AL WESTMORELAND has stories to tell from standing next to opposing coaches and players on the visiting sideline for nearly a quarter century. Of course, many of them might not be suitable for print.
“I probably heard a lot of things I can’t repeat,” the former Jefferson chain gang member quipped.
Friday night will be quite different for Westmoreland when the Jefferson football team hosts Rabun County. This will be the first regular season Dragon home game in over two decades that the 66-year-old won’t be working the chains at Jefferson Memorial Stadium. Westmoreland has retired from those duties after serving the Dragon football program for 23 years through seven different coaches.
“It’s starting to hit me now that I’m not going to be able to be down here,” Westmoreland said this past Friday at the stadium.
Westmoreland, a 1966 Jefferson High School graduate, joined the chain gang — whose job it is to mark the lines of scrimmage and the yardage needed for a first down — in the late 1980s at the request of Cecil Buffington and John Kesler. A former coach at Towers High School and Hart County High School, he wanted a way to be closer to the action.
“That was the reason,” Westmoreland said. “I really just missed being around the sport. When I got the opportunity, I took it.”
Except for a hiatus from 1990-1993 when his son, Jeff, played for the Dragons, Westmoreland watched Jefferson football from perhaps the most unique seat in the house.
Often times, Westmoreland and his fellow chain crew members knew what play was coming next before Jefferson’s coaches did.
“You’re on the visiting team’s side, and you hear them call a play,” Westmoreland said. “They’re going to throw the ball or something. And you’d really like to holler out there and tell your cornerback to say, ‘hey they’re going to pass,’ but you can’t.”
Westmoreland added, “You just have to bite your tongue sometimes and live with what happens.”
Twenty-three years on the sideline was long enough for Westmoreland to see some of the best players Jefferson has ever produced. Some of the most memorable for Westmoreland were Dragon stars like Chad Sims, Lucas Redd, Kyle Potts, Jeremy Smith, Darius Minor “and all of the (2012) state championship team.”
Of course, he saw some good opposing players come through Memorial Stadium too. The first player Westmoreland mentions is Monté Williams, Commerce’s record-breaking running back who had the Jefferson chain crew running wind sprints.
“Because every time he touched the ball it would be a 20 yard gain and we’d have to run down the sidelines with the chains,” Westmoreland said.
Being that close to the opposition, however, creates a degree of civility, familiarity and even friendship over the years. Westmoreland points to Steve Savage, the longtime coach of Jefferson’s bitter rival, Commerce.
“I hated it when he retired,” he said. “As big as the rivalry is, before the game started, he would always come over and speak to us and make time for us.”
There were certainly humorous moments along the way — like a certain prank the chain gang veterans would play on the greenhorns of the crew. New members were always responsible for the clip signifying the line of scrimmage. Westmoreland and company found a way to horrify them.
“We’d always early in the game, one of us would go down and unhook the clip and hide it from him, and they would just go in panic mode,” he said.
Opposing players could be comical, too.
Westmoreland remembers a standout from a nearby team who now plays for the University of Georgia who apparently became more interested in his appetite than the game. With his team trailing Jefferson by several touchdowns by halftime, the player came over to Westmoreland and the crew with an unusual question: “Where’s the best place to get some popcorn around here?”
“So we sent him to the concession stand and he bought some popcorn and now he’s playing for the University of Georgia,” Westmoreland said.
Chain gang members take their health into their own hands with fully-padded 16 to 18-year-old kids barreling into the sideline at high speeds. But Westmoreland managed to withstand 23 years without a major injury — though he did have some collisions.
“I took a couple of hits, but you don’t let on,” he said. “You just kind of jump up. I had a favorite saying. I’d say ‘that’s the first tackle I’ve made in 40 years.’”
Westmoreland won’t be dodging players this year as he’ll assume a seat in the stands. Seeing several Jefferson playoff games from the stands (the GHSA works the chains during postseasons games) in recent years convinced Westmoreland that sitting in the Memorial Stadium bleachers wasn’t so bad.
Plus, he said he’s not as young as he used to be.
“I’m 66 years old and at some point you say, ‘gosh,”’ Westmoreland said. “My wife kids me and says ‘you’re going to have a heart attack down there on the sidelines’ and I’d say ‘we’ll, I’ll at least go doing what I enjoy.’”
He isn’t quite sure who his replacement this season will be, pointing out that this crew has been together for at least 10 years. That’s a decision he left up to fellow chain gangers Rod Beatty and Scott Edwards, though Jeff Cole has been the substitute on the crew for the past five or six years.
But rest assured, Westmoreland won’t be far away.
“I’ll be there every night,” he said. “I haven’t missed a game in years and years so I don’t intend to start missing now.”