Nov. 10, 2008
by Simit Shah
Thirty years ago this month, Eddie Lee Ivery ventured into Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy with doubts that he and his teammates would even take part in a game, much less rewrite history.
It was November 11, 1978, and Colorado Springs was being pounded by a blizzard with wind chill temperatures hovering around zero degrees. Most of the Tech roster consisted of southern natives like Ivery who had never experienced extreme weather conditions.
“It was snowing so bad that we weren’t sure if we’d even play the game,” Ivery remembered. “When you live in Atlanta, you don’t see that much snow, certainly not of that magnitude. We looked out there, and they had some snowplows on the field. I guess they had a blade five yards wide, because they were marking the yard lines with the snow. After we saw that, we had to get ourselves mentally ready to go.”
Head coach Pepper Rodgers and his staff did their best to divert their team from focusing on the snow, frigid temperatures or altitude (over 6,000 feet above sea level), but their words did little to alleviate the players’ concerns.
“Even getting prepared to go out was a different experience,” said tackle Kent Hill. “I remember the coaches telling us that it wasn’t that cold out there, but all the while they were putting plastic bags over their shoes and all that. They tried to help us mentally, but it was cold! When we got out there, we had to concentrate like it was just football as usual.”
Running the wishbone, the Tech offense was well-suited for the conditions, which made it extremely difficult to pass. Ivery scampered 73 yards for an early touchdown, and he had already amassed 122 yards in the first half before having to leave the game.
“I don’t know what I ate for breakfast that morning,” Ivery recounted. “Maybe it was the high altitude, but whatever I ate didn’t settle too well in my stomach. I actually had to come out of the game two or three minutes before halftime. I had to go into the locker room and get some medication.
“I was throwing up on the field and the sideline,” he continued. “I don’t know what it was, but I was able to shake it off before the second half.”
As the team took the field for the third quarter with the game hanging in the balance, one of Ivery’s teammates set the tone for the rest of the game.
“[Guard] Roy Simmons said, ‘Hey guys, let’s go and take care of business, so we can get over there by the heater!’ I remember that as plain as day like it was yesterday,” Ivery recalled. “On the first play after that, we went 80 yards, and he said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ So I had an offensive line that was motivated to their job, which allowed me to do my job. Three of those guys went on to get drafted in the pros.”
“The quickest way to get warm was to score and get back to the sideline,” Hill agreed. “Fortunately, we were able to do that. It was such a difficult environment that even though they were accustomed to it, it affected (Air Force) too. The coaches just told us to play football and not concentrate on the weather.” The third quarter 80-yard touchdown run gave Ivery 240 yards on the day, shattering the school record of 217 set by Brent Cunningham in 1970.
Early in the third quarter, Ivery broke loose again for his third touchdown of the game on a 57-yard dash, pushing his total to 309 yards.
The score boosted the Tech lead to 35-21, and the all-time NCAA record of 350 yards set by Michigan State’s Eric Allen was within reach.
“He was getting big chunks at a time,” said Hill. “I don’t know that we ever thought that he’d break the record, but we knew he was a having a heck of a day.” Rodgers was made aware of the potential to break the record, so he kept feeding the ball to his All-American back. After a few more carries, Ivery suffered a relapse of his stomach issues and left the game again, this time only 15 yards shy of the record.
After sitting for a series, Ivery returned and burst through the line for 21 yards, securing the record with 356 yards. It stood until 1984, when Washington State’s Reuben Mayes broke it by a single yard against Oregon.
“It was something else, that’s for sure,” said Ivery. “I think the best run was the 80-yarder, which was a sweep to the right. I was almost past the right hash mark, but I ended up over by the left hash. I thought I was by myself, but then I saw big old Kent Hill running just as fast as me. That’s exactly why he was a first round pick by the Rams. He was downfield blocking for me.”
“That was really a Wrecking Crew tradition — the linemen would always try to get out and get downfield to block people,” noted Hill, who went on to play in five Pro Bowls during his eight-year NFL career.
After the game, the team faced a harrowing charter flight back to Atlanta. An aborted takeoff attempt left the team rattled, and they retreated to the terminal until the weather cleared.
“We had a mechanical problem, and we spent a lot of time in the airport. It’s a good thing we won. We’d have been miserable hanging around that long with each other if we had lost,” joked Hill, who is now a team building consultant with the Pacific Group and also owns Kent’s Country Cookies.
As for Ivery, he experienced plenty more arctic afternoons during 10 seasons with the Green Bay Packers after being selected as the 15th overall pick in the 1979 draft. He notched 4,545 yards from scrimmage during his NFL career despite being hampered by multiple injuries.
Ivery returned to Georgia Tech to earn his degree in 1992. He later joined the school’s strength and conditioning staff in 2000.
Ivery worked primarily with the football team and got to see P.J. Daniels nearly surpass the 356 mark in the 2004 Humanitarian Bowl when he rushed for 307 yards. Ivery’s 1978 season total of 1,562 yards is still the best in school history, and he still ranks third on the school all-time rushing list with 3,517 total yards. “With the caliber of backs we’ve had at Georgia Tech, I’m surprised all of them haven’t been broken,” he said. “It would have been an honor for me if P.J. broke the record since I was at that game. I would have loved to have been a part of history twice.”
Earlier this year, Ivery returned to his hometown of Thomson, Georgia, where he’s coaching running backs at his alma mater and serving as the school system’s parental involvement coordinator.
Thomson High School sits right in the middle of rival territory, so even after all this time, Ivery is still constantly ribbed for his decision to attend Georgia Tech. His decision wasn’t an easy one, and he irked many with his final choice.
“I was a people pleaser when I was in high school,” he explained. “I wanted to make everyone else happy. I always wanted to put a smile on their faces. Everyone wanted me to go to the University of Georgia, so I said I’d do it. That’s wasn’t in my heart though.
“The day before signing day, (Georgia Tech assistant coach) Dick Bestwick came down and got me out of math class. He looked me straight in the eye and asked, ‘Eddie Lee, do you really want to go to the University of Georgia?’ I had tears in my eyes, and I told him, ‘No sir, I want to go to Georgia Tech, because that’s where my heart is.’ Everything else is history.”
Thirty years after making history, Ivery gets asked about that Air Force game on a regular basis.
“Oh yeah, it comes up,” he laughed. “We’re not too far from Athens, so Tech fans are outnumbered probably 50-to-1. Whenever people ask about it, it gives me a chance to talk about Georgia Tech, and I love to do that every chance I can.”