Whether he was guarding Dobyns-Bennett guard Skip Brown in basketball or taking on top-ranked Tennessee High in football, Sammy “Mammy” Simpson helped fuel Science Hill’s share of triumphs.
Simpson was an All-State football player and co-captain for the East in the TSSAA’s East-West All-Star Game in Murfreesboro. He was Science Hill’s team MVP and won the Plowboy Farmer Award as a senior in the fall of 1973, a season highlighted by a 21-15 win at Tennessee High that snapped the top-ranked Vikings’ 28-game wins streak.
Simpson threw three touchdown passes and John Drakeford rushed for 135 yards while silencing the Stone Castle.
“They’d been national champs, and we beat them over there in Bristol,” Simpson said. “I should’ve thrown another touchdown pass that game. I had Bryan Truett wide open in the end zone on another one, and the ball slipped out of my hand.”
Bristol Herald-Courier sports editor Dave Sparks’ wrote, “Simpson, the slick quarterback who can run or throw with authority, did a little fancy running and a lot of fancy throwing.”
Simpson did connect with Truett for a dagger-like touchdown early in the fourth quarter after Greg Jones, who went on to play at Tennessee, had scored the first of his two TDs to cut Tennessee High’s deficit to 15-8.
“Simpson,” Sparks wrote, “throwing under pressure (a Viking had him by the jersey when he scrambled free), fired a 5-yard scoring pass to Truett on 4th-and-1 and the ’Toppers were on top by 21-8.”
Science Hill fullback Woody Underwood: “It was exciting to beat Tennessee High over there. … Mammy was probably the best natural athlete I’ve ever seen. He could do anything. Mammy carried us.”
Basketball coach Elvin Little won 10 straight district titles during one stretch of his 19-year career at Science Hill (1960-79) after winning a state title at Lenoir City, and coached Hilltoppers like Percy Hairston, Gary Carter and Dee Dee and Charlie Stuart.
“Mammy was one of the quickest guards we ever had,” Little said. “He handled the ball well, was a good teammate and very unselfish. Mammy was a really good defensive player, probably as quick as any player I ever coached.”
Consequently, Simpson was often hounding Dobyns-Bennett’s Brown, who helped Buck Van Huss’s Indians to No. 1 rankings before tallying 2,034 points and 579 assists at Wake Forest.
“The first game I played when they moved me up on the varsity, I had to guard Skip Brown,” Simpson said. “I think it was a Christmas tournament over at Happy Valley. That was a rough job. I guarded him for two years.”
The Hilltoppers got the best of D-B twice during Simpson’s junior season.
“We beat them on a last-second shot both times that same year,” Simpson said. “We were playing over at ETSU – you couldn’t find a seat – and we were behind by one point. I remember the ball going out of bounds and Michael Vaughan throwing it into my brother, Gordon, and he hit a shot in the left corner with about two seconds left to win the game. That was probably the only shot he took the whole game. And we beat them over at Kingsport when Ralph Kiser hit a last-second shot.”
Sammy was one of four siblings on the football team his sophomore year. Gordon was a junior and twins Sherman and Vernon were seniors.
“We growed up playing together down at the Boys Club on Market Street,” Simpson said. “We’d go there or go down to Carver and play all day long. Gordon was playing running back his sophomore year. He scored a lot of touchdowns.”
Simpson played in college at ETSU two years as a return man and reserve quarterback.
"They had me running punt returns and kickoff returns my freshman year," he said. "I had a couple of long ones, but I never broke one. I liked ole Coach (Roy) Frazier. The coach from Mississippi came (Jack Carlisle), and I just quit then.
"One year, me and Mark Hutsell was quarterback. Hutsell was a good one. He played in the East-West All-Star game. George Fugate from down in Morristown was a good one. I played with Smitty – Mike Smith, the coach down in Atlanta. … We was playing that Blue and Gold game. We’s down there at the goal line and I turned around and gave Jimmy Dykes the ball up the middle, and Smitty hit him and he (Dykes) laid there for about a half hour."
Simpson’s biggest blow in high school came on the basketball court. It was during his junior season at Stokely Athletic Center in the state tournament semifinals against Gallatin. In a tie game in the closing seconds at midcourt, his inbounds pass was stolen and taken in for a game-winning lay-up.
Science Hill would’ve played D-B in the state championship. Gallatin beat the Indians, 47-44 for the state title. Skip Brown was still named tournament MVP.
“We’s up by about 11 points against Gallatin with about two minutes to go in the game and got beat,” Simpson said. “I threw the ball away at the end of the game. It was (my most heartbreaking loss). We would’ve been playing D-B in the state championship. …
“I remember Coach Little telling me to throw it in to the center, Paul Faw, and he was supposed to pitch it back out to me to shoot it. But we never did get to do it, because I threw the ball away and they took it down and scored. And that was the ballgame. That liked to have killed me.”
Little second-guesses himself more than his trigger man.
“That was my fault against Gallatin,” Little said. “I should’ve had a taller kid inbound the ball. Mammy did a lot of good things to help us win a lot of ballgames. He always competed so hard.”
Simpson enjoyed playing for Little and football coaches Snake Evans, Paul Christman and Keith Lyle, who moved him from running back to quarterback as a junior to engineer the quarterback-bruising option offense.
“In that option, you get hit every play,” Simpson said. “But I loved it. They couldn’t stop me. I had a lot of fun at Science Hill.”
And Simpson created joy for others – on and off the field.
“Mammy had a great sense of humor and he was always pulling something on somebody, but when it came game time he was ready,” Underwood said. “Mammy was a good friend and a great athlete. It was unreal.”