Town Creek is a small northern Alabama town nestled on U.S. Highway 72 (alternate) about midway between Florence and Decatur, and about a mile south of Joe Wheeler State Park
For many years it was noted for the catfish at nearby Joe Wheeler Dam and the abundant cotton crop raised in the surrounding countryside.
I got to know Town Creek as a kid in the '50s. My uncle was principal of the local high school (Hazlewood). Since he and my aunt loved children but didn’t have any of their own, I got to spend a week or two with them every summer.
It was a much slower-paced world back then, especially in small towns in the rural South. (I must admit that I don’t remember Montgomery, where I lived with my parents, to be fast-paced back then either.)
By the time I was high school, I didn’t go up there as much, and when college came along I saw my aunt and uncle mostly at family gatherings around the holidays. A massive heart attack claimed my uncle’s life in the fall of 1967. My aunt, though related to us only by marriage, stayed close to our family over the years, so I remained an occasional visitor to Town Creek.
It was just after my uncle’s death that I noticed something.
The little town was becoming known for something besides cotton and catfish. The Golden Bears of Hazlewood High School were starting to play dynamite football.
The school was tiny, a 1-A school by the standards the Alabama High School Athletic Association used to classify teams, but they regularly were taking on larger schools, holding their own with them, and winning more often than not.
They actually stepped up to class 2-A for a time, not because the school grew but because they couldn’t get schools in their class to play them. Even then they had to fill out their regular-season schedule with 3-A and 4-A foes in order to get their 10 games in.
They became regular visitors to the state playoffs, winning far more than you’d expect. At first they were just numbered among the best teams.
They won their first state championship in 1970, led by running back Aaron Goode. (Yes, he’s related to that Goode family.) They waited until 1975 to add their second, and lost in the championship game in 1978. Then they kicked it into high gear. They won it all in 1981 and 1982, and again in 1985. They went an astounding 64-4 during this period, but the best was yet to come.
They next reeled off a string of championships like you’d associate with Yankees or Celtics teams of the '50s and '60s, winning five straight championships from 1988-92. That made an astounding eight state championships in 12 years. They slipped to runner up in 1993 and were second again in 1995. They won their last state football championship in 2000. (It is noteworthy that Goode returned to his alma mater as head football coach in 2000—a position he still holds.)
They achieved all this success under three different head coaches: David Hogan, Rickey Johnson, and Goode.
Since 2000 the Golden Bears have not won a state championship, but their reputation is such that they always have a bull’s-eye on their back. They are still a feared power—so much so that the local newspaper, The Decatur Daily News, refers to them as “reloading” each season.
High school football at this level is very different from the mega programs like Hoover in the Birmingham area. Typically the team has only 30 or so players, with no junior varsity or freshman team. A ninth-grader who's talented or big for his age will of necessity see the field very early in his high school career. (As noted by Ronald Weathers and Reuben Gant in their entertaining book on Alabama high school football, Hazlewood was routing a playoff foe in a quarterfinal playoff game in the '80s and decided to bench Pierre Goode, their great senior running back, for the second half. Pierre had four carries for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Antonio Langham, Goode’s cousin and a ninth-grader, played the second half and had four carries for 206 yards and four touchdowns.)
Depth seldom exists, and many of the starters play both ways.
Injuries can be much more devastating to a small program than to one at the big-school level. This makes Hazlewood’s great run all the more amazing.
Even though our readers are for the most part huge football fans, I am sure that you are starting to think, "this is really neat, but why should I be interested?".
I am glad you asked that, because in the time span of their greatest success this tiny school sent nine players to the University of Alabama.
Of these nine, two made All-American and six went on to see at least a little time in the NFL. In future articles, I will be telling you about these nine players and their high school, college and professional careers. Where possible, I'll include a “where are they now” feature on them.
First up will be Kerry Goode.