DANDRIDGE — There’s no hero like the first hero, the saying goes. The passage of time cannot erase the memories that begin at a young age and continue across the years.
Over the years, schoolboy football fans have had their share of heroes.
For 1960 East High School graduates David Lawson and his “best friend,” the Rev. David McMahan, both now 71, their first and lasting heroes wore orange and white and played on the 1956 SEC champion University of Tennessee football team. Shields-Watkins Field was the place to be, and Tennessee football players were the toast of the town.
That love and admiration became abundantly clear when their friends gathered in a back dining room at the Captain’s Galley last Thursday.
It was an emotional and heartwarming time for everyone as memories of the 1956 campaign flooded the room like rushing waters. Tears flowed from many of the participants, arriving in many cases before anyone knew they
For his part, McMahan is in the midst of fighting a courageous battle against Stage 4 lung cancer, and while his words often came with great difficulty, they were heartfelt and moving.
There were other heroes in those days, Lawson mentioning Arnold Palmer and Mickey Mantle, but Tennessee All-America wide receiver Buddy Cruze, No. 86, and Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Johnny Majors, No. 45, earned the lion’s share of their attention and admiration over the years.
One of the finest athletes in Knoxville prep history, Cruze was a Mountaineer football and basketball star, moving to East High School after Knox High closed down in the early 1950s.
Majors, claimed equally by the Middle Tennessee towns of Lynchburg and Huntland and known in his collegiate days as “Drum” or “Solid Gold Cadillac,” was on his way to becoming one of the most beloved players in Tennessee history.
Lawson and McMahan lived and died with the Vols from their earliest memories. The two painstakingly and lovingly assembled a scrapbook honoring their heroes and that special 1956 season.
Lawson said McMahan did “99.9 percent” of the work, calling his effort a “work of art.”
Whoever did what, the finished product was a marvel to behold, telling the story of that season “all the way through.”
Starting with the opening game against Auburn, McMahan pasted the essential facts of each game, pictures, and newspaper clippings on wide-ruled notebook paper, assembling a document that has survived the 57 intervening years, despite the problems people often face in holding on to such important “stuff.”
Majors and Cruze, each now in their late 70s, special guests at the restaurant gathering last Thursday and engaged in friendly banter discussing those long-ago days on campus, playing for coach Bowden Wyatt.
“When Buddy and I get together, it’s hard for either of us to get a word in edgewise,” Majors said. “My ego never gets out of control when Buddy’s around.”
When Majors mentioned running the run-pass option out of the single-wing, Cruze wryly noted that Majors “threw it end over end, and I had the option to catch either end.”
Each man claimed credit for the other earning All-America honors, Majors talking about throwing the ball, Cruze talking about catching it, and the debate focusing on the passes being perfect or the catches being exceptional.
“Buddy Cruze is a real hero,” Lawson said, with some considerable emotion in his voice and the recollection that Cruze’s family had once bought the Lawson’s family home on Castle Avenue. “I have a hard time saying it, but I don’t know what else to say.”
He then looked at Majors and said the same thing, praising Majors for taking time out to call and see how McMahan was doing a few years back.
At the end of it all, the day was all about McMahan, as his life and example, passed in review. He was, as someone noted, a fan in the best sense of the word.
“Today is a tribute to the life he’s led and his determination,” Lawson said, leading a toast to his buddy.
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.