Sept. 24, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Heard something rare the other day, and back in time I went with goose bumps.
A clock chimed exactly like the one that I often heard from my great grandmother’s mantle back about the same time former Georgia Tech great Billy Shaw was ringing the bells of AFL defenders as a guard for the Buffalo Bills. That equates to the mid- and late-1960s.
Shaw will step back in time today, sort of, as honorary captain for Tech’s game against N.C. State.
Tech was in the SEC when Shaw, 71, played for the Yellow Jackets from 1958-’60 and the Wolfpack was in the ACC, so they never squared off while he was on The Flats.
Really, though, today’s opponent doesn’t matter much. Serious emotions are afoot.
“It’s a big deal for me, and even if the story I’m about to tell wasn’t true, it’d still be a big deal,” Shaw said. “[Today] is Parents Day at Tech, and I have a grandson who’s a freshman (Ben Matthews). I’m going to get to come with his mom and dad and see him.
“I have another grandson [Jake Thornton of Toccoa’s Stephens County High] who’s coming with me who will be a recruit to a division less than Tech, but he’s going to play college ball somewhere. He’s a huge Tech fan. [Today] is going to be a special.”
One need not speak long with Shaw – one of two former Tech players in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame and the first player ever elected to the Hall who spent his entire career (’61-’69) in the old American Football League – to realize he has great stories to span generations.
You can’t talk to Tech’s other PFHOFer.
Joe Guyon, he of the Jackets’ 1917 national championship team, is not around. A well-traveled man, the Chippewa was born on White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota, played for the NFL’s Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, Kansas City Cowboys and New York Giants, and was often paired in the same NFL backfield with another native American, Jim Thorpe.
But he died in 1971.
So read a spell, go back a half century and perhaps grow some goose bumps of your own.
Asked his foremost recollection from his time as a Yellow Jacket, Shaw doesn’t wax poetic. He bums out in recalling his senior season of ’60 as John F. Kennedy was storming out of nowhere.
“We were 5-5, lost three games by one point, one game by two points, and then we got smoked 6-0 in the other,” Shaw said. “We could have gone undefeated. The disappointment of that year was special in a negative way because Coach [Bobby] Dodd deserved a whole lot more than what he got from us.”
Interesting that the man remembers a .500 season as so disappointing for how close the Jackets came to being something so much more (their losses were 18-17 at Florida, 9-7 against Auburn in Birmingham, 6-0 at Duke, 16-15 to Alabama and 7-6 at Georgia), but more for its effect on his coach.
That says something about Shaw, and about Dodd. More later on that man.
Offense or defense, AFL or NFL?
Shaw, who played on both sides of the ball at Tech (chiefly at tackle on offense), will tell you that he’s led a blessed life. Any ball player who can say that Dodd and Otto Graham molded his career has a head start in that direction.
There used to be this college all-star game in Chicago, where . . .
“Otto Graham is our coach, I’m playing defensive tackle behind [future Cowboys Hall of Famer] Bob Lilly and I see very quickly that my fortune – if I was going to have one in pro football – wasn’t at defensive tackle,” Shaw said. “Every professional player has a nemesis in the game. Mine ended up being a defensive tackle for the Boston Patriots named Houston Antwine. He was about 6-feet, 280
“He also was playing in that All-Star game, and he was playing guard. My only salvation was that he was stinking it up worse at guard than I was at defensive tackle. Otto Graham switched us.”
That would not be the last time that providence tilted in favor of Mr. Shaw.
He was drafted in the second round by the AFL’s Bills. The NFL draft was to come. This was 1961. Keep in mind, the AFL had only one season in the books; the NFL was bedrock relative to the AFL’s sand by water’s edge. The rascals in Dallas, coach Tom Landry included, tried to use that.
“The Cowboys in preliminary discussions . . . thought that I was better suited to play linebacker, and I had never played linebacker in my life,” Shaw recalled. “They also said it was only the second year of the AFL and this thing is going to fold.”
Shaw signed with the Bills (and was drafted in the 14th round by Dallas, who failed to discourage his AFL signing).
“I was so confused I sat down with coach Dodd and coach Dodd’s advice was, `You have a chance to be a part of history; there is room for a new league, and I think that your contribution to the game will be on the offensive side of the ball as a lineman, particularly guard,” he recalled. “Coach Dodd telling me that was kind of like getting it from my father.”
You might say it worked out.
Shaw played in all-star games after eight of his nine seasons, was All-AFL five times, and made the AFL’s All-Decade team for the `60s as the Bills won a pair of AFL titles.
He was built and equipped to be one of the best pulling, trapping guards ever, which might seem a poor match for the old pass-happy AFL. Alas, he says, “Going to Buffalo was a blessing. We were one of the few AFL teams that looked like an NFL team [run oriented]. We didn’t throw much [with quarterbacks Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica]; we ran.
“We had a fullback and a halfback, Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton, who were pounders. Buffalo was the perfect fit. I was blessed with way above average foot speed. That was my life in football, that was my life in the business world. I made some of my own opportunities, but the good Lord put his arms around me.”
Quick on his feet
A few years after his football career came the pre-cast concrete business, first as a member of the rank and file, and by the mid-`70s Shaw was a start-up business owner.
“I got a supporter or two and built a plant. That plant ended up being seven plants, and I sold my company in 2005 and retired,” said the Toccoa, Ga., resident. “My string of fortunate opportunities existed after playing ball and kind of paralleled my playing career. Not many balls bounced the wrong way.”
Even when balls didn’t bounce Shaw’s way, he often recovered the fumble.
In his speech upon entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999 with classmates Lawrence Taylor, Ozzie Newsome and Eric Dickerson, he spent forever thanking folks. He made a mistake, though, and to this day in Canton, the “Billy Shaw rule,” prompts Hall officials to remind inductees not to repeat it.
The man somehow turned mud to gold that day.
Imagine giving a speech before a huge crowd and a television audience, wearing a suit in the humidity, having been told ahead of time that when the strange version of a traffic light before you switches, well, your clock is ticking like Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart.
“When that red light comes on, you have 30 seconds to wrap it up; we’re on national television,” he said. “I hurried to finish. My wife and children and grandchildren were in the front row, and the daughter [Cindy Matthews] who will be at Tech [today] gave me the throat-cut symbol and says, `You forgot mom.’ “
“Eric Dickerson was next, and there was a long TV timeout. I went to Eric and said, `Would you please mention her for me.’ He made a really big deal about it, and while he was doing it I walked to the front of the stage and bowed to her. The next day, in the newspapers she got twice as much ink as I got.”
Billy Shaw never got a lot of ink, really, considering all that he did.
But his clock keeps ticking.
In June, there was a magical chiming sound. He and wife Patsy celebrated their 50th.
Today, STAND UP and give Billy Shaw a huge welcome when he’s announced. And if you get a chance to speak with him (he’ll spend a lot of time in the Letterman’s Club), send a report to email@example.com.