One of the greatest athletes ever to play for Thomson High School was Phillip Russell.
During his career, he was awarded 14 varsity letters: four in football and track and three in basketball and baseball. He played on coach Paul Leroy's first four football teams, from 1962 to 1965, and was a four-year starter. In fact, he started as a 130-pound tight end in the first varsity football game he ever saw.
Despite suffering an injury halfway through his junior year, he was still named honorable mention all-state. The game in which he was hurt ended in a 12-12 tie against Cochran, which was led by an all-state halfback named Terry Holder, who later became a Thomson High baseball coach.
In Russell's senior year, the Bulldogs won their first region championship since 1954, finishing with an undefeated regular season before losing a heartbreaker to Americus in the South Georgia championship game, 20-14. Russell, playing tight end and middle linebacker, was named Class A Lineman of the Year and joined on the first team all-state team by Al Guy and Larry Chalker. Judson Lazenby, Ronnie Heacock and Barry Hanson were honorable mention all-state.
Leroy told me that even though they fell short of a state title, which he won two years later, the 1965 team might have been his best.
Russell signed to play football with the University of Georgia, where after playing on the freshman team in 1966, he lettered in 1967, 1968 and 1969. During that time, he played on three consecutive bowl teams and the SEC Championship team in 1968.
Russell started the first game of his junior year against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. The game ended in a 17-17 tie. Incidentally, it was the first football game played on artificial turf. Unfortunately, Russell suffered a serious ankle injury in the next game against Clemson and didn't return to action until the Florida game, near the end of the season.
His senior year was marred by injury and internal problems on the team. He is still grateful for his time at Georgia, where he played for Vince Dooley and Erk Russell.
He is also grateful for being teammates with Billy Payne, who was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta and is now chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Golf Tournament.
He also played on the same defense with All-Americans Bill Stanfill and Jake Scott, who played on two Super Bowl champion teams with the Miami Dolphins.
While serving in the Marine Corps, Russell played two years of football as an outside linebacker, where his team played 12-game schedules against small college teams around the country.
In 1973 and 1974, Russell served as an assistant freshman coach at Georgia and then spent several years coaching high school football at Henderson, Sequoyah and Lakeside in DeKalb County. While at Lakeside, he was an assistant coach on the AAA co-state championship team in 1991. He retired from education after serving several years in administration at Lakeside, Chamblee and Lithonia.
Russell continues to follow the fortunes of his beloved Thomson Bulldogs. During my coaching career, I always felt a thrill when I would see him at one of our games.
He especially loved to watch us play our oldest rival, Washington-Wilkes. He's one of the truly great players in the proud history of Thomson High athletics.
John Barnett has played, observed and coached Thomson athletics for 45 years.