By Steve Williams
Knoxville has had its share of special TSSAA playoff games and moments over the years, and not all of them have to do with winning a championship or coming up just a point short.
When the classification system was adopted in 1969 and the first three state title games (Class AAA, AA and A) were played, Knoxville did not have a finalist, but our city was host to the first Class AAA finals: Morristown East vs. Memphis South Side. Evans-Collins Field was the site on Nov. 28, 1969.
That piece of ground is now where part of the Caswell Park softball complex now lies between Winona Avenue and Magnolia just east of downtown.
Morristown East battled from behind to win 15-12. Attendance was reported to be 2,000.
Running instead of punting after a low snap, the Scrappers from West Tennessee, leading by five, were stopped short of a first down at their 24-yard line with 5:27 to go. That was just the break the Morristown team needed.
A clutch fourth down pass from Carter Davis to Marshall Mills put the ball at the 10-yard line. Fullback Ken “The Wrecker” Rucker, a unanimous All-Stater, scored with a determined run from the 4 and added a 2-point run on a sweep for the winning margin.
Morristown East’s head coach, Rex Dockery, became an assistant coach at UT under Bill Battle the following season. He coached offensive guard Phillip Fulmer and was responsible for recruiting Vol great Condredge Holloway.
Dockery later became head coach at Texas Tech and Memphis State, but was killed in a plane crash in 1983.
Dec 6, 1974: Fulton was the first Knoxville team to play in a state championship game. It was a time when public and private schools competed against each other in the playoffs.
Father Ryan nipped Fulton 29-28 for the Class AAA state crown as Joey Wood’s interception at the 8-yard line ended a threat by the Falcons with less than a minute to play at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
Approximately 5,500 fans watched the two unbeaten powers battle on a cold and windy night. The lead changed hands five times.
“We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose,” said a proud Fulton Head Coach Jim McClain after the game. “I know that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the way I feel. I really think we are better than they are.”
The contest matched two of the state’s top quarterbacks: Father Ryan’s heralded Mike Wright and the Falcons’ unsung Steve Brewer. Wright, the state’s Class AAA Player of the Year, had a hand in three touchdowns, sneaking across from the 1 and firing scoring passes of 15 yards to Wood and 60 yards to Mike Coleman. Wood also returned a fumble 24 yards for a TD.
Brewer too had a hand in three touchdowns. He plunged in from the 1 and had scoring strikes of seven yards to Tommy Dyer and 27 yards to Danny Beeler. Joe Brown returned a Ryan fumble 33 yards for the Falcons’ other score.
The quick Nashville team jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first quarter and was on top 15-12 at halftime. Fulton led 28-22 after three quarters.
“Our kids have a lot of character,” added Coach McClain. “It’s the best group I’ve ever coached. This will be a great memory. I’ll just pretend we won.”
Brewer went on to become head coach at his alma mater (1981 to 1991) before taking over the reins at Sevier County, where he led the Smoky Bears to a Class 5A state title in 1999. He retired from coaching in 2014 after 22 seasons at Sevier County.
Dec. 4, 1981: Webb School became the first Knoxville team to win a state championship. The fact that it was the 13th season of the playoffs would prove to be a good omen for Ron Gratz, the Spartans’ head coach.
Webb edged previously unbeaten Memphis Prep 7-6 for the Class A title. The game was played at Bearden High and 3,500 spectators were on hand on a cold and windy night.
Mark Clark, junior quarterback, scored on a 41-yard run in the third quarter and Ned Babb added the go-ahead PAT kick. The Spartans had several defensive standouts, led by Raymond Jacobs, Scott Davis and Mark Schmadtke.
After the game, Coach Gratz talked about how special it felt to be the Knoxville Football League’s first state champion.
“Even though we went into the playoffs as a small private school, we were representing Knoxville,” he said. “We talked about it quite a bit. Knoxville has outstanding football. It feels good for us to be able to win it for the hometown. It’s the start of many more for Knoxville.”
Shortly after the game, Gratz revealed the number 13 had been lucky for him as a player at Morristown High and coach. He had experienced several wins on a Friday the 13th, his Webb championship team had 13 seniors and of course the total points in the Spartans’ title game added up to 13.