By Trey Williams
Science Hill and Elizabethton’s football programs will renew a 97-year-old rivalry on Friday in Elizabethton.
The neighbors’ backyard brawl has produced a few players and coaches who’ve seen the rivalry from both sides. Niles “Mule” Brown was a successful head coach for each program.
In terms of players, Science Hill quarterback Tommy Sholes was one of the more impactful transfers.
Sholes initially intended to transfer from Elizabethton to University High. However, his brother convinced his father to allow him to attend Science Hill and play football – a fortuitous turn of events for Science Hill head coaches Kermit Tipton and Snake Evans, who each coached Sholes one season.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Sholes was second team All-State as a senior. He passed for 13 touchdowns and rushed for five TDs.
Offenses weren’t what they are now. Most were ground-oriented, conservative schemes.
Indeed, Sholes’ 13 TD passes were No. 2 on Science Hill’s single-season list at the time, trailing only the 16 Steve Spurrier threw as a senior in ’62. And Sholes’ 18 career touchdown passes were second to Spurrier’s 20.
Sholes also rushed for 12 touchdowns during his career.
“We had great coaches at Science Hill,” Sholes said in 2007, noting coaches such as Tipton, Bob “Snake” Evans and Emory Hale, the latter of whom went on to win three state titles at Oak Ridge and spend seven years as head coach at Austin Peay (1981-87).
Sholes’ best game of his junior season came against Oak Ridge, which was ranked No. 7 in the state when it visited Memorial Stadium on Oct. 7. But Sholes was 15-of-17 passing, including a touchdown toss to Jimmy Lawson, and rushed for a TD in the Hilltoppers’ 37-13 victory.
“He missed two passes,” Hale said. “Tommy put on a show.”
Oak Ridge coach Jack Armstrong told the Johnson City Press-Chronicle afterward, “We’ve never seen passing like that.”
Decades later, Sholes was quick to mention teammates such as Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart, Gary “Biggie” Carpenter, Lou Holly, John Bolden, Jimmy Henry, Jim Baxter, Edwin Yeiser, Bobby Sanders and Mike Cannon while deflecting praise.
The week after the Oak Ridge romp, Sholes had to return home to take on Elizabethton for the first time.
He’d sat out his sophomore year due to transferring without changing addresses and had fond recollections of long days concluding with assistant Cot Presnell taking him to the Johnson City bus station so he could ride to Elizabethton on “the suburban bus,” which Sholes said made regular runs around the Tri-Cities.
Sholes was the Associated Press player of the week following the performance against Oak Ridge, but he didn’t let it go to his head. He ran for an 11-yard touchdown and connected with Lawson for a 21-yard TD as the ‘Toppers spoiled the Cyclones’ homecoming with a 34-14 victory.
The game was tied 14-14 at the half, which was far better than being behind for a variety of reasons. When Science Hill trailed at intermission, Sholes said, “slap drills” were on the halftime itinerary. Players would pair up at halftime and smack each other in the face.“It was our secret weapon,” Sholes said. “I think we were behind at halftime two times in three years.”
The environment at Elizabethton wasn’t too hostile – most of the time, at least.
“I remember Steve Grindstaff and some of the Elizabethton people calling me ‘the traitor,’” Sholes said. “It was all in good clean fun. Steve was a good-sized defensive lineman. He was a little scary. He’d get up there and growl.”
Science Hill offensive lineman Larry Butler, who went on to play at Appalachian State and in the Canadian Football League, was thankful to have Sholes as his quarterback.
“Tommy was class personified,” Butler said. “He was in charge – calm, cool and collected. He epitomized the word leadership.”
Hale said Sholes reminded him of another All-State quarterback he coached at Oak Ridge, Doug Martin, who went on to become head coach at Kent State.
“They just both knew football,” Hale said. “They were like coaches on the field.”
Science Hill was 18-2 during Sholes’ two seasons under center, which were Tipton’s final season and Snake Evans’ first. The Hilltoppers outscored opponents 484-139 during those 20 games.
“Really, we had some staff up there,” Sholes said. “Kermit Tipton. Then he leaves, and Coach Evans and Coach (Keith) Lyle took over my senior year and didn’t miss a beat.”
Sholes’ favorite victory, of course, was defeating rival Dobyns-Bennett 26-13 for a Big Seven Conference title in the final game of his career. D-B had refused to play Science Hill the previous four years.
Tennessee coach Doug Dickey shook hands afterward with Sholes, who signed with Vanderbilt and became an OB/GYN.
Sholes passed for a TD and a 135 yards and Carpenter ran 15 times for 135 yards against the Indians.
Tipton, a man of few words, seemed to say a mouthful when he summed up his one-season experience with Sholes.
“Tommy liked to throw the football,” Tipton said, “and he could throw it very well.”