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Star-Struck

Dec. 28, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

This feels like a good time to indulge a story teller or two, and so with a warning for length, let’s ponder Georgia Tech’s pending rematch with USC as viewed against the last time the Yellow Jackets played the Trojans out west.

Tech will square off with Southern Cal Monday in El Paso’s Sun Bowl. The world was a bigger place in 1969, when Tech met USC in the L.A. Coliseum a day after the Jackets took a pic with Raquel Welch as she took a break from a film she was making with Mae West. Seriously, Farrah Fawcett was in the flick, too.

This pre-dated Instagram, so photographic proof is rare, but a former Tech walk-on deep snapper from Dalton, Charley Cheney, has his copy at home in Hartselle, Ala. He can’t get to it now because he’s working for the Department of Defense in Europe.

“We practiced Thursday morning, went to Universal Studios, and got to see Raquel Welch on the set of ‘Myra Breckinridge,’ a very campy movie,” Cheney said by phone from England. “We had a team picture with [former coach Bud] Carson handing her a football autographed by the team.

“We went to Disneyland, too. It was all sponsored by [Atlanta-based] Coca-Cola … it was such a turbulent time.”

Turbulent = large-scale understatement.

Searching hard for a word here …

It was a remarkable/robust/wild/amazing/stupifying/prolific/mystifying time in American (and world) history when Tech in ’69 went to the City of Angels for the second time (Tech beat USC in L.A. 27-7 in 1961).

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated 18 months earlier in Memphis.

Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated 16 months earlier in the kitchen of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon three months earlier, the first time our species had set foot anywhere other than Earth.

Woodstock had taken place two months earlier.

Charles Manson was arrested 13 days before the game (in Death Valley). Several of his gang members were still on the loose, however, and hysteria in the wake of the gang’s Tate-LaBianca murders was blue flame-hot in L.A. when the Jackets were in town … Staying at the Ambassador Hotel.

When an earthquake hit. “It was very small,” said Cheney, who like most of his teammates had never been more than a few hundred miles from Atlanta, “but still, it was the first time any of us had been through an earthquake.”

Through all of this, there was an ominous backdrop, which Cheney – a Navy ROTC at Tech – refers to as, “The Southeast Asia War Games.”

Translated: the Vietnam War.

Trojan O.J. Simpson had won the Heisman Trophy a year earlier, and left USC in the spring as the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft. His Bronco buddy, Al Cowlings (look it up), played for USC against Tech in ’69.

“Their entire defensive line, including Al Cowlings, wound up drafted in the first round,” Cheney said. “The only draft we were worried about was the one run by the Selective Service (for the war). All I did was go out for punts, field goals and extra points. We had 11 punts. I didn’t put one over the punter’s head.”

That made for a great day individually. Cheney got to snap because former defensive tackle Galin Mumford – who doubled as a deep snapper – blew up a knee shortly before the season.

The Jackets didn’t pull it out that Saturday in Los Angeles, but they went in with a bit of an edge in a season where they would finish just 4-6.

“We ended up with a chip on our shoulders,” Cheney said. “There were stories about us liking fried chicken, and being so small …”

Tech scared the Trojans – who had lost to Ohio State in the previous Rose Bowl in what was the de facto national championship game and were on the way in ’69 to finishing 10-0-1 and ranked behind only behind Texas and Penn State.

The good guys led 18-15 well into the fourth quarter before USC hit on a big play late. The Jackets turned the ball over soon, and lost 29-18 to coach John McKay’s group. “We had a chance,” Cheney said. “We had them up until there were about three minutes left, and then … talent won out.”

Tech in ’69 beat SMU, Baylor, Duke and Georgia. The Jackets lost to Clemson, Tennessee, Auburn, USC, Tulane and Notre Dame.

Cheney lettered in ’69 and ’70, and for that and more he remains thankful even if his college football career was not all cologne. He did not see eye-to-eye with Carson.

The Dalton native is also glad to have had that second varsity season with the Jackets – not counting the first, in ’68, when freshmen were not eligible (and Tech’s frosh were coached by Jerry Glanville).

In ’70, Tech went to the Sun Bowl for the first time, beat Texas Tech 17-9, and finished 9-3 and ranked No. 13 in the final AP poll – the only winning season Carson had on The Flats. That was the first season where teams went from playing 10 regular season games to playing 11.

“It was big because we had gone four years without a bowl since coach Dodd’s last game, when Tech lost to Florida and Steve Spurrier in the Orange Bowl,” Cheney said.

I’m going to circle back here to the Jackets meeting Raquel Welch.

That was a large deal back then because, well, the world was not available at almost everybody’s fingertips as it now which meant that the concept of awe was still very real.

Running face-up into a silver screen superstar might be likened now to winning the lottery because meeting a pretty actress in this day and age isn’t what it was.

Sofia Vergara could show up at a Tech practice, and players would get a get a kick out of it. They’d do their best to post Instragram photos, and then move on to the next trending topic.

Back in the day, on the scene with Welch, the former Jackets were practically hyperventilating. It may not have been a life-altering experience, but exposure to the world beyond Georgia and the Southeast was very limited and it was an eye-opener to be sure.

Some who read this may have no idea who Welch is or who West and even Fawcett were, but from my childhood (I turned six that fall), I remember Welch vividly. The lads and I used to talk about her as if she were the most amazing female on Earth. She was a sex symbol, following by 30 or 40 years the pace of West (b. 1893), who came out of retirement, supposedly, for a bit role in Myra. Welch preceded Fawcett in the game in the game of sex as a celluloid sales item.

If you don’t understand, hey, get on the Internet and do some work.

The concept of awe was far more real then, in great measure – by one man’s opinion – because the Internet wasn’t around to provide real-time access to any and everything for just about anyone with access to a keyboard or a smart phone. We weren’t as numb then.

“Here was this enduring sex goddess, and we’re up close,” Cheney said. “The picture was taken from a look down, and we’re wearing blue blazers and slacks and ties, and Carson is handing her an autographed football.

“Bobby Blane fancied himself something of a lady’s man, and he managed to get himself to the very front of our 70-some odd guys. He was doing his best to look down the front of her attire.”

Cheney was also quick to invoke former teammates like Rock Perdoni, Smylie Gebhart, Bill Flowers, Tim Broome, Joe Hardwick, Buck Shiver and John Riggle, and he apologized for leaving out other teammates.

It has, after all, been 43 years. The trip was helpful.

“It was a major recruiting tool whether you were a walk-on or a scholarship player,” Cheney said. “Looking ahead at the schedule, that had been a major recruiting item … to fly on a Delta jet and play in the L.A. Coliseum against USC … that was a big deal.”

The 1970 season – spawned in part by the L.A. trip in ’69 — wound up Bud Carson’s only winning season on The Flats.

“I have the program, the seating chart on the airline, the room listing and the itinerary,” Cheney said of the journey to Los Angeles. “The Coliseum seemed a lot smaller in person than it looked on TV. We were like, ‘Hey, we can play here.'”

This has been fun, but it has not been scientific. Some of the facts here may be warbled as time has not allowed for the most diligent research. I must say, though, that I feel good about this and Mr. Cheney does as well.

He’s been met on some Tech message boards by some former teammates, including one who wrote: “I also remember drinking Olympia beer on Sunset Blvd. after the game. The beer was advertised as the beer of the Hell’s Angels.”

Myra Breckinridge, by the way, was not only controversial as it drew an X rating, but horrible. Yet there was significance in the cast. Tom Selleck, after all, made his cinematic debut. Think about that; Magnum P.I. in a Gore Vidal story!

The Jackets also met that goofy doctor from, “Lost in Space.”

I’m nearly lost now, so I’ll go.

Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com. Bring ’em, folks. I’ll try to come up with some of the photos that you’re surely thinking about.

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