When my good friend and fellow Rotarian Jim Cunningham invited me to have lunch recently, I knew not to pass up the chance.
“I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” he told me, which made it all that more intriguing.
Cunningham, you may know, is a part of the original class of the Franklin County High School Football Hall of Fame, a Vanderbilt graduate and football team co-captain who became a part of the first Vandy team to go bowling back in the 1955 Gator Bowl.
He’s into sports like no one else and is a retired insurance executive and leader in the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter who sings in his church choir as well. You can’t say enough good things about Jim.
So, off to the restaurant I went on the appointed day where Jim met me as I entered, and we sat down to have a glass of tea and engage in small talk.
“My guest is running a little late,” he said. “He got detained in Cowan.”
Just a few minutes later, in walks former University of Tennessee All-American John Majors and his brother, Larry, who lives in Estill Springs now. A huge smile creased Majors’ face as he held up the traffic citation from the Cowan police.
“They pulled me over for speeding, an expired registration, and failing to yield to a funeral procession,” he explained. “It was that train that held me up, I guess.”
For the next three hours, the four of us laughed and talked about stories from the Majors family’s huge vault of athletic experiences, from high school sports in Lynchburg and Huntland to college football on the national stage that included playing with names like Homer Laws, Bart Starr, Buddy Cruz, General Neyland, Bowden Wyatt, Harvey Robinson, Bobby Dodd, Sonny Jergenson, Tommy McDonald, Jim Brown, and, of course, the men of the Majors family, John, Joe, Larry, Bill and Bob, not to forget their famous father Shirley.
One thing I picked up on early was that the former coach of Pittsburgh and later the University of Tennessee, his alma mater, is called John by his family and closest friends, not Johnny.
“My mother would call sportswriters and others who referred to me as ‘Johnny’ and inform them that, while she appreciated all they were doing and the good things they said about me, please don’t refer to him as Johnny because he is known in the family as John or John Terrill,” Majors said.
This was affirmed by brother Larry who would often chime in during the conversations to correct the record or set it straight when his famous brother would miss an important detail.
Between the two of them, they have probably forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know, and their memories about scores and plays and people are unbelievably detailed.
But basketball was the first real topic of conversation as John recalled his 1949 sophomore season at Huntland High School when they were undefeated and ranked first in the postseason tournament.
The Hornets had to play lowest-ranked Tullahoma in the first round, but Tullahoma pulled off the upset by a score of 24-23 using a slowdown tactic.
Shirley Majors had revived high school football in Lynchburg and Huntland following World War II, taking the job in Franklin County in 1949 while his family remained in Moore County.
When Lynchburg’s football team lined up against the Hornets that year, John Majors, a freshman at the time, started for Lynchburg and ran all over his father’s team in a win for Lynchburg.
“My father said he would never coach another team against his son, so after that we all drove from Lynchburg to Huntland the next year to attend school every day,” laughed John. After one year of that, the family eventually relocated to Huntland
Majors’ best day in college football may have cost him the Heisman Trophy in 1956, his senior year.
The Vols had opened the season with an impressive win against Auburn on the road, and then they traveled to Duke to face Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback, where it rained all day.
For the sloppy field, the team changed to mud cleats, and Majors, a triple threat playing out of the single-wing offense Tennessee used at the time, scored two touchdowns and gained 140 yards in the first quarter alone.
“But I missed the second half due to an injury and missed the next game against North Carolina, too,” John said.
Tennessee wound up ranking second in the nation, but Paul Hornung, the quarterback at Notre Dame who went on to star for the Green Bay Packers, was voted the winner of the Heisman that year despite recording a 2-8 record for the season.
It is the only time a player on a team with a losing record has won a Heisman.
John Majors came in second in the voting ahead of Oklahoma’s Tommy McDonald and Jim Brown of Syracuse.
There was a lot of laughter filling the place that day, with empty chairs serving as defensive players, and other diners serving as stand-ins for opponents while plays were described and techniques demonstrated. But Jim Cunningham insisted on bringing up the baptism of John Majors before the day was done.
“Growing up in the south in the summertime there would be these revivals of all denominations, and everyone in the community would attend, regardless of affiliation,” Cunningham said.
“My mother was a Methodist who played the piano in church on occasion. She taught me the only two songs I ever learned on piano,” John recalled. “I wanted to join the church because of her but had not done so. By the time I was a junior in high school, a friend of mine, Durward McCord, told me about a revival being held at the Baptist church, so the next day I was immersed in Bean’s Creek and baptized for the first time.”
Over time, his father and brothers were all baptized in Bean’s Creek close to the bridge.
“We were down there just yesterday, looking at the spot,” Larry said.
We ended the conversation reminiscing about the national championship that Majors won at the University of Pittsburgh in 1976 with Heisman winner Tony Dorsett as the main star of the team. Majors wore the ring commemorating that championship to the meeting, and I admired it.
John was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, a fitting tribute to a member of a famous family whose members were all baptized in Bean’s Creek in Franklin County, and that’s the way it oughtta be.
Alan Clark is an Estill Springs writer with five books, 13 original songs, and this column on his resume. His auditorials may be heard as podcasts on Apple Music, and his articles appear in several mid-state newspapers.