Originally created 11/01/03

Citadel to retire Small's jersey



Everything John Small does in his life has a purpose.

While achieving glory on the football field at Richmond Academy in the 1960s, Small was a two-way player who wore No. 22 for the Musketeers.

After his friend and teammate, Billy Leister, was killed during an accident in high school, Small switched his jersey number to 66.

"He was a tough little red-headed guy," Small said of Leister. "He was such a gutty player. I hoped to accomplish something (while wearing his number)."

Leister would be proud of what Small achieved while wearing the No. 66 during his college days at The Citadel and with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL.

The Citadel is retiring Small's jersey in a halftime ceremony today during its homecoming game against Wofford. It is just the fifth time in the school's history that a player has been so honored.

"The threads of that jersey are all the teammates that played with me," Small said. "That's the way I'll accept it."

Leister also would be proud of what Small, 56, has accomplished in the years since his playing days ended. The Augusta resident is committed to helping serve others, particularly young people.

"Do you want to make a difference?" is a question Small frequently asks others.

Small hopes to take the knowledge he has gathered and use it to help students make better grades and achieve things in life.

"Knowledge is power, and it's useless unless it's used," he said.

SMALL GREW UP in a military family and moved to Augusta in the early '60s when his father was stationed at Fort Gordon. Already a decent baseball player, Small played organized football for the first time at Langford Junior High.

He excelled and made the Richmond Academy team as a sophomore, a feat that was difficult in those days. The school was recognized as a football power throughout the state, and the team was heavily populated with juniors and seniors.

"I had to earn everything," said Small, who is still an imposing figure at 6-foot-4 1/2 and 245 pounds. "My personal philosophy has made me what I am."

As a halfback and fullback on offense, Small was a solid player. But it was at linebacker - his favorite position - where he would ultimately achieve the recognition that made him an All-American and, later, a professional.

"I practiced, practiced, practiced to become the best at what I did," he said.

Bigger schools, including Georgia, offered Small a football scholarship. He spurned those offers to go to The Citadel, a small military school in Charleston, S.C.

"I didn't want to sell my flesh to any school," Small said. "The Citadel offered me four years of academics."

Small's work ethic paid off while playing in the relative anonymity of the Southern Conference. He went on to become a consensus All-American and was drafted in the first round by Atlanta in 1970.

"My philosophy was that if you worked on it you could become an All-American anywhere," said Small, who was known as "Big John" during his playing days. "If you were good enough, the scouts would come."

Small embraced the military school and said it "became a father figure" for him.

He received his degree in physical education, and today he proudly displays two rings - one from the NFL and the other his class ring from The Citadel.

He is happy to take part in today's jersey ceremony because it might help other athletes attend the school, which now competes in Division I-AA.

"I'm proud to get the Citadel name out there," he said.

Les Robinson, director of athletics at The Citadel, said Small made his mark on the field and off.

"John brought as much recognition to The Citadel as any athlete did in history during his athletic career as a Bulldog," Robinson said. "John was a great leader not only on the football field but in the barracks as a member of the Corps of Cadets."

AFTER COMPLETING HIS collegiate career as a co-captain of the Senior Bowl team, Small had caught the eye of professional scouts and was selected as the 12th overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.

"I was kind of an oddity," Small admitted.

With Atlanta, Small was able to play with perennial All-Pro linebacker Tommy Nobis, one of the players he had studied while growing up.

But Small's playing career as a professional was less fulfilling than his days in high school and college.

He and Atlanta coach Norm Van Brocklin disagreed about what position Small should play, and the lifelong linebacker was converted into a defensive tackle. After three years of frustration, Small asked to be traded, and he was sent to Detroit.

He was not able to wear No. 66 with the Lions because a player with more seniority had the number. So Small, who played tight end at the end of his career, switched to No. 84.

Although Small has been off the playing field for more than 25 years, he still carries reminders of his playing days. After four operations on his left knee, he needs a cane to help maneuver around. He also has crutches and a mobility cart at his disposal.

During his career, he also suffered a broken vertebra in his neck.

More recently, diabetes and heart problems have plagued Small. He had to have part of his right foot amputated because of complications related to diabetes, and he suffered a heart attack earlier this year.

"I've been trying to get back up on my feet," he said.

DESPITE HIS RECENT bout of health problems, Small's passion about helping others is still strong.

He and his wife, Lucia, raised a family of four children, but Small still found time to do his share of speaking in schools and hospitals. He also started a ministry program to help troubled youth.

Most recently he founded JKS Team Incorporated, a company that uses faith-based principles to serve others. He is passionate about getting community leaders to work together.

"They can make a difference if they all work together," he said. "They can help a kid find his way in life."

He also hopes to get the CSRA Sports Hall of Fame & Museum up and running soon. From that platform, he hopes to reach out to students and give them opportunities.

"The best athletes aren't going to college," he said. "They're not passing the tests. My mission is to get resources so they can make better grades. I want to sell them on their dreams."

Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or john.boyette@augustachronicle.com.