It could very well be the best high school football team to ever take the field in north Alabama.
An argument could also be made that it is the best high school team the state of Alabama has ever seen, regardless of classification.
Around here, it doesn’t take long to figure out that team is the 1972 Colbert County Indians, During their magical season the Indians finished 13-0 and captured the Class 3A state championship.
The team included future AHSAA Hall of Fame coaches in head coach C.T. Manley and assistant Don Creasy, future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome and three SEC signees in Newsome (Alabama), quarterback Phil Gargis (Auburn) and wide receiver Thad Flanagan (Alabama).
Ron Ingram, director of communications for the AHSAA and a longtime prep writer for the Birmingham News, said many teams are in the conversation when discussing the state’s greatest teams. Ingram mentioned, among others, Vigor (1988); Homewood (2005); Jeff Davis (1978); Blount (1996) and Sidney Lanier (1966).
“There have been a lot of great teams but when you look at teams below Class 6A, that Colbert County team was phenomenal,” Ingram said. “It might have been the best 3A team ever and 3A back then was like 5A today. I know that team is talked about a lot and still generates a lot of interest.”
Creasy, who later took over for Manley and guided Colbert County to two state championships, said it’s impossible to say how the 1972 team ranks among other great teams from the past.
“It’s just hard to compare teams,” he said. “I just know that was a special group. I don’t know how it compares to others but I know it was a pretty good football team.”
The team is still revered by residents in Leighton, who have a passion for high school football.
Colbert County had plenty of great teams before 1972 and has won five more state championships since. Still, the 1972 team is considered special.
“I was fortunate to be on the staff for two state championships at Colbert County, but even then you are always compared to the 1972 team,” former Central coach Ikey Fowler said. “As long as people are still living that saw that team play, anything done at Colbert County will be compared to them because they were so dominant.”
Manley coached one year at Colbert County in 1946 and returned in 1954. He produced several quality teams during the next 24 years, including a 9-2 squad in 1971. With the bulk of the players returning, expectations were high for the 1972 team.
“Coach Manley knew we had the potential to have a great team, but he also knew you usually need a little luck to win a championship,” Creasy said. “But those seniors that year were a pretty mature bunch and had a lot of ability. That group hardly ever lost in anything.”
Junior offensive tackle Garland Burden said the Indians knew there was potential for a good season but talk of a state championship was limited.
“We really didn’t talk much about how good we could be,” Burden said. “It was late in the year before we really thought much about winning a state championship. Coach Manley did a great job keeping us focused on the next game and not looking ahead.”
While Gargis, Newsome and Flanagan were the marquee names, there were plenty of other standouts on the roster.
Sophomore Ossie Jones was the top running back, while Frank Johnson, Jack King and Maurice Brawley were also outstanding backs. Brawley didn’t join the team until his senior season.
“Maurice’s dad wouldn’t let him play football,” Creasy said. “He bought him a trombone when he was in junior high and he said Maurice needed to be blowing that horn. But he finally agreed to let Maurice play and he was a great player for us.”
Burden started at right tackle with Thomas Gargis at right guard, Danny Stutts at center, William Parker at left guard and Alan Gargis at left tackle.
Several offensive starters also played defense. The defensive line also included Eddie Johnson, Calvin King, Dan Campbell and Edward King, while Karl Pruitt joined Johnson and Brawley at linebacker.
Colbert County featured a diverse offense. The Indians could pound the ball with a wishbone attack and then switch to a split backfield to take advantage of their two all-state receivers.
“It was easy to throw out of the split backfield with receivers like Thad and Ozzie,” Phil Gargis said. “Then we would just wear teams down with the wishbone. The unsung heroes were the guys on the offensive line because they just blew people off the ball.”
Gargis said Manley was not an imposing figure as a head coach, but there was no doubt he had the player’s respect.
“Coach Manley was more of a father figure for us,” Phil Gargis said. “It’s not like you were afraid of him, but you respected him and nobody wanted to disappoint him. He was just a great coach and leader as well as a great person.”
The Indians steamrolled through the regular season. A 19-14 victory over Hartselle in the second game was their only test.
Fowler was a junior quarterback at Central when he faced the Indians. Colbert County’s speed is what he remembers most.
“There is no doubt they were a very physical team, but the thing that really stood out was how fast they all were,” Fowler said. “It really felt like there were 16 men playing defense instead of 11.
“You drop back to pass and they are all over you, but then it looks like they have eight men in coverage. Nobody else could play at that speed.”
After a 10-0 regular season, the Indians opened postseason play with a 56-12 victory over Smith’s Station. The Indians pounded Oxford 43-7 the next week to advance to the championship game against Cullman.
Getting to Cullman to play the Dec. 1 game proved to be the toughest challenge for the Indians.
The story of the bus breaking down on the way to the championship game is legendary in Leighton. However, it’s not urban legend.
“We were turning off County Line Road onto Highway 157 and the driver turned too sharply,” Creasy said. “The back wheels ran off into the culvert in the ditch and it bent the shift link The bus would not shift out of low gear, so we drove down 157 in low gear.
“We made it to a store and called to get another bus, but they had a hard time finding another one. It was getting late, so we went ahead and taped the players as they sat on old drink boxes. The players were really afraid we were not going to make it by game time and we would have to forfeit.”
Burden recalls an interesting ride to Cullman after the second bus arrived to pick up the team.
“The driver drove like a madman once we got on the bus,” Burden said. “Highway 157 was just two lanes back then and he was passing cars all over the place. I could tell it was making Coach Manley nervous.”
The Indians arrived at gametime. Creasy said officials delayed the game a few minutes, but Colbert County had only about 15 minutes to finish dressing and get loose.
“Coach Manley sent Phil and Thad out for the coin toss and we just jogged around a little bit to try to get loose,” Burden said. “We didn’t really get to warm up and it was a slow first half for us.”
The adversity took its toll on the Indians. Colbert County’s normally dominant offense struggled and the two teams went into halftime tied at 7.
“I think the first half was a combination of just being nervous and worrying about getting there late,” Phil Gargis said. “Cullman also played really well in the first half. But we got settled down at halftime and things clicked in the second half.”
Creasy said the coaches showed their displeasure during the halftime break.
“We did get their attention, and then we told them if they would just settle down and do what they were supposed to do everything would be fine,” he said. “I think they were just nervous, but they settled down in the second half.”
It didn’t take long for the Indians to take control in the second half. Gargis and Newsome teamed up for a 70-yard pass play on the first play of the second half, giving Colbert County the lead for good.
Gargis added two touchdown runs to put the Indians up 29-7 late in the third quarter. King and Brawley scored touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the Indians cruised to a 41-14 victory and their first state championship.
Colbert County has added five more state championships since the one in 1972. Burden said it was special to bring Colbert County its first state title.
“We’ll always be the team that hung the first championship, but they’ve hung a lot more since then,” he said. “We got the championships going, although there was already a tradition of hard-nosed football at Colbert County. It was a fun season and I was fortunate to have some great teammates.”
So was the 1972 Colbert County team the best ever in Alabama?
“Let’s put it this way, I haven’t seen a team yet that could have beaten us,” Phil Gargis said. “It’s so hard to compare teams from different eras because it’s a totally different game now. But athletic wise and for the things we did at that time, I feel like we could have played with anybody.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.