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In today’s media, the term “Johnny Football” refers to a newcomer at Texas A&M in the southeastern conference. But, there was a “Johnny Football” long before Johnny Manziel was a twinkle in his mama’s eye. I’m speaking of the University of Tennessee’s triple threat, John Majors.
Majors, a native of Huntland, led the Big Orange to an undefeated regular season of 10-0 while gaining All Southeastern Conference honors and earning Player of the Year by the Nashville Banner in 1955 and ‘56. He was also an NCAA All American; United Press International National Back of the Year, 1956; Atlanta Touchdown Club’s SEC Back of the Year, 1956; and Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1956.
He would later fill a variety of coaching duties at Mississippi State, Arkansas, Iowa State, Pittsburg and the University of Tennessee.
But, enough about his accolades. Last week Coach Majors came to the Fayetteville Rotary Club expecting a lunch and to talk about football, but little did he know, he would be the main course.
With standing room only at the luncheon organized by long-time Rotarian Dick Farrar, the coach was “scattered, smothered and covered” like a Waffle House breakfast by old friends, competitors and long-time members of sports media outlets.
“I was taken off guard by the roast,” Majors said following the event. “I’ve accused some of them here today with the news media about writing fiction about me before, but we had a great time – I couldn’t deny a lot of it.
“I’ve heard many people who have been roasted and toasted get up and try to match everything better than what the other people had already said about them,” Majors said as he got his turn at the podium. “Well, I don’t plan to do that because it’s hard enough to explain exaggerations, but extreme exaggerations are impossible.
“I do have a lot of Vanderbilt friends, and I grew up respecting Vanderbilt and they do exaggerate quite often,” Majors added. “My dad use to take us to one Vanderbilt game a year. I can tell you one thing – if somebody’s writing about me today, it’ll be more about fiction than it will be facts.”
The event was emceed by long-time, now retired, sports editor for The Tennesseean, Larry Taft, who has now returned to his roots in Lincoln County.
“We don’t often have the opportunity to have people who are legends with us, and Coach Majors certainly fits into that category,” Taft said. “And, some of our guests are legendary in their own right.
“One of the things as an old sports writer you always hated to deal with was somebody like a Coach Majors whenever things weren’t going real well,” Taft continued. “He knew pretty well how to slice and dice you and put you in your little cubby hole. Some of the people that are friends of him know he’s able to have a pretty cutting tongue, and he didn’t take many prisoners.
“He’s got a lot of people who have been associated with him that would like to have a little something to say about him and to him – we know he knows football, but we’re going to spend some time today with others.”
First up was long-time friend and competitor to Coach Majors, Bob Simmons, originally from Kelso, a graduate of Central High School and player at Vanderbilt. “Anchor Down” was Simmons opening remark to make a point.
“It takes the meanest guy around to be a Vanderbilt fan,” Simmons said. “Everywhere you go, you’re always out-numbered. In fact, even at our own homecoming we’re out numbered.
“Johnny wanted to go to Vanderbilt,” added Simmons. “Vanderbilt, always being on the cutting edge, decided they would hire Bill Edwards to bring in the T formation that was taking the country. John’s triple threat talents were no longer needed by Vanderbilt.
“Coach Majors was crushed by this rejection. Many feel his rejection by Vanderbilt motivated his success at Tennessee.”
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” said the Rev. Don Schultz a three-year teammate of Majors at Huntland. “I finally get to tell things, but because of the mixture of the crowd, it sure has restricted what I had to say. I’m going to have to clean this up just a little bit.
“My friend, John, it didn’t just happen that he was a good football player – it was born and bred into him.” Schultz stated. “More than that, he was always a fast thinker. I remember one time in high school we were standing in the hallway, and this young lady comes by and you could tell that her blue jeans were fitting her real good. She had her hair pulled back, then goes by and John says, ‘DD, cute little tail.’ Before we could look any further, our English teacher steps from behind the door that heard everything, and he quickly said, ‘pony tail, pony tail’.”
Long-time friend and Rotarian Dick Farrar was next to the podium.
“Many of you remember back in the 70’s there was a lady by the name of Phyllis George that was Miss Texas, Miss America and first Lady of Kentucky,” Farrar said “Phyllis was the first female sideline reporter that the networks had begun to use, and she interviewed Coach Majors.”
Farrar then used fellow Rotarian Marisa Thornton in a skit to drive home the point that Majors spent so much time admiring George’s figure that he couldn’t keep his mind on the questions.
Former Vanderbilt player Jim Cunningham was next up.
“John and I have been friends for many, many years,” said Cunningham. “John’s daddy, Shirley Majors, was one of the most successful high school and college coaches in the nation.”
Cunningham recalled Majors’ days on the basketball court.
“John thought about being a great basketball player – Huntland had really good basketball, and Shirley brought them to the top. Huntland came into Winchester to take on Tullahoma in the county tournament. I don’t know what their shooting percentage was, but Majors was 1 of 14 and the score was 22-21, Tullahoma. That’s when John decided he wouldn’t be a basketball player – he had to stay with football.
“His football career speaks for itself. John Majors did deserve to be the Heisman Trophy winner – he was the best football player in 1956.”
Longtime sports writer Joe Biddle recalled his days on sports talk radio where he imitated Majors. He also expressed thanks to Majors – “I’ll never forget John Majors extending his courtesy to me professionally,” Biddle said. “In those days, I was working at the (Nashville) Banner afternoon newspaper. The Tennesseean came out twice following a Saturday afternoon game before we came out on Monday – we got the scraps. Johnny and I talked about it, and he let me come into the locker room after everyone had left following the game. I’ll tell you right now, there’s not one coach then or now who would allow the media that type of access that he let me have. I will forever be grateful for him.”
The final roaster was sportscaster and former News 5 anchor Hope Hines.
“We’ve had a great relationship over the years,” Hines said. “I’ve always admired John as a disciplinarian, and he was one of the best. Coach Majors would never let anything slide.”
Hines then told the story about Majors meeting with two players who had been on disciplinary issues in UT’s new meeting room. After completion of his talk with the players, Hines said Majors closed with, “‘I want you boys to stay here 10 minutes and think about what I’ve had to say.’ He turns, opens the door and walks out, closing the door behind him – little did he realize he had walked into a cleaning room. Thirty seconds later, that door opens and he says, ‘All right boys, this is the way this is going to go down – nobody will ever hear about what happened here today, and oh, by the way, you don’t have to run and your curfews are lifted.’
“Here’s the thing about John,” said Hines in closing. “He is the absolute best when things are the absolute worst. It’s been my pleasure knowing Coach Majors all these years.”
To see the complete roast of Coach John Majors, visit The Times’ website at www.elkvalleytimes.com where a video by Paul Henry is posted.