By Lee Davis
The next time you’re daydreaming about football, imagine a high school team that had the best players from Homewood, Cahaba Heights, Irondale and, for good measure, add some from Mountain Brook. Do you think there might be a playoff-worthy team coming from that talent pool?
In 1966, you didn’t have to imagine. The Shades Valley Mounties had that exact mix, and they were good enough to participate in the first-ever Alabama High School Athletic Association playoff.
The format was simple and strikingly similar to today’s college football playoff format. A daily metropolitan newspaper used a formula to determine the state’s top four teams. Then the first place team meets the fourth, while the second plays the third, and the two winners play for the state championship.
“Before that, the state championship was sort of mythical, like it used to be in college football,” said Alvin Bresler, a member of the 1966 Mountie team, who went on to stardom at Auburn University. “It was exciting to be a part of the first high school playoff. I don’t think any of us would have imagined how big the (high school) playoffs would be 50 years later.”
As the 1966 season opened, Shades Valley looked to be a team with a good shot at making the playoffs. Mountain Brook High School opened its doors that fall, which took some students from Valley. But many upperclassmen chose to stay with the Mounties, and Shades Valley continued to draw top talent from the rapidly growing Homewood/Cahaba Heights/Irondale communities.
“There was a sense of community back then,” Bresler said. “Shades Valley was like the neighborhood team. It was a big social event. “The stadium would be filled for all of our games.”
Shades Valley was coached by Bill Legg, who later served as athletic director for Jefferson County schools and as executive director for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. “Coach Legg greatly admired (Alabama) Coach (Bear) Bryant, but he was more like (Auburn) Coach (Shug) Jordan in his coaching style,” Bresler recalled. “He was more low key and was accessible and very much a player’s coach.”
There was one area where Legg wasn’t so low key: He wouldn’t tolerate players who performed poorly in the classroom.
“That was when coaches could give their players a lick with a paddle,” Bobby Boyd, a defensive tackle for Shades Valley, said. “Coach Legg would make us show him our report cards. If a boy made a ‘D’, he received one lick, if he made an ‘F’, he got two licks. That was a pretty good incentive to study.”
In a coincidental twist, Legg’s son Murray would play for Bresler when he coached Homewood in the early 1970s.
Assistant coaches on the team were Charlie Smith, Odell Ozley and Jim Tolson. Practice sessions were much different than most modern players would endure, according to Bresler.
“Back then, nobody believed in giving players water breaks during practice,” he said. “The belief was that water made you weak. It was brutal.”
The Mounties also counted on top senior leaders such as Sammy Stutts, Jim McWhorter and Blair Cox.
Shades Valley opened its season with a nearby rival, private school power John Carroll Catholic. The Mounties won 31-14, but not before feeling the presence of the Cavaliers’ dynamic junior quarterback.
“John Carroll had Pat Sullivan,” Bresler said. “That game was his coming out party. We didn’t have any idea at the time how good he would be.”
Buoyed by the opening victory, Shades Valley rolled over five consecutive opponents to raise its record to 6-0 and earned points in the playoff rating system. The ride ended in the seventh game, as Ensley ruined the Mounties’ homecoming with a 21-0 upset.
Shades Valley got back on the radar with an impressive 38-6 domination of Bessemer in the next game. Mountie quarterback Don Comer ran for three touchdowns, and Bresler scored twice – off a kickoff return and an interception.
“That was an important win for us,” Stuart Gaines, a center and linebacker on the team, said. “We might have been a little complacent for Ensley, and we were determined to play better against Bessemer.”
The surge continued the next week with a 40-0 rout of Berry. Controversy marred the regular season finale against Vigor, as Shades Valley met the Wolves on a rainy night in Mobile.
The Mounties were trailing 7-6 when a game official collided with Bresler, who was wide-open at the Vigor one-yard line.
“Mobile was known for ‘home-cooking’ by the officials in those days,” Bresler said. “Scott Hunter (former Vigor quarterback who later played at Alabama) warned Coach Legg not to play that game down there.”
Shades Valley finished with a strong 8-2 record but didn’t really expect to see the season extended. “We had already turned in our equipment and uniforms and a week later found out we were in the playoffs,” Bresler said. “So we were off for a week, and I think that hurt us.”
As the state’s fourth-ranked team, the Mounties didn’t get an easy draw. Shades Valley had to go to Montgomery to face number one Sidney Lanier at Cramton Bowl. The Poets arguably had the state’s best football program at the time, and the Mounties were eager for the challenge.
“We were excited to be in the playoffs,” Bresler said. “Cramton Bowl was probably the top venue for high school football in Alabama at that time, so the experience of going there was part of it, too.”
Any hopes of Shades Valley winning the state title were short-lived. Lanier defeated the Mounties 47-7 on the way to the championship.
Despite the loss, it had been an historic season for Shades Valley.
“We built friendships that lasted for life,” Gaines said. “And you get lessons from life from playing football. You learn about the importance of competition, and when you get knocked down, you get right back up.”
Shades Valley’s playoff run foreshadowed the days decades later when as many as a dozen Over the Mountain teams competed in a playoff format that lasts for a month. “I’d like to think that the great tradition of Over the Mountain football sort of began with us,” Bresler said.