Gaither reflects on playing days, O'Brien
By Michael Butler
Dr. Billy Gaither will turn 86 in April. He now resides in Ozark and is a retired pastor. He grew up in Tallassee and 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 Montgomery Advertiser recognized Gaither as honorable mention all-state at quarterback his senior season in 1950. The highlight of that year 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.
During his graduating year in 1951 at Tallassee, Gaither got his local preaching license.
"I went to Huntingdon College and to Emory for my seminary work," he said. "I have 51 years of service in the Alabama/Florida Conference. Today, I fill in for prechers that need me to preach. I still exercise about five days a week. I'm still in pretty good shape for an 86-year-old."