Science Hill was picked by many to finish fourth in the Big Seven Conference in 1979 after a disappointing 4-6 record during coach Tommy Hundley’s second season the previous year. But Steve Fields rushed for more than 1,300 yards, then a school record, and Bob May’s defense held opponents to 26 regular-season points as the Hilltoppers recorded the school’s only unbeaten, untied regular-season record.
The backfield, which was often aligned in a Power I, included productive fullbacks Ernie Carson and Dan Pence. Carson, also a nose-guard, was strong and fast, and won a state title in the discus.
Quarterback Curtis Hurt was a second-year starter. John Hoynacki, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound tackle, might’ve been the most touted on a deep offensive line that included Scott Shrum, Todd Judy, Bill Graham, center Ronnie Harvey, Mike Tipton, Tom Duncan and Doug Holloway.
Among hurt’s targets were wide receivers Dee Dee Scott and Nat Rollins, and tight ends Anthony Bell and Ed Bowman.
Science Hill had to plug seven new starters into a Split-40 defense, which was comprised of Carson and Mike Tipton on the interior line, Anthony Bell and Paul Lockhart at the ends, Scott, Bill McKinney and Marvin Bell in the secondary, and linebackers Fields, Bobby Emert, Troy Hundley and Otis “Nick” Smith, a small player who delivered big hits.
“Nick would light you up,” said McKinney, a senior co-captain that year with Shrum.
“Nick was probably 5-foot-2,” Carson said with a chuckle, “and he hit you like he’s 6-foot-9.”
Science Hill beat Dobyns-Bennett, 9-7, the second game of the season in front of a large Memorial Stadium crowd, a scene Hilltoppers players immediately try to describe when the game is mentioned.
“You know the way the bowl was there,” Hurt said. “There was people in the end zones on that hill sitting."
A lot of the spectators were D-B fans. Even the Johnson City Press-Chronicle sportswriters collectively predicted a D-B victory. Only Durward Buck and Doug Headrick picked the Hilltoppers on a panel that included Jimmy Smyth, Henry Jenkins, Robert Pierce and Bill Dale.
But Anthony Bell’s 5-yard TD catch from Hurt capped a six-play, 49-yard drive in the second quarter, Fields rushed for 101 yards and Rick “Porky” Arnold’s 40-yard field goal gave the Hilltoppers a 9-0 lead in the third quarter.
“He (Arnold) beat me out, so I definitely knew he had it in him, because I was the kicker there for my sophomore and junior years,” said Carson, who did some of the place-kicking and punting as a senior, too. “Everybody knew he had a good leg.”
Fred Walton’s Indians were held to 80 yards rushing and 174 total yards.
“Troy Hundley had a really good game,” McKinney said. “I think he was, like, the defensive player of the week. Of course, Troy was pretty tough in every game.”
D-B had all-state lineman Larry Cage, who lettered two years at Georgia.
“He was Herschel Walker’s roommate as a freshman,” said Fields, who recalls one play against D-B that season when Cage made a shoestring tackle as Fields approached the middle of the line of scrimmage with daylight ahead. “He tripped me up by the toes or I would’ve been off to the races.”
Fields said there was nothing like walking down the Memorial Stadium ramp to the field, knowing a TD run would trigger the marching band with yet another rendition of “The Horse.”
Indeed, the 5-foot-7, 155-pound Fields was hard to corral. He had pretty good speed, excellent quickness and great balance and vision. And Fields seemed to be at full gallop in 2-3 strides.
He finished the season with 210 carries for 1,313 yards and 16 TDs (unofficially). Hurt said Fields should be in the same conversations with Science Hill greats such as Van Williams, Terry Copeland and Shorty Adams.
“Son, Steve was right up there with them,” Hurt said. “I’m not kidding you. … He could get to a hole quicker than anybody I’d ever seen in my life. Matter of fact, he’d get there so quick sometimes that I couldn’t get the ball to him. So I’d just have to stick it up in behind him and try to get the yards I could get.”
Consequently, Fields said, Hundley started having him line up two yards deeper at tailback. Fields gained a lot of yards on student-body sweeps with a convoy of Pence (178 pounds) and Carson (202 pounds). The Hilltoppers prided themselves on the non-glamourous duties like tackling and blocking.
“I can remember big Mike Tipton,” Fields said, “coming back to the huddle and saying I got two of ‘em.”
Fields’ favorite running play was the sprint draw, which always seemed fruitful after Hurt had sold the linebackers with a pass or two in the flats.
“Curtis was a good quarterback,” Fields said. “He didn’t get the credit he should have.”
Fields credited some of his own success to being country strong. He had family around Telford. He enjoyed it there, even if it meant working in hay, although he preferred squirrel hunting. Fields said a Science Hill coach once told him it was easy to see that Fields had been in the weight room.
“I hadn’t been in the weight room,” Fields said, “but I had been in the hayfield.”
But Fields probably gained the most strength digging out a basement with Nick Smith up on Holly Hill – shoveling through red clay until they were in above their heads weeks later.
Fields would’ve liked to continue his day job on that side of town beyond high school, but said he was recruited halfheartedly by East Tennessee State’s Jack Carlisle. Science Hill played a game in the Mini-Dome in two different seasons during Fields’ career.
The rare facility opened in 1977, but as was the case with ETSU fans, the novelty of playing in a dome for players disappeared almost immediately.
“You’d hear all the things, ‘Well, you can’t see when you throw a pass to the sideline,’” Hurt said. “And I think that kind of got in our head. But yeah, when we first played in there, we thought we were in the big time.”
Fields, of course, would’ve preferred playing in a hayfield.
“It was fast and a flat surface,” Fields said, “but I would rather play on grass with a crown on the field.”
Fields was recruited by Jim Brakefield at Appalachian State, but he was fired and Mike Working was hired by the time Fields got there. Fields lettered two years (1980-81), during which time Working’s Mountaineers were 5-7-2 in the Southern Conference and 9-11-2 overall.
“They had bumper stickers up there: ASU football ain’t Working,” Fields said.
It wasn’t working out for Fields, either.
“I had the athleticism but I didn’t have the stature,” Fields said. “I remember Tommy West telling me, ‘I’m gonna put you on the bus back to Johnson City.’ I was like, ‘Man, whatever.’”
Hundley used bus rides as motivation at Science Hill. Carson said there were many rides in silence during the underachieving 1978 season, when the Hilltoppers were picked to win the league thanks to players such as Mike Evans (Memphis), Anthony McInturff (North Carolina State) and Robert Dennis.
“In 1978 we were preseason No. 1 in the state and we stunk it up,” McKinney said.
Of course, the Hilltoppers did lose a hard-fought game to D-B by a score of 14-7 early and things snowballed in the snake-bitten season. McKinney was lost for the year to injury and Hundley missed the season with a shoulder stinger. The hyped season faded away quietly.
“We couldn’t talk on the bus after a loss,” Carson said. “We started winning in ’79, and we’d be singing ‘We are the Champions’ … by Queen.”
Hundley, a Hilltopper alum who played at Kentucky, was a creative motivator. Fields said Hundley came up with TTKKA – Time To Kick Kingsport’s (Butt) – which was popular for years.
After the D-B game Fields unwittingly told a writer it was time to change it to WKKA (We Kicked Kingsport’s ---), and was embarrassed when Hundley was chuckling about it while handing him a newspaper the following day.
Hundley also had a wreath delivered to a pep rally before the Elizabethton game. Dave Rider’s Cyclones included Scott Rider, John Hutchins, Eddie Coe, Lance Ritchie and Ken Shipley, and Hundley wanted an edge. The wreath read something like “R.I.P. Hilltoppers” and Science Hill players believed it was from Elizabethton. And No. 9 Science Hill beat No. 7 Elizabethton 7-0 thanks to a 51-yard run by Fields.
Hundley’s most memorable motivational ploy was having a UPS truck pull up to a Science Hill practice the week of the Tennessee High game and the driver delivered a box. The players opened it, only to discover a pile of panties with the ‘Topper players’ jersey numbers on them. The box’s return address was Bristol.
So Fields rushed for three TDs and Smith set up two of them with a punt return and fumble recovery, and Smith was waving panties around at bewildered Vikings.
“I remember Nick kept those panties in the front of his pants and he’d pull them out and shake them in their face and put ‘em back up like ‘Call us that again,’” Fields said with a chuckle. “And it was Hundley that’d done it the whole time. Bristol players didn’t know what was going on.
“We put them on our helmets. They said they’s gonna call a penalty for illegal equipment if we didn’t take them off our helmets. We was just dumb and gullible enough to think Bristol had sent them down there to us.”
Scott is said to have been the fastest player on the team – Hundley said Scott probably saved five TDs that season playing safety – but Fields said Carson was the kind of athlete that just might’ve beaten Scott if there was something riding on it.
“Ernie was something,” said Fields, who’d played with Carson and Smith, among others, since North Side Elementary. Carson played with the Johnson City Bears with the likes of Van Williams, Ron Bellamy and Herman Jacobs, and said his 67-yard run was the short-lived semi-pro team’s first score.
Hurt said Carson was one of several bell cows for the Hilltoppers – Ray Lewis/Al Wilson types who led vocally or with their effort.
“Ernie was one of them, and Dan Pence was, too,” Hurt said. “Bill McKinney was a good ballplayer and very intense, and he brought a lot of that to the team.”
Carson’s intensity needed to be channeled.
“We could’ve beaten D-B a little bit more that year,” Carson said. “Dee Dee Scott picked a football off and ran it in for a touchdown, and I’m at the 50-yard line slugging it out and get it called back.”
Carson recovered a fumble to set up Fields’ TD run in a 19-13 overtime win at Morristown East in the first round of the playoffs. Fields rushed 33 times for 181 yards and two TD, but left the game with a deep thigh bruise in the final minute of regulation after taking a hook-and-ladder lateral from Scott some 30-35 yards to the East 10 before fumbling.
“It was a designed play, but Dee Dee was going down – he’d played quarterback before and he flipped it out there like that ole option flip as he was going down,” Fields said. “There was one man to beat and he had the angle on me, and I cut back in and I don’t know where that other guy came from, but one hit me high and one hit me low. I didn’t fumble all year, but when I hit the ground the ball came loose and they called it a fumble. The ground can’t cause a fumble, but we was playing in Morristown.
“I went to get up and I couldn’t get up. I had a deep thigh bruise. I didn’t go back on the field. When we went to Oak Ridge the middle of it was big as a cantaloupe. I couldn’t hardly walk that Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Pence scored Science Hill’s winning TD in OT against Morristown East, and Hundley sealed it with an interception. East had entered 9-1, its loss having come 13-7 against Dobyns-Bennett.
Science Hill gave up half as many points that night as they had during the regular season. It was a senior-laden defense.
“In the secondary we had one junior, which was Marvin Bell,” McKinney said. “And then Dee Dee played safety and I played the other corner. Our linebackers were Steve, Troy and Bobby Emert. Up front was Ernie and we had two really good ends – Anthony Bell and Paul Lockhart."
Fields didn’t play defense the following week at Oak Ridge, and was held to 40 yards on 15 carries while the Wildcats mopped the muddy field with Hilltoppers in a 50-0 victory. Oak Ridge was coached by Science Hill alum Emory Hale, who went on to win one of his three state titles at Oak Ridge that year.
Science Hill players agree that Hale’s squad was outstanding, but said the rout was the result of a perfect storm which began with soggy conditions that’d come from 2-3 inches of rain. Indeed, Oak Ridge had lost 21-14 to D-B that year.
Hurt said Science Hill had a TD pass called back on the first or second play, and they’d already psyched themselves out by seeing how big Oak Ridge players were during pregame drills. The smaller Hilltoppers wouldn’t have any quickness advantage in the slop, especially with Fields at “60 percent” according to him.
“I think I threw a touchdown to Nat Rollins and they called it back for holding, and that kind of deflated us,” Hurt said. “And right after that it started pouring rain, and … we had honestly never had any real action in the rain. And I mean it was pouring the rain.
“And I just think we were deflated after that … and we got blown out of the park. Sometimes it happens when you’re on the road like that.”
Hale later said some accused him of running up the score, but McKinney said that wasn’t the case.
“We got humbled a little bit,” he said. “Oak Ridge beat the crap out of us. … They really didn’t (run it up). I mean, that was just one of those games where anything that could go wrong went wrong. And they played probably the best that they could play.”
But four quarters of darkness don’t eclipse four months of magic under Friday night lights.
“The thing about us, we didn’t really have a superstar,” McKinney said. “Probably the closest thing we had to a superstar was Steve. … We had a bunch of average guys that worked hard, and just happened to come together. It was pretty special – the only team in school history to go undefeated and untied through the regular season.”
Added Fields: “We all liked each other. We were a team. A lot of stuff from the games fades away, but you don’t forget being a team.”