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A labor of love for its founders, the Georgia High School Football Hall of Fame aims to honor the state's greatest players and connect the present to the past

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Photo of Calvin Johnson courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Marlene Karas

It just came to him one day.

IJ Rosenberg, the president of the sports marketing firm Score Atlanta and former beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution among other sport-related titles, was the man behind the idea for a Georgia High School Football Hall of Fame. 

“One of the things I noticed was there wasn’t a hall of fame in Georgia that was specifically for high school football,” Rosenberg said. “You had a state hall of fame that had football players in it, but there was not one just for football. 

“And if you really look at Georgia, it’s right there with Florida, California and Texas as the biggest football states.”

Rosenberg was no stranger to halls of fame. Four years ago, he and other graduates from Lakeside High School in Dekalb County started a sports hall of fame for the school’s athletes. His motivation for that project came from the 24 state titles that Lakeside won in the 1970s, the time he was a student there.

For the Georgia High School Football Hall of Fame, he put together a board of 28 members, who he describes as “diverse and eclectic,” to make decisions on who should be nominated and help get the project started. Among those on the board include Bill Hartman, whose career as an Atlanta sportscaster spanned more than 50 years. 

Hartman got his first fix of the high school game writing for the Athens Banner-Herald while he was a student at the University of Georgia before moving to Atlanta where he began reporting for FOX 5. His passion for this hall of fame comes from the sport itself.

“I thought it was so pure,” Hartman said. “A 16-year-old kid catches a touchdown pass and he jumps up in front of our cameras, that may be the greatest moment in his athletic life. That emotion is not there in big time college football anymore, not there in the pros. It’s just heartwarming to see that kind of emotion from 16, 17-year-old kids.”

The board started with 123 names and narrowed the list to the 100 that will be up for induction to the hall on Oct. 22, the weekend before the Georgia-Florida game. The board split the state into 12 areas – four from Metro Atlanta and the other eight from across the state – and also split the nominees by time period. Only 36 of the 100 will be selected in the inaugural class.

Todd Holcomb, one of the creators of the Georgia High School Football Historians Association and current editor of Georgia High School Football Daily, is another member of the board. He was brought on as a historian of the field and studied the earliest parts of the game to make sure this first class will honor those from across the timeline and take out bias from recent players.

“It helped me again see how the sport evolved,” Holcomb said. “It wasn’t like suddenly someone invented it and there were 200 teams playing. It started out as a handful and slowly grew. Football then [1910-20s] is quite a bit different from what you see today.”

Individuals can be on the ballot for up to five years before they are scratched if they aren’t selected. Once a class of 36 are inducted, a new group of 36 names will repopulate the list. Rosenberg said a player can become eligible for the hall eight years after leaving the high school game or immediately after retiring from an NFL roster.

Not everyone needs a nomination to enter the hall. The board decided that the nine players in the NFL Hall of Fame from the state of Georgia – like Fran Tarkenton and Shannon Sharpe – would be automatically drafted into the hall, as well as those who make the cut in the future.

“Going back and trying to get history on some of those players was extremely tough,” Rosenberg said. “We decided since they made the pinnacle of football, which is the NFL Hall of Fame, that they would go in automatically.”

Honoring history

Finding stats on some of these athletes is hard enough, but one task tougher was finding info on Black athletes. 

Before high school football in the state integrated, Black athletes were forced to compete in the now-defunct Georgia Interscholastic Association (GIA). Since few stats and fewer stories in print and television are available from the conference, different criteria were used for these nominees.

Holcomb had some knowledge of more famous Black schools like Spencer High School in Columbus, Booker T.  Washington in Atlanta, and Lucy C. Laney High School in Augusta, but had to dig deeper to find some of the lesser-known athletes. 

Hartman has spent some of his time looking into these historical Black athletes. When it comes to photos, yearbooks are the large source of material. Videos of Black athletes from the time are almost nonexistent.

“Newspapers didn’t really cover game stories or stories about the players during that era,” Hartman said. “That’s the way it’s been in the state of Georgia. It’s few and far between, and you almost have to get an oral history from people who were around back then.”

While the histories are hard to find, they are out there. Holcomb interviewed Raymond Williams, coach of Turner High School when they won a state championship in 1952, and got his take on key players from his era.

“He was a witness to it,” Holcomb said. “It’s kind of a treasure to find someone like that, who would have some opinions. I’ve talked to a couple of other people who played in that era just to get their thoughts on who were the best players. A lot of it is anecdotal and reputation because not many statistics exist. But you still get a sense for who the best players were.”

Moving forward

While a physical space is a ways ahead, the board has thoughts on a site. Rosenberg and the board want to mirror the hall of fame with the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. The IBHoF is on the same site as a high school, which attracts visitors to every home game. A location with a natural draw would be ideal.

“We want to be in a situation where people are walking by it, there’s traffic. Maybe it’s a new high school with a good basketball team. It’s only going to survive if we’re somewhere that makes sense.”

The hall would like to expand the award list in the future, Rosenberg added. The board would like to select historic teams into the hall of fame, which would allow more individuals to be included in the history books, and the body would like to give out a distinguished service award.

For Hartman, the project has been a way to reconnect with his passion for the game – a passion that drove his professional career.

“It just kind of renewed my interest in high school football and the history of it in the state of Georgia,” Hartman said. “It really kind of sparked me to get more knowledge of who played when.”

Through the research process, Rosenberg has had people emailing and calling him, wanting to nominate their fathers and relatives. His group is focused on selecting the best of the best for the hall, but receiving all of the suggestions for nominees is what it’s all about: finding and telling the stories of Georgia football.

“The reason we’re doing this is to tell the story of the history of high school football, that’s the easiest way to put it,” Rosenberg said. “There’s just so many great, great players that came out of the state.”

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