our senior year,” Baynham said. “It was a huge sense of accomplishment when we did.”
The current North Augusta squad has a similar resolve to make a deep state playoff run. The program has won 33 of 38 games during the past three seasons and reached the state semifinals last year.
This year’s team has excited crowds with a high-powered, fast-paced offense, but there are concerns about a defense that has surrendered an average of more than three touchdowns per game.
J.L. Mann will come into Friday’s game averaging 40 points per game in seven wins.
“That’s the thing we’ve got to get the kids to realize. This could be our last game,” Pippin said. “The goals have gone up. And, yes, people give our defense a hard time, but we’ve been playing against some of the best offenses in the state.
“This is it. It’s a little cooler now. It’s the playoffs. This is a fun time. We’re ready for it.”