Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
It started with a resounding 64-0 victory against Eagle's Landing and it didn't end until 14 games later in the Class AAA state championship, a 17-7 loss to Oconee County.
In between, it was pure magic, as the 1999 Mt. Zion Bulldogs captured the hearts of the Southern Crescent, putting together an undefeated regular season en route to a 14-1 record.
The campaign was highlighted by a dramatic semi-final win against Marist in the Georgia Dome as place kicker Phillip Tullar booted a 44-yard field goal against the War Eagles as time expired, sending the Bulldogs on to the Class AAA title game at Oconee County.
Earlier in the contest, Tullar had missed on a field goal from 43-yards away.
''Coach told me that no matter what, he was going to stick with me,'' Tullar said after that game 12 years ago. ''I'm just glad I had the chance for redemption.''
Saturday afternoon on that same practice field, just yards from where that squad ran "gassers", up the hill at Mt. Zion High, maybe even cussing head coach Jackie Green under their breath, a handful of players from the team, all grown up now, some with families of their own, gathered with coaches for a cookout and reunion.
Tullar was unable to attend Saturday's reunion, but his name came up often, and all these year's later, he's still one of the heroes on that team.
The 1999 Mt. Zion team was known for one thing-- running the football out of the Wing-T.
Paced by the three-pronged running attack of J.R. McNair (1,691 yards), Rowan Jeffers (1,420) and Ronnie Holloway (845), the Bulldogs finished the season with 4,834 yards of rushing (322 yards per game) and a bunch of touchdowns.
McNair and Holloway went on to earn all-state accolades.
Some debate has been waged over the years as to if this was even the best Mt. Zion team ever.
There is no question in Green's mind that it was.
"We were two deep in ever position," Green said. "We had players that could just step in. We probably had the two best full backs in the county (McNair and Jeffers) on the same team."
Of course the offensive line has to get plenty of credit for opening the holes. Led by a college-sized line that tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds each, Jamie Aull, Phillip Huffstickler, Leon Robinson and Justin Smiley went on to earn all-state honors.
Off course many of these athletes played on both sides of the ball.
Defensive end, Holloway also earned all-state honors.
Mt. Zion went on to shutout Eagle's Landing, Morrow, Riverdale during the season.
Things have now come full circle for Mt. Zion with a grown up Aull now serving as head coach.
Once they got to the postseason, the Bulldogs just kept rolling. First with a 34-0 victory over Hardaway.
The next week, the Bulldogs keep things going against Josey (33-8), followed by a 45-14 victory against Dacula.
That's the game where the Bulldogs really showed what they were made of as Chris Kirk stepped in for an injured Jeffers and ran for more than 160.
It wasn't until after the season that Mt. Zion starting to enjoy what it had accomplished.
"I don't think we realized how good we were, until it was all over," McNair said. "One minute we were playing against Eagle's Landing, and the next minute we were in 0conee County. "It was just a whirwind leading up to that final game."
McNair also remembers the team unity.
"We always had that attitude, that I am not going to quit, it you don't quit, and if you try to quit, I am going to make sure, you don't quit," McNair said.
The Bulldogs' hopes of bringing home high school football's ultimate prize ended on that cold and wet field at Oconee County.
Mt. Zion scored the first points of the game when Tony Mitchell returned a fumble 42 yards for the TD, but the Bulldogs normally high-octane offense never could get on track.
The Bulldogs managed just 59 yards for the contest.
Health scare for Green:
Hollywood couldn't have scripted things any better or dramatic the finally two weeks leading up to the championship any better. If the game winning field goal wasn't dramatic enough, there was some question whether Green was going to be able to even coach the championship against Oconee County.
A collapsed lung and even a heart scare put the Bulldogs' coach in the hospital, and he didn't get out until the day of the championship contest.
"After the Marist game, the team sort of piled on, and I guess I got hurt," he remembered on Saturday. "They said it could be the heart, or it could be the lung, but it was all precaution."
Green said there were some issue at Oconee that made the playing conditions less than ideal.
" That next week was sort of anticlimactic. You are in the Dome and beat Marist, then you go on the road, and it is freezing. By the time our fans got there, they had to stand up. It was not a good situation. They filled there side up and then they started to fill up our side. it was kind of tough on our fans who got there an hour before kickoff and still had to stand."
Regardless, Green still wears the ring from that season.
" It's a special bunch, but I probably haven't seen about 90 percent of them since graduation," he said.
Green stayed at Mt. Zion through the 2004 season. The Bulldogs made three more trips to the playoffs. The veteran coach, who helped Mt. Zion open its doors in 1990, finished his career with a 92-70 record.
These days, Green who has dropped more than 40 pounds since his coaching days, is excellent health and enjoying his retirement in Newnan.
Does he getting the urge to coach again?
No way, he is too relaxed.
"The first couple of years, I missed it, but now I really don't," he said. "It was so time consuming, especially on Sundays, because that's when we really started putting together the plan for the next week."
Green now gets his football fix watching the Georgia Bulldogs and other college games.
When he first left the sidelines he admits being guilty of arm chair coaching. Now, he is simply a fan.
If there was a drawback to the success, Green lost a lot of good coaches after that season. Coordinators Butch Prosser took the head coaching job at McIntosh the next year, and Rodney Hackney took the Riverdale job in 2001. Hackney recently resigned after three years at North Clayton to take the job at Washington.
Former assistant coach Edwin Turnipseed, who later went on to the seminary, and is now CEO of Seeds of Success International, helped organize the event.
Proud of Aull
Green couldn't be more proud of Aull, who is about to enter his third season as head coach at his alma mater.
"I was just proud of the fact that he was going into coaching," Green said. "When he got the job at Mt. Zion that made it all the better.
There is one thing that is different about the two.
Aull loves to throw the football, something Green might have done once or twice a game.
At the time, Mt. Zion's Aull never thought he would be running the show at his alma mater.
"I knew I wanted to get into teaching and coaching," Aull said. "I didn't think I would be the head coach at Mt. Zion, well when I started at again 27. I didn't think it was going to happen that soon."
Despite the differences in offensive philosophy, Aull still learned plenty from his former coach.
"Hopefully, our teams are going to be in the best shape," he said. "We are going to be tougher, we are going to play great defense, and we are going to establish and running game."
Another reunion planned
The 1999 Mt. Zion football team will be honored at Tara Stadium on Sept, 2, against Jonesboro.
"I hope more players can get to this," said Green. "It will be good to see everybody."