By Laura McAlister
Today they are anything from business owners to insurance agents and authors, but a common thread has kept these men together now for nearly half a century.
It started on the fields of Mountain Brook elementary schools and carried on through junior high and high school. Now the friendships of some of Mountain Brook High’s Class of 1972’s top athletes continue.
If you ask Billy Blair, an insurance agent with Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services Inc., it’s those relationships formed on the field and in the locker rooms that keep this group of men still close today.
Whether they participated in football, track, basketball or golf, these athletes were known to hang together in the halls of Mountain Brook High School. Today, Blair, Billy Pritchard, Billy Wood, Tommy Luckie, W. Thomas Mayfield, Richard Simmons III, Fred Owen, Kim Ratliff and Steven D. Shaw are still tight.
In fact, most of them still live in or around Mountain Brook with their children going through the same schools they did, with the exception of Shaw, who lives in Dothan, and Simmons in Homewood.
“We’ve been friends for 50-plus years,” Blair said. “We all went here, through the system. Some of us still have records on the board, which is really a sin. Somebody should have come along and broke those.”
Blair is referring to his record shot put and discus throws, and his buddy Mayfield’s 4X100 relay mark.
Though their records are in track, what they — as well as Owen, Wood and Simmons – are most remembered for is their prowess on the football field.
Their senior team was one of the first to beat Shades Valley, their biggest rival next to Berry High School.
“We never beat them,” said Mayfield, president of M3 Resources. That stung particularly Mayfield, whose cousin, Clyde Baumgartner, was quarterback at Berry.
Although those days are long ago, this group of friends still remembers clearly their school and game days at Mountain Brook. When they get together now, which is pretty frequently, Owen said, “We don’t miss a beat.”
Just like in the old days, they prefer to call each other by their last names only; with as many Billys as they have in their crowd, that’s understandable.
They’re also quick to reminisce even further back than high school.
“Remember when we were the mighty Unicorns?” Blair asked when the crew recently gathered at Mountain Brook High School. “We whipped everybody.”
Blair is referring to Mountain Brook Junior High football. Back then, the mascot was a unicorn.
“Ann Mason Chambliss, she was our unicorn,” Mayfield recalled of his former classmate who served as the school’s mascot. “I wonder if she still has that uniform.”
While many of the men took part in different sports when they headed to the high school their freshmen year – they were the only freshman class at Mountain Brook High – the group could still be seen together in the halls between classes. Back then there were hippies and jocks.
“We were the jocks, I guess,” Wood, a life insurance broker, said. “They had a hippie bench on one end of the school, and up here was the senior bench.”
Whether it was called the cool bench, senior bench or frat bench, some of the group members aren’t sure. Some of them hung out there during their senior year, but mostly they were looking forward to Friday and game days.
“Every Friday during football season during second and third period, we’d have a pep rally,” Blair said. “The football team would line up out there (in what is now the school’s old gym), and coach would have us say a few words and get everybody pumped up.”
As team captains, Blair and Owen both helped rev up the crowds for their Friday night games.
Afterwards, win or lose, the team would head to fellow players’ houses where parents and athletes would wind down together.
While the group doesn’t really know if the rituals are the same today, they know for sure the school and athletics there have changed.
Mayfield recalls the smoking patio in the back of the school, and Wood said he’s amazed at the number of fields the school has now.
“Back then we had one rocky field for everything,” he said. “Now there’s a field for everything.”
There also was only one gym. What was the weight room is now a custodian closet, and gone are the days when a salt tablet could cure almost any aliment during a hard practice.
“It was always salt tablets,” Mayfield said. “We only got one water break, and it was with a fire hose.”
Owen recalls collecting the water in his helmet, acknowledging now how filthy it must have been.
“At the time, though, it was the best water you ever had,” he said.
After graduation, the crew all went separate ways. Some stayed in sports, others didn’t.
Blair went on to play football at Vanderbilt University, and Owen traded football for lacrosse while at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. A few others went to Auburn University. They never lost touch, though, while they were away.
Later, they were in each other’s weddings, and the majority of them returned to Mountain Brook and still live within miles of each other. Their kids are going through or have gone through the system. Blair said they’re looking forward to checking out Luckie’s son, a starter for the Spartans this year.
“We’ll go to a few games to see him,” Blair said.
They’ll also meet for lunch frequently throughout the year, as they have been for decades. Each Christmas they gather for a holiday dinner, and they also plan to start traveling more together.
“We’ve just all stayed in touch,” Owen said. “I think it’s really rare and really special.”