When the new football stadium in Moultrie was dedicated on September 24, 1954, the name of Mercer McCall “Mack” Tharpe was a familiar one to Packer fans.
He had been an outstanding player for Moultrie High and at Georgia Tech, where he also coached under William Alexander before being killed in action in the waning months of World War II.
Fifty-one years after the stadium was dedicated to Tharpe’s memory, its field was named in honor of another coach, Tom “Babe” White, one of the community’s most revered and respected men, who helped develop linemen for the Packers from 1950-1964.
The stadium has been the home to Packers football for almost 60 years and also was where the William Bryant Rams played their home games.
Three state championship games have been played there, the first of which resulted in the Bryant High’s 12-0 victory over Lemon Street High of Marietta, giving the Rams the 1961 GISA state title.
It took until 1991 before the Packers played a state championship game in their home stadium and the Class AAAA title slipped away in the final 13 seconds when Scott Simons kicked a field goal to give LaGrange a 17-16 win and the title.
Three years later, in 1994, Colquitt County had its first state championship, defeating longtime rival Valdosta 23-10 to claim what is still the community’s only state football crown.
By then, hundreds of youngsters had worn the black-and-gold and played between the twin stands in Southwest Moultrie. Most had only a vague – or no - idea of who Mack Tharpe was or what he represented.
And it was more than just football.
There was little doubt about who the leader of the 1920 Moultrie High football team was.
The Moultrie Observer had this to say following a 3-0 loss to Albany High: “At all times the Moultrie line, which looked green in (the) Valdosta game, held like veterans, and time after time, Captain Mack Tharpe, who was playing the game of his life, tore through Albany’s line and nabbed the runner before they got to the line of scrimmage.”
After graduating from Moultrie High in 1921, Tharpe took that style of play to Georgia Tech, where he became an All-South tackle under coach W.A. Alexander and graduated with an engineering degree in 1926.
Following his graduation he became a freshman coach and eventually the line coach at Georgia Tech and also operated a successful insurance business in Atlanta from 1927-1942.
It was while serving under Alexander in 1931 that Tharpe went to Knoxville to scout a Tennessee opponent.
But his car broke down and he arrived late. He was directed to Volunteer assistant coach Bobby Dodd for information.
Dodd’s analysis so impressed Tharpe that he encouraged Alexander to hire Dodd, which he did several months later. Dodd, of course, later went on to a long and successful career as the Georgia Tech head coach.
Despite being 38 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United State entered World War II, Tharpe felt strongly about serving his country.
He wanted to be a pilot, but was turned down because of his age and he was assigned to the Navy preflight school in Athens, where he coached the base football team.
At night, he took private flying lessons at Candler Field.
After being assigned to a small carrier, he soon was flying combat missions.
Tharpe had reached the rank of lieutenant commander when he was killed off Iwo Jima on Feb. 21, 1945, when a kamikaze pilot crashed his plane into the carrier Bismark Sea.
And while Tharpe’s life as a player, coach, businessman and Naval officer may seem obscure now, he was a well-known sports figure at the time of his death.
In fact, the Atlanta Journal’s Ralph McGill wrote this after hearing of Tharpe’s death: “I lay down on the bed and, despite all I could do to prevent it, I could not keep back the tears. Mack Tharpe is dead.”
In 1948, a bronze plaque honoring Tharpe was mounted at a new housing unit at Georgia Tech.
Atlanta Journal Sports Editor Ed Danforth attended the ceremony and wrote: “To have seen Mack Tharpe play football … to have watched him coach in later years … to have visited in his home in Moultrie … to have hunted birds with him over Georgia fields … was a privilege.
“No man was ever such a ripping, tearing, coldly efficient football player and such a shy, gentle character off the field. Rarely does any man live such a complete life and leave such a complete picture of inspiration.”
The stadium that bears Tharpe’s name was built after a $125,000 bond issue was approved on Feb. 9, 1954.
Attending the dedication were Tharpe’s 10-year-old daughter Mary and Bobby Dodd, then Georgia Tech’s head coach.
Mary Tharpe unveiled a memorial plaque that includes a relief portrait of her father that was prepared by Atlanta sculptor Julian Harris. The plaque can still be visited at the stadium.
Former Moultrian Joe Westbrook recalled during the dedication ceremony that he was the first man Tharpe recommended for a Georgia Tech scholarship.
The dedication was held during the halftime of a football game between the B-teams from Florida State and Georgia Tech, won by the Yellow Jackets 19-7.
The Moultrie Packers played their first game in the new stadium on September 10, defeating Jordan High 20-6.
Assisting head coach William “Knuck” McCrary that night was a young assistant coach named Tom White.
Like Tharpe, White was never a head coach. But he, too, earned the respect of those he came into contact with, both on and away from the football field.
The affection and respect for White were perhaps best reflected in the large number of players – many from out of town – who visited him during the long illness that resulted in his death in November 2012 at age 87.
“He always demanded the best, but he did it in a different way,” said Bob Montgomery, president of South Georgia Banking Co. in Moultrie and one of White’s former players. “He always treated you with respect. His character was always above reproach.”
Bobby Cobb, another of the linemen that White developed, remembers that White never used a word stronger than “dang.”
But he could motivate.
“If you were willing to give all you had, he was willing to give all he had for you,” said Cobb.
And Montgomery and Cobb were just two of those who thrived under White’s guidance. Among the other superb linemen who played for him were Buddy McCoy, Lindy Boatwright, Frank Hanna, Dick Beard, Roscoe Holland, Ed Griffin, Wayne Tucker and Dewey Cobb.
Thomas Edgar White was born Feb. 23, 1925, in Fitzgerald, where he played football for Fitzgerald High from 1940-1942, serving as the team’s co-captain in 1942.
He also was on the track team and competed in the state track meet in the high jump.
While attending the University of Massachusetts, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served from 1943-1946, working as a flight engineer and gunner of B-24 bombers during World War II.
After the war, he attended what is now Georgia Southern and graduated in 1949.
That fall, he was named the head football coach at Cochran High School.
The next year, he moved to Colquitt County to join Jim Still’s Moultrie High School staff as the line coach.
He continued to coach the Packers linemen under Knuck McCrary and Bud Willis.
After he retired from coaching in 1964, he remained involved in the community.
Even into his 70s, he was an active runner, competing in races throughout the state.
He was selected to carry the Olympic Torch through the county in 1996 and four years later was inducted into the inaugural class of the Colquitt County Sports Hall of Fame.
White was the master of ceremonies at the Packers annual football banquet and he enjoyed sharing his memories of Packer football.
He was active in Moultrie’s First United Methodist Church, where he taught a men’s Bible class for 40 years. And in 2003, he received the Moultrie YMCA’s Distinguished Leadership Award.
When the City of Moultrie completed its exercise trail in 1999, it was named in his honor.
At the ceremony dedicating the exercise trail, Ronnie Schreiber, another of White’s former linemen, introduced him as “a Sunday school teacher, a high school football coach, a mentor to many and a man of gentle disposition.”
And in 2005, the City of Moultrie, which then owned the stadium, agreed to dedicate the field at the stadium in his honor.
For nine seasons now, the home of the Packers has been known as Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium.