by Mark Brock
William ‘Buck’ Godfrey’s journey to the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame was not a smooth ride, despite a DeKalb County leading 250 football coaching victories.Godfrey, the coach at Southwest DeKalb High School for 27 seasons, won the 1995 Class AAAA Georgia High School Association state championship, 13 region titles, and has posted a 250-79-1 record. Off the field, he has helped 258 former players get college scholarships–193 of those are college graduates.
Godfrey, along with three other Atlanta sports legends, was inducted into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame on June 12 in a ceremony at Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts.
All of it did not come easy as Godfrey dealt with racism in his home of Charleston, S.C., as youth league baseball player and throughout much of his early career in DeKalb County.
“The great spirit puts you in a situation where you experience a lot of challenges and bumps along the way,” Godfrey said. “How you respond to those challenges determines your purpose in life. I found my purpose is to give every fiber of my being to making people better, especially the football players and swimmers I coach, and in turn making myself a better person.”
Part of meeting those challenges started when Godfrey was young when his Cannon Street YMCA recreation league baseball team faced the challenge of teams not willing to lose to an African American team and forfeiting instead. Godfrey has told the story in his 2008 book, The Team Nobody Would Play.
Being able to meet those challenges was instilled in him by mentors beginning with his father, William Godfrey Sr., and including his high school coach Robbie Johnson and college football coaching greats Eddie Robinson (Grambling State University) and Joe Gilliam Sr. (Tennessee State and Jackson State universities).
“My father told me if I started something to finish it,” Godfrey said. “Then he said to not look around for pats on the back and go home to your family.”
Godfrey left Charleston and headed to Delaware State University on a football scholarship where he also played his first love, baseball.
He played center field and hit .511 in 1965. Godfrey served as captain of both teams as a junior and senior and helped lead the baseball team to conference championships three times.
He earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Columbia for graduate school and then went to New York University on another partial scholarship. After trying out for the New York Mets and stepping into the ring to participate in Golden Gloves boxing, he began to use his degree as an English teacher in Manhattan at Spanish Harlem Junior High School 120 in 1967.
He moved to DeKalb County in 1974 to begin a slow climb from an English teacher and baseball coach at Gordon High School to head football coach at Southwest DeKalb High in 1983. He was at Towers High School in between, where he first began coaching swimming and led Towers to a second-place finish behind Dunwoody at the DeKalb County Swimming and Diving Championships in 1978.
Godfrey became the first Black male teacher and coach at Towers and was the first Black head football coach at Southwest DeKalb. Along the way he experienced a lot of the same barriers he had overcome as a teenager in South Carolina.
“I believe the key to teaching is critical thinking and my approach was different from the curriculum,” Godfrey said. “The kids have to be challenged and learn how to speak, write and argue their points of view correctly.
“They learn more about life and develop skills that will help them in the future.”
The Hall of Fame induction carried deep meaning for Godfrey as he reflected on his career and the people who joined him in the 2010 class.
“It is a very humbling experience to be acknowledged or honored to go into the Hall of Fame for something you love to do and gives you a meaningful living, sense of fulfillment and the responsibility to the children put in your charge,” Godfrey said. “The most appealing thing that gets my attention is we did it the right way by playing the best teams and winning.”
Godfrey takes pride in the scholarships and life skills such as teamwork, self respect and respect for others he and his staff helped players develop.
Joining Godfrey in the 2010 Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame class were Georgia State head football coach Bill Curry (a former NFL player and head coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky), two-time Cy Young winner and 1995 Atlanta Braves World Series MVP Tom Glavine and golfing great Larry Nelson.
“Going in with these people may be the most humbling part of the honor,” Godfrey said. “I have a long history with Bill Curry from his days at Georgia Tech and Kentucky. I watched Tom Glavine pitch on many occasions as well as Larry Nelson playing golf. Just being up on the stage with these people and getting the same adulation by your peers was tear jerking.”