By Clint Thompson
THOMASVILLE — The 1980s was the golden era of high school football in Thomas County.
Charlie Ward Jr., Shawn Jones, Eric Curry, Myron Guyton and Danny Copeland were just a handful of players that carried their careers to the collegiate level.
“I don’t think it could’ve gotten any better,” said former Thomasville assistant coach Andy Jones, whose sons — Shawn and Mike — were standout performers during the mid-to-latter part of the decade. “With what we put on the field and what Central put on the field, I mean we had college coaches from all over.”
Shawn and Mike Jones were both part of the game many call the “Game of the Century,” referring to the 1987 Region 1-AAA Championship game. Ward and Jones lit up the Thomasville air for more than 400 yards passing and five touchdowns combined. The second play of the game, Ward connected with Tommy Rainge for a 75-yard touchdown pass.
From an excitement standpoint, there was nothing like it with a jam-packed Veterans Memorial Stadium watching, players and coaches recall.
“Standing room only was a mistatement,” former Thomasville offensive lineman Renny Thompson, a member of the Bulldogs’ 15-0 team in 1988, said. “It was from Jackson Street all the way to the street over there at the practice field. People were standing, it was pretty incredible.”
Central won 35-21.
“I can remember (Ward’s) senior year, and that was probably as talented a football team as we had at Thomasville when I was there,” former Bulldogs coach Mike Hodges said. “We had Shawn Jones and Eric Curry and Shawn's brother, Mike. They had a number of good players and we had a number of good players, too.”
Although the outcome stirs up painful memories for former Thomasville assistant coach Warren Field, there is one moment he’ll never forget.
“One thing that stands out to me is I remember, and I tell this story a lot of times, that in 1987 for the region championship at the coin toss was, Eric Curry (Thomasville High), national champion at Alabama; Shawn Jones, national champion at Georgia Tech and Charlie Ward, national champion and Heisman Trophy winner (Florida State),” Field said. “They were all three at the coin toss on a game, at that time they called, ‘The Game of the Century.’”
Shawn Jones added: “I just remember with all those games that they were so crowded and so many scouts from different schools would be there.”
Former Thomasville quarterback and current University of Georgia offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, grew up watching — in awe — the talented Jones and Ward work their magic.
“You don’t say a guy single-handily beat you but I remember being a kid, watching Charlie out there making unbelievable plays,” Bobo said. “We had a very good football team at the time and that was back then where you could not get out of the region unless you won the region championship. We had some good football teams at Thomasville but we couldn’t beat Charlie Ward and Central for the region championship.
“Just in awe of those guys, growing up watching Shawn and Eric Curry, playing against Charlie Ward as a young guy, just in awe. I remember thinking I’ll never be as good as these guys, but I just wanted to be on the field that they played on.”
Although the 1987 Bulldogs failed to claim a state title, the ’88 Thomasville squad did. With a team led by future Georgia running back Alphonso Ellis that team delivered the Bulldogs’ last unbeaten season.
“I think it’s the best rivalry I was involved with,” Thompson, a senior on the ’88 squad, said. “During the week of the game, they’re definitely almost like your enemy. It’s probably the largest game you play in the regular season. Even though the region games are important, as far as a rivalry and bragging rights for a year, it’s just very important.”
The rivalry was at its peak during the latter part of the decade, but those outstanding players followed an impressive corps of talent in the early 1980s. Mikeal Lovejoy, Guyton, Jesse Small and Copeland formed an impressive defense on the Yellow Jackets. Guyton, Copeland and Small all played in the NFL, while Lovejoy was an All-American at Valdosta State.
Guyton’s favorite Thomasville-Central memory was in his senior year in 1984, when the Yellow Jackets won for the first time in his career.
“That was huge for me, I actually got an interception as a linebacker,” Guyton said. “The coaches at Eastern Kentucky say that particular play was one of the reasons why they made a decision to bring me in.
“You can go 1-9, if you win that game, then you’ve got bragging rights. It’s a huge game. I think it’s great you have that type of rivalry for the kids.”
The rivalry continues Friday night at Thomas County Stadium.