By Tim Chambers
It was the year that football added the two-point conversion to the college game and the last time that Johnson County enjoyed an undefeated football season.
That year was 1958 when the Longhorns went 8-0 under the tutelage of the late legendary coach Harold Arnold. He was in his sixth season as head football coach, assisted by Jay Nidiffer who later coached college basketball at East Tennessee State and Auburn University.
Current head coach Don Kerley is in his fourth season at the helm. How does his team compare to Arnold’s back then?
The Longhorns returned 18 seniors from last season’s 4-6 squad who had gained some valuable experience. The 1958 team had 13 returning letterman that had lost only one conference game in the previous year.
The 1957 squad was defeated by Unaka 28-7 but had ties to Happy Valley 0-0 and Boones Creek 6-6. Arnold knew that 1958 would be special.
Just like many expected good things for the 2017 Longhorns. But did anyone ever dream of them making school history?
The 1958 Longhorns ran roughshod over Happy Valley 26-6 in a game played at the old Hampton High School.
The state’s third ranked 2017 Longhorns needed a strong defensive effort to knock off the No. 9 ranked Warriors 14-7 in a Class 3A versus 2A battle.
Arnold spoke of the speed possessed by running back Billy Warden and quarterback Dean Maxwell. The late head coach stated that Warden was the fastest player in the conference and Maxwell was the best overall quarterback and player. He added that Maxwell was one of the best to ever play at Johnson County.
Many great ones have come and gone since then, but you can add quarterback Nathan Arnold to that mix.
He now has thrown for over 5000 yards in his career and just like Maxwell is the league’s best.
The 2017 Longhorns might not have a back with the speed of Warden but seniors Gage Hampton and Bud Icenhour are definitely versatile.
Hampton leads the team in scoring with 104 points and rushing 515 yards and is second on the team in receiving. Icenhour is a gifted runner and receiver with lots of speed out of the backfield.
Hayden Osborne’s play mirrors that of Ford Plummer of the 1958 team. Arnold described Plummer as small and scrappy but tough as a pine knot. That also best describes Osborne who plays lights-out and pound-for-pound is the toughest player in the league. His 132 tackles ranks as tops in Northeast Tennessee.
Arnold singled out Jerry Nave as a player full of energy who would knock your block off. That too describes Johnson County’s Tyler Norris and R.J. Snyder.
Both could knock the mortar out of a solid cinder block with their bone crushing tackles. They along with Osborne are three of the league’s best linebackers.
It’s only fitting that one family represents both squads.
Jessie Eller was a standout player on the 1958 team just like Zack Eller is now. Arnold said that Jessie was one of the best ever to play in the Watauga Conference.
Zack is the type of athlete that excels on defense and as a receiver and return specialist. His two interceptions and fumble recovery against Unicoi County led to a pair of Longhorn touchdowns in their conference championship clinching game.
The late Jessie would have been proud of Zack and his play.
Coach Arnold had high praise of his standout receiver John Paul Phillips whose 45-yard touchdown against Unaka that year saved the day.
“He was the first of many good athletes out of that family,” said Arnold. “His brother Doug was one of the best to ever play for me and Barry was one of the best to ever play at Hampton.”
Arnold could have been describing the Greer family.
Shane has proven to be one of the area’s top receivers despite drawing double coverage in several games. He has caught 40 passes for 640 yards including five for 140 in their championship victory versus Unicoi County. Jake is now at Milligan College participating in track and field after leaving his mark in football for the Horns. Freshman quarterback Stacy Greer is a three-sport standout and a talented musician and singer. He can knock the cover off a baseball and is expected to be under center in the near future.
Both teams have a lot of similarities.
The 1958 Longhorns defeated Cloudland 33-0. The 2017 squad won 30-16 over the No. 8 Highlanders in a 3A versus 1A showdown of state ranked teams. They also had impressive wins over Hampton.
Seven wins came on the field.
The 1958 team actually finished 8-0 record wise. They were awarded a 6-0 victory after Damascus called and canceled a week before their scheduled game. Both the 1958 squad and 2017 team went 6-0 in league play.
All Conference Honors
Warden, Maxwell, Plummer, Phillips, Ralph Blevins and Jerry Nave were named to the All Conference team. So were Eller, George Nevers and Jerry Cretsinger.
The current Longhorns should have several players that make the Mountain 6 All Conference team. It will be the league’s first ever squad.
Just like the 1958 Longhorns were the school’s first ever undefeated football team at 8-0.
Just like the 2017 Longhorns whose 10-0 record will go down as the first ever in school history.
Almost six decades later.
Tim Chambers is the sports editor at the Tomahawk. Feel free to send him an email at [email protected]