A Century of THS Football
Part III - J. E. "Hot" O'Brien
By Michael Butler
Coach John Edward O'Brien was not only a football coach, he also coached basketball and baseball. His nickname, "Hot" came from his play on the basketball court.
W. C. Bryant wrote the biography on O'Brien titled, "Hot and His Boys," and told of how the nickname came about.
"The story goes that Ben Englebert, BSC basketball coach, called O'Brien from the bench and said, 'Get in there, O'Brien and get hot.' The crowd supposedly heard Englebert’s admonition and took up the chant, Get Hot, O’Brien, get Hot!
"That’s when the little forward began to hit from all the angles. The press picked up the nickname, "Hot," and a legend was born."
O'Brien coached at his alma mater Tallapoosa County High School (Dadeville) in the early 1930s prior to taking the Tallassee job in 1936. Now the stadium where the purple and gold plays bears his name.
At THS, O'Brien compiled a 128-39-7 record in 19 seasons.
Davis Melton presenting Coach O'Brien a souvenir football at "O’Brien Appreciation Day" in 1969. Courtesy of W.C Bryant, from the book “Hot and His Boys.”
Davis Melton was one of O'Brien's brightest stars during the 1940s. He played end during Tallassee's 57-game unbeaten streak.
"I played in 31 games of the 57 they won without a loss," Melton said. "I fondly remember before starting out for football, I was on the sideline while the teams were scrimmaging. They threw a ball over there and I retrieved it. Coach O'Brien said, 'He'll be a good one someday.'
"In the ninth grade I went out for football. I had to have permission from my parents. Back then it was a rough game. My dad said okay, but my mom was hesitant. I took the yes from dad and went on."
Melton's playing career took off from the very first game in which he saw action. On his first play as a freshman in 1943, he caught a pass and took it in for a touchdown.
Tallassee's undefeated streak began with a 20-0 victory at Eufaula on Oct. 10, 1941 and ended with a 21-7 loss to Sidney Lanier on Nov. 14, 1947.
The largest margin of victory during the streak came on Nov. 17, 1944 against Lineville. Tallassee beat the Aggies 72-7. A Tallassee Tribune article noted that the team broke the scoring record for the season with 284 points eclipsing the previous record from 1942 of 255 points.
It also showed that the 72 points were the most scored in a game by a THS team, although records indicate that the 1928 team's 77-0 win over Tuskegee was the most. The story indicated that the previous record was the 1938 Tigers' 60-0 victory against Wetumpka.
The article added, "The Tigers dedicated their season to Tiger alumi in the armed forces."
In that same season came the scoreless tie with Wetumpka on Sept. 29, 1944, that made Tallassee's win streak an unbeaten or undefeated streak.
The Tribune write-up referenced the Wetumpka game in its season-ending article after Tallassee's trouncing of Lineville.
"Except for the 0-0 tie with Wetumpka in the second game this season, Tallassee's performance has been consistently outstanding."
Bryant wrote about the field conditions being a "quagmire" in the stalemate with the Indians. "The pigskin may as well have been alive and greased." Bryant continued with an exchange between halfback Jimmy Beavers and O'Brien in the locker room at halftime.
"Beavers spoke up: "Coach, it' raining so hard out there I can hardly see." In a quick beat, O'Brien said, "Well, my goodness, Jimmy, it's raining just as hard on Wetumpka's side."
When time ran out, Tallassee had first-and-goal on the Wetumpka 3-yard line.
"For the past 23 games Hot's boys had not lost," O'Brien wrote. "Tonight they had not, yet they'd not won. It followed, then, that their winning streak would have to be considered differently. Instead of consecutive wins without a loss, it must be termed simply, wins without a loss."
In Tallassee's 12-0 win over Lanier in 1946, the buildup was of epic proportions with some bulletin board material received from O'Brien in the mail as highlighted in the O'Brien book.
"Dear Coach, I represent a large number of Montgomerians who have been reading all about your high school team and how they haven't lost a game since 1941. Why don't you play somebody that's half as good as you are? No wonder you haven't lost a game in five years playing those underdogs you have been playing.
"How did you get the nerve to take on Lanier this year...? I will tell you your Tigers will never beat Lanier this year.
"We have the best team at Lanier we have had in four years, and we are devoting our time to you. I read where the dog team at Dadeville was just one touchdown short by beating you. This proves your team isn't worth a Damn. When you bring your team of Giant Killers to Montgomery... we're going to beat the Hell out of you. Lanier."
O'Brien added that the mill shut down the second and third shifts so fans could attend the game at Cramton Bowl. After a Davis Melton 77-yard touchdown run, "the "lint heads" and "mill hands" went berserk," O'Brien added.
Montgomery Advertiser sports editor Max Moseley wrote, "Tallassee's victorious Tigers presented one of the hardest-playing and best-coached prep elevens to play here in many a day. The Tigers had some outstanding players, but as a matter of fact the enire team played outstanding... and deserved to win."
In the rematch the following season as noted in Bryant's book, an estimated 19,000 turned out to Cramton Bowl to see the streak come to an end. Emory Folmer, who later became mayor of Montgomery, was an 18-year-old senior captain on the Poets' squad.
"We knew every back, who the passer was, who the receivers were and who we had to stop," Folmer was quoted as saying in the Bryant book.
Eddie Frank Britt's first season with Tallassee was in 1947.
"I did not play that night. I had a hurt leg," Britt said. "At that time, Lanier was the only public high school in Montgomery. They had about 135 players out. We had about 35."
Britt, who lived in Reeltown, took great strides in order to play for O'Brien.
"Reeltown did not have a football team. That was seven miles from the river bridge to my house where I grew up and many a night I would walk. The walking home was sometimes scary because I was the only one on the road at dark.
"The teacherage was over by the school. Ben Davis dated a lady from over there. Their night out was Wednesday. They’d pick me up a lot of times. During those times, there weren’t many vehicles on the road. I had a ride in the morning with a barber, Versel Baker.
"O’Brien was real devoted to the game and to young people. He really liked young people. He was a wonderful coach, friend and person."
After the Lanier loss, THS supporters mourned the defeat.
"Tiger fans in the huge concrete stands - some shaking their heads, some weeping quietly – filed out," Bryant wrote. "The thousands of Tiger followers, who, over the years, wondered when, where and how the winning streak would end, now knew, in vivid detail. It was over."
Tallassee Tiger superfan Morris Purcell remembered the pressure of the streak.
"I saw every game coach O'Brien coached except seven (when) I was in the service," Purcell said. "I wouldn't want to see a streak like that again. It was too much on the coaches."
Birmingham News-Age-Herald writer Jerry Bryan wrote about Tallassee's achievement to "break all marks."
"(It) eclipsed all previous records for consecutive football streaks," Bryan wrote. "The best records available show a streak of 51 wins in 52 games, with one tie, amassed by Massillon (Ohio) High under the guidance of Paul Brown, later coach at Ohio State and new mentor of the Cleveland Browns."
W. C. Bryant pointed out in his book that the streak was regarded as a national record. "(It) stood for almost 20 years. From 1959 through 1966, Jefferson City High School in Missouri strung 71 games without a defeat or a tie. From 1992 through 2003, Concord De LaSalle High in California neither lost nor were tied for 151 football games, a national record that still stands."
Virginia Golden also referenced the unbeaten streak in her book, "A History of Tallassee."
"The team is the holder of the national high school football championship in the number of games won," she noted. "From October, 1941, until November, 1947, Tallassee High School remained undefeated. This record brought national attention to coach, J. E. O'Brien, who was athletic director since 1937. A list of the names of the boys who won this championship for Tallassee would be to a large extent read similarly to a list of early Tallassee settlers."
Today, the state's longest unbeaten streak belongs to Tuscaloosa High at 65 games (62-0-3) from 1925-31. Andalusia went 58 games (57-0-1) without a loss from 1972-78. Tallasssee's run from 1941-47 (56-0-1) is listed as third best in the state. The longest streak without a tie is 55 games, set by Clay County from 1994-97 under coach Danny Horn.
In Bryan's story from 1947 he added that Tallassee "played in their own baliwick pretty closely over the years. During one streak of late 1942 and 1943 (they) went 12 games without being scored on."
The '47 season concluded with a 20-14 win at Phenix City in the game that followed the Lanier. The Tigers were 9-1.
Bryant quoted O'Brien on the finality of the streak. "Now that's it's over, as a team, as coaches, as students, as fans, let's realize that it takes a lot of luck and lots of good boys to go 57 games without a defeat and take it on the chin. Somehow I fell a little relaxed. Don’t you?"
1944 game program
In 1948, Tallassee was 6-2-2. In '49, the Tigers went 4-4-1.
Billy Gaither was a multi-sport athlete for the THS Tigers under coach J. E. "Hot" O'Brien from 1949 - '51.
"Coach O'Brien was always finding a way to involve as many boys as possible in his programs," Gaither said. "He got me involved at age 14."
Gaither had a serious accident in baseball at 14 that could have sidelined him from all sports if it had not been for O'Brien's efforts.
"We were playing in a cow pasture and doing batting practice. I was off third base warming up to pitch. A line drive hit me over my left ear, knocked me out and gave me a concussion. I had to have surgery in Birmingham. I had double vision for a while and headaches.
"Coach O'Brien came over to see me. I still had bandages all over my head. He had an old football. He said, 'I understand doctors said you can't play contact sports, but you get out here and practice punting and place kicking and you can be on our team.' That's the kind of man he was. He was a great man as well as a great coach."
It was a iffy proposition to take to his parents, but Gaither garnered their support.
"I kept begging the doctor to let me play. He finally said, 'It's up to you and your parents. You know the risk.' My dad was a big sports fan. He said, 'Son, do you really want to play that bad?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to play. I want to play for Coach O'Brien.' He said, 'Okay.'
"I had to have special headgear to play football. For basketball, he took a boxing helmet and cut it away, so I wouldn't get an elbow in my head where part of the skull was missing. My headgear didn't come off in football but one time in two years. It was in a pile up. Thank goodness my head didn't get hit. I look back on it and thought about how foolish I was to do it, but I wouldn't take anything for it."
The highlight of Gaither's senior season in 1950 was, as usual in those days, a matchup with Sidney Lanier. The Poets' quarterback was Bart Starr.
"We intercepted him that night. Doyle Frazier intercepted him. We bragged about it for years," Gaither recalled. "At the end of the third quarter we had them 7-6, but they got two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. We were just worn out playing both ways. They had enough people to keep putting fresh people in."
The Tigers lost by a score of 19-7 at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery. Another one of Gaither's favorite memories came before he was a high school player at the same venue vs. the same team.
"In 1946, 18,000 people watched the game in Cramton Bowl when Tallassee beat Lanier 12-0. It was a fantastic setting. I remember as a junior high kid watching that game. Davis Melton ran the Williams reverse, which was the end around, and went 77 yards.
"They shut down the mill and let people go down to that game. People closed the stores in Tallassee. The atmosphere was just electric. I'll never forget it. Coach O'Brien would get a team up when they were an underdog to someone like Lanier. He would say, 'Listen boys, they have to get up in the morning and put on their pants the same way you do - one leg at a time.' He would say things like that to get the guys all stirred up."
O'Brien would also remind the players of who was the coach and who called the plays, as he did with Gaither in his first start in the season opener in 1949.
"That was my first game as quarterback as a junior. We were playing Auburn High. We were mainly a running team. Most of his teams were that way. The cornerbacks were kind of creeping in. I had a tall end, about 6-3 or 6-4. His name was Marion Clark. I said, 'Marion, we're going to run a pass play. You'll be behind them. Be ready for the ball.' He got open. I threw a long pass for a touchdown.
"The next time I saw O'Brien on the sideline he said, 'Why'd you throw that pass?' I said, 'Coach, I thought we could catch them off guard.' That's all he ever said. He always wanted an explanation if you did something wasn't real prudent."
By the way, the difference in the game was that touchdown in Tallassee's 7-0 victory.
O'Brien knocked down racial barriers even during a time of segregation in the 1950s, Charles Blalock recounted.
"Before it was RR Moton, it was Tallassee Colored High School," said Blalock, a 1956 graduate. "When (O'Brien) got through practicing with his guys, he would come down. He gave us three plays. There was quick left, quick right and dynamite."
Blalock said the the three plays were designed for the fullback and halfbacks but became six plays with quarterback keepers included.
The 1952 RR Moton football team
"We thought it was exciting that Coach O'Brien and Jackie Williams would come down. They would stay with us. When we got ready to travel, they would get on the bus. Back then it was tradition that when the visiting team would arrive, the host team would come out and meet the team.
"At Lanett, Coach O'Brien and Jackie Williams were in the front seat just opposite of the driver. When that bus stopped, all the guys from Lanett were standing there. Coach O'Brien and Jackie Williams were the first two that stepped off the bus. You could hear those guys say, 'Those guys from Tallassee got a white coach.'
"It was not unusual on a Wednesday night to see Coach O'Brien cruise through Jordanville because our game was on a Thursday night and the Tigers game was on a Friday night. He wouldn't tell you to go home. He'd stop and say, 'Hello. How you guys doing? We got a game tomorrow night. We want you to get ready for that.' In the practice the next time, that's when he'd really get on you. 'I saw you guys out after curfew.' We loved that man. He showed a lot of love for us."
After a temporary respite from coaching in 1952, OBrien returned to the sidelines in 1957. Bill Patterson played on O’Brien’s last football team in 1958.
"After a 4-5 season in ’58, we begged him to stay," said Patterson. "He said, ‘Bill, it’s not like it used to be, and I’m going to move on.’ He turned it over to Jackie Davis (a former player for O'Brien)."
O’Brien coached baseball at Tallassee in 1959. Patterson played on the squad, as did Kenny Fomby.
"Coach O’Brien was a teacher," Fomby said. "He wouldn’t raise his voice and pitch a fit."
O'Brien won 79 percent of his games in tenures at Falkville, Tallapoosa County (Dadeville) and Tallassee. He served as principal at THS for three years after his coaching duties. An avid golfer during his golden years, he died on Jan. 18, 1977. O'Brien was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1991.
Former O'Brien players at the J. E. "Hot" O'Brien Stadium fieldhouse to honor him in June of 2016