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Passion, pain drove ’Toppers to Hall of Fame

Trey Williams • Feb 11, 2012 at 11:23 PM

Pain and perseverance are exemplified repeatedly in the 15-member class inducted into the Science Hill Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Robert Hatcher won consecutive 800 meters state titles for the Hilltoppers and another in the Southern Conference Indoor Championships at Chattanooga. He helped the Mocs to two cross country titles while running 60-100 miles a week, a chore that wore an ankle down to the point of surgery.

His desire began when he was 7 or 8 years old while chasing his sister Jennifer, who was 41⁄2 years older and ran for Unicoi County.

Jeff Nikocaj helped Science Hill’s 1996 soccer team to a No. 1 ranking for five straight weeks. As gut-wrenching as a 1-0 loss to Germantown Houston was in the state championship — it spoiled an undefeated season and No. 1 ranking — it seemed like child’s play when Nikocaj had to begin grieving his brother Sehat’s untimely death some 10 years later. Sehat was two years younger than Jeff, and soccer bolstered their brotherhood.

“It was constant competition for like 15 years,” Nikocaj said. “There’s nothing that compared to that, and I wouldn’t have gotten to where I did without that.”

Cotty Jones was Steve Spurrier’s center at Science Hill. He was temporarily paralyzed by polio when he was 10, and spent 6-7 weeks in the hospital. He checked out feeling physically puny but spiritually strengthened

Jones became a weight-training pioneer of sorts in high school, and even swore off soft drinks for three years after a suggestion from Coach Kermit Tipton.

“Coach Tipton is the kind of man who you just wanted to earn his respect,” said Jones, who still visits Tipton in the nursing home. “Coming from the polio background and being able to develop like that and play at a good high school level — that was probably the biggest thing for me.”

Charlie Bailey played baseball and basketball at Science Hill. He became an assistant basketball coach under mentor Elvin Little, who he succeeded as athletic director for a decade beginning in 1990. Bailey also was head baseball coach. His Hilltoppers were state runners-up in 1981 and went 28-4 the following year. Bailey doesn’t hesitate when asked which team was better.

“When you have Mark Elrod on the mound, that makes you better, and we didn’t have him in ’82,” Bailey said. “He would pitch one day and catch the next day, and throw you out at second base from his knees.”

Slugger Jackie Cook’s presence in the dugout was as big as it was at the plate.

“As a sophomore, he led us in home runs, RBIs and average,” Bailey said. “It just came natural for Jackie.”

Cook was benched against Dobyns-Bennett once for missing a Sunday batting practice the day before the game.

“He took it well,” Bailey said, “carried the bats and cheered for his teammates from the bench … and I asked him, ‘Jackie, why didn’t you come to practice?’ He said, ‘I went fishing.’ I said, ‘Well, next time come to practice, and then you and I will both go fishing.’”

Many years later, Bailey was out at Broyles Field when a truck sped into the parking lot.

“There used to be a gravel parking lot out there beyond right field and there was big ole truck that came flying in there, skidded to a stop and threw gravel everywhere,” Bailey said. “In my mind I said ‘Oh gosh, this must be an irate parent or something.’ And here comes Jackie Cook, and he said, ‘Coach, I got me a boat and I can beat you fishing now.’”

They wouldn’t have gotten any competition from Spurrier.

“Steve was out at the lake one time (in his adult years),” Cotty Jones said, “and he said, ‘You know, I didn’t know Boone Lake existed until we came out to you all’s little cabin after the Kingsport game and there was the lake. And he’d been in Johnson City since the sixth grade. … His life was playing sports, shooting baskets and throwing footballs at Kiwanis Park.”

Spurrier played at Kiwanis with his older brother, Graham. Quarterback Sammy “Mammy” Simpson later played there with his older brothers, Gordon, Vernon and Sherman.

Simpson triumphed at the Stone Castle some six months after hitting rock bottom. In a tie game against Gallatin in the closing seconds of a state basketball semifinal at Stokely Athletic Center in 1973, Simpson’s inbounds pass was intercepted and taken in for a game-winning basket. The Hilltoppers would’ve been playing Skip Brown-led Dobyns-Bennett in the state championship.

“That liked to have killed me,” Simpson said.

But Simpson’s passes were finding the right hands later that year. He threw three TD passes to help Snake Evans’ Hilltoppers defeat No. 1 Tennessee High 21-15 to stop the Vikings’ 28-game wins streak.

“Mammy was probably the best natural athlete I’ve ever seen at Science Hill,” fullback Woody Underwood said. “Mammy carried us.”

Click the Sports Hall of Fame link at www.jcschools.org/shhs/Athletics%20Info.htm for information and nomination forms.

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