Sports have always been a major part of Brantley County's past time. The youth play their hearts out, and the OLD FOLKS sit-back and reminisce, remembering themselves to have been much better participants than they actually were.
Championships have come hard in Brantley County, and there are very few to remember. One such memorable event was the Georgia State High School Basketball Championship of 1958 (Class B). This team literally lifted Nahunta High School into the Georgia State Basketball Hall of Fame at the Macon City Auditorium in 1958. This was a team, making their third appearance in the State Championship and wanted to win.
STANDING, L-R: Harold Scott (Coach), William Royster (4), Burnett Dubose (14), Marvin Griffin(3x), Layton Johns (33), Carrol Allen (15), Donald Cleland (13), George W. Thomas (5), Harry Herrin (Manager). KNEELING, L-R: Charles Wilson (10), Tommy Jacobs (12), Alvin Mobley (22), Cecil Drury (11), and Julian Willis (20).
In 1956, this team earned third place in the Georgia Championship standings. The following year, in 1957, they returned and experienced the anguish of a devastating defeat by "one point" in the final game of the Georgia State Championship. It was a team that purposed itself to return for a third try in 1958.
Perhaps the story begins with the hiring of a young man by the name of Harold L. Scott to coach the Nahunta High School boys basketball team. Coach Scott was a "baseball man," and didn't appear to know very much about basketball when he arrived at Nahunta, but taught a "never say die fighting spirit." He took a group of scrappy, country boy, basketball players that looked more at home shooting a basketball through a make-shift goal mounted on the back side of a hay barn than a sleek, disciplined State Championship team.
In 1957 the Nahunta team had been victorious throughout most of the regular season, only to be defeated by "one point" to a more mature Stone Mountain team in the final game of the State Championship. Hearts of the young Brantley County players had been broken, and tears of their grief had been masked in a manly fashion.
1958 was a new year! The Nahunta boys whizzed through the regular season, and beat a red hot Hahira team, 52-49 at the District Tournament at Douglas on February 18, 1958, and then moved on to win the regional tournament. On the first game of the 1958 State B tournament at Macon, Nahunta made a statement, "WE ARE HERE TO WIN THIS YEAR," beating Franklin County High of Carnesville 65-56, preparing their way for the second game of the Championship Tournament.
In the final game of the State Championship, Nahunta was ready. Their foe was Forsyth County, hard nosed, well disciplined team. The Macon city auditorium was filled with excitement, the stands were full and adrenaline was flowing. Nahunta had been there the previous year, only to go home as victims. This year, they were intent on winning.
The game began slowly, with each team exchanging goals. The defensive effort of both teams was overwhelming, and the score see-sawed back and forth. As the game progressed toward it's completion it appeared that Nahunta was destined to lose again. Forsyth County appeared in control of their destiny. In the fourth quarter, with another defeat staring them in the face, the "never-say -die fighting spirit" of Nahunta kicked into a high gear. The lead changed hands nine times in that frenzied fourth quarter. It was anybody's game, and with 10 second remaining, Nahunta was trailing Forsyth by "one enormous point" (43-44)!
Donald Cleland, the Team Captain who had experienced two previous trips to the state finals and the devastating defeat in 1957, rebounded the ball! Nahunta's fans were on their toes with wild anticipation!; With less than 10 seconds on the clock, and ticking off fast, Donald headed toward the goal! The Atlanta Constitution reported that Donald made a lightening pass to Layton Johns, the Nahunta 6 ft 7 inch center who was under the basket! As Layton attempted to score, he was fouled by Forsyth County and was awarded two free shots with one second to go! With the game in the balance, Layton had the game in his hand; an opportunity to be "hero or heel," and the story is told that Layton was not, necessarily, the best "free-throw" shooter on the Nahunta team. He had been known to "miss."
Again, the excitement was tense and the pressure rested squarely on Layton's shoulders. Failure to make those free shots and the Nahunta team goes home a loser for the second year. Layton, a junior, steps to the free-throw line with the clock frozen at a "single-brief second." He takes a deep breath, shoots and the first shot drops directly into the net. Nahunta fans are ecstatic! The score is tied, 44 - 44. Layton pauses again, squares-up, and shoots the second shot. "NAHUNTA WINS! NAHUNTA WINS!! 45-44!!" And all of Brantley County goes berserk!!!
As Donald Cleland reflected on that historic moment 40 years later, he remembered the stress and excitement of those final few seconds a little different than how the Atlanta Constitution recorded the event. "It's true," Donald said, "I rebounded the ball and with the final few seconds ticking off the clock real fast! This was my third trip to the State Finals, and the city auditorium at Macon was filled to capacity. Basketball fans formed the boundary lines of the court and were screaming their heads off. I headed toward the basket with one purpose in mind." Donald paused, "It was at this point where the story differs a slight bit! Remember, he said, "the sports writers are the professional interpreters of sporting events! They are the recorders of fact, and history has been recorded! WHO'S TO SAY, IT WASN'T A LIGHTENING PASS TO LAYTON?" "WHO'S TO SAY THOSE PROFESSIONALS WERE WRONG?"
Playing on that Championship team was Layton Johns, who scored 15 points as a junior. Forsyth had held Layton well under his average of the year of 25. Donald Cleland, a Senior, and the team's Captain was next with 10 points; five under his year's average of 15. George Willie Thomas, 4; Marvin Griffin, 12, and Burnett Dubose, the team playmaker and spark plug, had 4. Other players on the team included, Charles Wilson, Tommy Jacobs, Alvin Mobley, Cecil Drury, Julian Willis, William Royster, and Carol Allen. Harry Herrin was the team manager.
Layton Johns and Donald Cleland were named to the State Class B All Star Team. Marvin Griffin, was honorably mention for All Star Status. The following year, as a Senior, Layton was awarded a scholarship to Auburn University in Alabama to play basketball.
A month later on April 25, 1958, Donald Cleland also won the State Pole Vault Championship for Nahunta High School. Terry Allen had won the state pole vaulting championship in 1956 (10 ft), and had graduated in 1957.
Albert Layton Johns, Sr., 60, died Friday evening June 7, 2002, at his residence in Pierce County after a long illness. He was a native of Brantley County and lived in Blackshear where he and his wife owned and operated "The Peaches and Dreams II." He had been in the restaurant and banking business for many years. His parents were George M. and Flora "Leoa Rowell Johns. Johns was a member of the Brantley County basketball team in 1958 when they won the state championship, and played for the University of Auburn after being awarded a scholarship for his skills in the game. A three year starter at center, he led Auburn in scoring and rebounding as both a junior and senior. Johns averaged 15 points and 12.4 rebounds in 1962 1963 while earning ALL-SEC honors. His 10.2 career rebound average is the second highest in Auburn school history. He was also a member of the Auburn "A" Club.
Johns is survived by his wife, Maria Esser Johns of Blackshear; five children, Beth Squires, Layton Johns, jr., and Lara Johns, all of St. Simons Island, and Michelene Pearson and Steven Raulerson, of Blackshear; 10 grand children, Morgan, Leean, Ginny, Katie, Ricky, Parker, Lindsay, Bethany, Black and Annamarie; four sisters, Margie Crews of Folkston, Annie Ruth Johns, Catherine Middleton, and Dawn Tarner, all of Nahunta; also several nieces, nephews and other relatives.
Funeral services were held at 11 a.m. on Monday, June 10, from the chapel of the Chambless Funeral Home in Nahunta, with the Rev. Reggie Herrin officiating. Interment followed in the Bachlott Cemetery. Pallbearers were Cordell Wainright, Tim and Jim Woodard, C. W. and Harry Riggins, Hubert and Charles Wilson, and Donald Cleland. Honorary pallbearers were Ken Moody, Wain Brooker, Jimmy Woodard Leroy Ham, Grant Balwanz, Jim Squires, Larry Chapman, John Blackswell, Leo Gilliard, Robet Tubbs, and Jack Williams, Jr. In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to the Hospice of Southeast Georgia. The Chambless Funeral Home of Nahunta was in charge of the arrangements.