In the mid-1940's, as young men returned home from fighting
the battles of World War II, athletic teams were formed throughout the
southeast, both men and women. Nahunta had teams in those days called The
Nahunta Athletic Team, composed primarily of prior High School athletes.
Some of the members of that early men's team were, Harry
Raulerson, Harry Smith, Claude Smith, Ben Jones, and the Hendrix brothers from
Hickox, Neil, Woodrow (Cotton), and Ronald (Punk). Another young man on
this team, Joe Smith, a brother to Harry and Claude had not been too prominent as
a player in his High School days (according to Claude, his older brother),
but had matured through his World War II experiences and became a stalwart,
steadfast, playmaking basketball star himself. There were many others who played
on this team, too numerous to name, who contributed significantly to it's winning
fashion as they graduated from High School in the later 1940's, and 1950's.
As author of this story, I'll take the liberty of adding my own name for the 1947-48 team,
before enlisting into the U.S. Air Force, Thomas Earl Cleland.
The most interesting aspect about this team was not the
fact that they won almost every basketball tournament in southeast Georgia in
the late 1940s, but the response to Nahunta's "rag-tag team appearance."
Pretty uniforms didn't matter to these young men; they just
loved to play basketball. It was not uncommon for Neil and Cotton to
show up for a game wearing "over-alls," after working in their fields all day; or
for others to play without shirts. WWII khaki pants was also a common apparel
for team members. Harry Raulerson went out and bought himself a playing shirt
with a number. One referee at Hilliard referred to them as "the
skins." They were all different, and resembled a playground "pick-up, rag tag" team.
Regardless of their appearance, it wasn't long before the team gained a
reputation, winning almost every tournament they entered throughout southeast Georgia.
"A rag-tag country-boy team" beating everyone, pretty uniforms and all! Needless to say,
this didn't make teams in surrounding towns happy, and tournament officials began to
establish rules which prohibited teams without official uniforms to participate.
On one occasion, after the team was refused entry into a Waycross tournament, T.E.
( Earl) Raulerson (Ex-Sheriff of Brantley County), took his hat in-hand and walked up one side
of Florida Avenue in Nahunta, and down the other taking up a collection to buy uniforms for the
Nahunta Athletic Team. He was insistent that "his" Nahunta's team was going to participate in
that tournament. By the way, although handicapped by being dressed in their "official city-slicker
uniforms," the Nahunta Athletic Team continued to win tournaments. The only difference was,
"no one was laughing at their "rag-tag appearance!"
Another ploy used to by neighboring tournament officials to prevent the Nahunta Athletic Team from
entering tournaments was an effort to "break-up the team." Surrounding towns began to insist that
Nahunta should have more than one team, as did Waycross, Blackshear, Brunswick, and Jesup.
While the population of those communities totaled anywhere from 10 to 30 thousand, the combined
population of Nahunta and Hickox, could not have exceeded much more 1,000. The logic of
population ratio did not support their theory. The Nahunta Athletic Team
continued to win into the late 1940's, and. was truly a championship team,
deserving of special remembrance.
As we all grew older, 50, 60, 70 years old, the memories of "the good old days"
remained imbedded in our minds. Jokingly, in the latter years, I would
approach some of those old team mates, Claude, Joe, Neil, Ronald (Punk),
and Woodrow (Cotton), and tell them that I was "organizing a basketball team and
wanted to know if they would be willing to play?" Their eyes would light up with a
sparkling glow, and you could almost see a "flashback of memories" as a smile developed
across their face. Always, their response would be, "Sure, my old knees are a
little bit stiff, but get the keys to the "Shell," and I'll be there!" The old
"Shell," the Nahunta High School Gymnasium is no longer standing, but it provided
the location for many exciting moments of Brantley County Sports. The Hendrix brothers,
Neil, Woodrow, and Ronald have also passed on to their mansion in heaven, but they, too,
provided many exciting moments in the history of Brantley County sports.
RELATED STORY: The old "Shell" was just that, "an old shell of a
building, with no insulation, or "fine-finishing" on the inside.
It had a regulation size basketball court, with bleachers, goals,
pop-bellied stoves for winter heat, and broken windows which mischievous
children used for target practice. The floor could have been finished real
fine, but showed years of neglect. The parking of school buses on its
floor caused irreparable damage from an occasional oil or water leak. The
floor was rough, with a few splinters reaching upward, and you could almost
count on some scars if you were tripped or fell. Most of us players
were just happy to have a basketball court, and didn't know that better things
were available until we visited neighboring schools.
On one occasion, while playing with the Nahunta Athletic Team (1948), I had sat on the
bench while the bigger boys were running up the score on the Brunswick team in
their Gym, with highly polished, slick floors. Finally, in the last
quarter I got into the game. With excitement and adrenalin flowing to
capacity, I was able to steal the ball from a Brunswick player, and headed down
an open court, with nothing between me and the goal. As I approached
mid-court, I was tripped, and went sliding on my stomach down the court toward
the basket. The floor was so slick that when I stopped sliding, I was at
the foul shot line! I stood up, and made a free shot for the foul, and
went on to play the remainder of the game. My point: If that had occurred
at the "old Shell," I would have been "picking out splinters" for a week, and
might never have survived.. jokingly!