By Trey Williams
Jack Osborne would have turned 100 this month.
He often reached the century mark while helping Plowboy Farmer’s Science Hill football teams go 20-1-1 in 1939-40. The ’39 team outscored opponents 219-7 while going 10-0-1. The tie was a scoreless clash with Bobby Cifers-led Dobyns-Bennett. Cifers led the country in scoring in 1938 (235 points) and again in ’39 (164 points), and had a College Football Hall of Fame career at Tennessee before playing four years in the NFL.
The Hilltoppers, which included quarterback Kermit Tipton, guard Arthur “Bud” Kelsey and future William & Mary All-American lineman Harry “Red” Caughron, outscored opponents 276-39 in 1940. The fleet 5-foot-10, 155-pound Osborne scored 106 points that season and was one of four players from the state of Tennessee named to the All-Southern Region team. The team was comprised of 46 players from 12 states from Texas to Virginia.
Talk to many Johnson City athletes from the days of segregation and you’ll often hear about Langston High School players who would’ve made Science Hill decidedly better. And occasionally you’d hear about Science Hill players who would’ve aided Langston athletics – players such as Steve Spurrier, Bo Austin, Ferrell Bowman and Osborne.
“Jack was a great football player,” Tipton, who coached Spurrier, said in 2010. “He was an outstanding triple threat. He could run it, throw it and catch it, and he played good defense.”
He could punt it to. Thirty years after Osborne had graduated Science Hill, Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer Jimmy Smith wrote that Osborne was also one of the area’s all-time best punters.
Tipton and Osborne went way back. Probably beginning in the fifth or sixth grade, Tipton and his Keystone buddies would take on Osborne and his Columbus Powell mates in sandlot clashes, often at Powell Square.
Mutual respect was built between Tipton and Osborne.
“Kermit was always right in there,” Osborne said. “He wanted to win even if we were playing at the park in the summer. He was that way all his life.
“I was raised on Poplar Street and Kermit grew up in Keystone. He had a team and we had a team. Vincent Darden and Bob Storie were on our team. Playing ball was really all we had to do.”
Osborne was perhaps best remembered by teammates for his performance during Science Hill’s 31-0 win at Elizabethton in 1940. The Cyclones were always stout under 15th-year head coach Niles “Mule” Brown, who was later the head coach at Science Hill for seven seasons (1948-54).
But that night Brown and the Cyclones staged a mock funeral for Science Hill’s Coach Farmer prior to the game. It included a hearse.
Of course, being that it was the night before Halloween, it went over especially well with the large home crowd. Farmer and Osborne, of course, were not amused.
“It upset Coach Farmer,” Osborne said. “He didn’t cry but he had tears in his eyes. And seeing that, it upset me so much I got the opening kickoff and took the cotton-picking thing 91 yards for a touchdown. And the next time I got my hands on the ball, I took it 70-some yards for a touchdown. My point is that Farmer influenced me that much with those tears.”
Indeed, Osborne’s second touch, on the second play of Science Hill’s first offensive possession, went 75 yards for a TD.
Sports writer Doug Bean: “Osborne astounded a crowd of 4,000 fans by picking up the opening kickoff on his own 9-yard line, fumbling the ball momentarily, then shooting like a streak through an immense hole straight down the field for 91 yards and a touchdown that stunned Betsy fans with its suddenness.”
An Elizabethton newspaper report: “And then to make matters worse, the second play after the Hilltoppers got the ball, Osborne took the pass from center, skirted his right end, twisted loose from several tacklers and breezed 75 yards down the field for the second counter of the game.”
According to a newspaper story on the 1940 All-Big Five Conference team, Osborne averaged 45 yards per kickoff during the 1939-40 seasons.
“Those teams (1939-40) were really, really close and worked well together,” Caughron said some 10-12 years ago. “And Jack Osborne was a great running back.”
Osborne signed with Milligan College. His size surely scared some suitors. Milligan listed him at 150 pounds, and perhaps he did drop five pounds with more intense training after graduating high school. Osborne, like many if not most at the time, was 19 his senior year of high school.
While at Milligan, Osborne did have a good game against East Tennessee State. According to the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, “The fleet Osborne (provided) sparkling running against the Bucs” during his rookie season.
However, Osborne didn’t complete his career at Milligan. He said he felt like his draft card was getting shuffled due to him being an athlete, and he wasn’t comfortable with preferential treatment. So he headed for Knoxville to enlist and begin serving his country. Serving meant flying bombers over “hemmed-in Germans” across the English Channel in World War II. He said he’d fly so low that German soldiers on the ground would shoot at planes.
That was pretty much the extent of World War II being discussed during a two-hour visit at Osborne’s home in 2007. He was still push-mowing perhaps half of his large lot when he was 85 years old.
Soft-spoken and sincere, he proudly showed off the stone carport he’d built before almost shyly talking about a memorable night in Bangor, Maine before he flew to Europe for WWII.
Osborne was a scoring threat when he traveled at Science Hill. The final road game of his high school career – his next-to-last game at Science Hill – was a 21-6 victory at Parker (Greenville, South Carolina). Osborne scored eight points and threw an impressive block that sprang Tipton for a score.
Johnson City sports writer Rutledge Miller wrote that a Greenville, South Carolina, newspaperman described Osborne as “one of the flashiest high school backs to ever show there.”
They would’ve gotten no argument from Tipton.
“Jack Osborne,” Tipton said in 2010 when Science Hill’s stadium was formally named in his honor, “is one of the greatest halfbacks to ever play around here.”