All-American Horton helped lead Commodores to first bowl

Nov. 6, 2013

Commodore History Corner Archive

When former Vanderbilt running back Charley Horton (1952-55) was looking to play college football, the University of Miami was in his plans. But the Hurricanes did not have the St. Petersburg, Fla., native in their plans.

“Miami said they were interested,” Horton said recently from his North Carolina home. “I went down on a (high school) track meet to Miami and worked out with the Hurricanes. They decided that my stride was too long so they turned me down. Vanderbilt was the only one that I had a scholarship offer. It was an easy decision. Bill Edwards was the Vanderbilt coach at the time.

“He was a really good players’ coach. He had a pro-type offense and Vanderbilt scored a lot of touchdowns in his time. Bill Wade (1949-51) was a great quarterback for Vanderbilt. We brought in another guy by the name of Bill Krietemeyer from Evansville, Ind., to replace Wade and as a freshman. He did an outstanding job. He was a drop-back quarterback. It suited Bill Edwards’ type of offense.”

Horton, 79, was a star athlete at St. Petersburg High School and participating on a college football team as a freshman was an experience he will never forget. He realized just how important the next step to his football career would be during that first week of summer practices.

“During my freshman year coach Edwards brought in about 100 prospects and of that 100 he was going to trim it down to about 40,” Horton said. “(Vanderbilt) chancellor Harvie Branscomb came out to the first day of practice and said to coach, ‘You’ve got an awful lot of people. Who are all the white shirts?’ Edwards said they were the varsity. Then Branscomb asked, ‘Who are all the green shirts?’ Edwards said those are prospects that we are looking at. He said, ‘How many do you have out there?’ He said about 100. He said, ‘How many are you going to keep?’ He said, ‘About 35 or 40. I’m going to take a couple of weeks to look at them and keep the best.’ Then chancellor Branscomb said, ‘I want them to the number you are going to keep by the end of the week.’

“All hell broke loose. We had head-on tackling and what they called the gauntlet. Every 10 yards was a tackler and they would throw the ball to the runner and he had to run through each tackler. At the end of the drill the runner had to get up and he became a tackler. And everybody would move up one and the one that became the first tackler became the runner. We did that for what seemed like hours. Then we had another one where we had three huge linemen spaced five yards apart with blocking dummies 10 yards a part. The backs had to try to run through all three linemen. We figured out we couldn’t get through all three of them since they were over 200 pounds each and the backs were around 170 pounds. They were killing us.

“Coach Steve Belichick (father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick) came up to us and said, ‘Guys, what are you doing? You’re going to kill yourselves. You can’t run through those big guys. You can run anywhere between those dummies that you want. If you get though all three of them, I will give you a break and you will not have to take a turn.’ We started running around them instead of trying to run over them. I think that helped my open field running because of that drill. We were beat up pretty badly that first week of practice. We had two-a-days with one practice at 7 o’clock in the morning for two-and-a-half hours and another one that started about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. They cut the numbers from 100 to about 40 in three days. Those that stayed were tested by fire.”

In this era of college football, freshmen were eligible while Vanderbilt was coming off a 6-5 (3-5 SEC) season. Wade had graduated and was beginning an NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams. Horton played strictly defense as a safety when an injury to a teammate occurred, which enabled him to only run the ball on punt and kickoff returns. Edwards had established a two-platoon squad at this time.

“I was on the JV and freshman team when during one of our practices the varsity was punting against us,” said Horton. “There was virtually no blocking for us at that time. We were trying to block as the ball was punted to us. We had a receiver down to catch the ball and after they’d block for the punt, the varsity would run down. I got lucky and ran one all the way back. That leads up to the time that we played William & Mary and Buddy Stack was one of the offensive backs.

“He broke his ankle on a downfield run. He was the punt and kickoff returner for the varsity. They elevated me to the varsity at that time. The first game I got into was the Miami game, which I think was about the eighth ball game of the season. I ran a punt back 52 yards for a touchdown. What was really good about that it was against Miami, who had turned me down. Vanderbilt won 9-0 in that game. We scored the touchdown, made the extra point and scored a safety also. That was a big thrill.”

During his freshman year, Horton averaged 16 yards on five kickoff returns and 21.1 yards on eight punt returns. The Commodores were 3-5-2 (1-4-1 SEC) in Edwards’ fourth and final season as head coach. Virginia’s head coach Art Guepe replaced him. Edwards was 21-19-2 in his tenure at Vanderbilt.

“I didn’t have an opinion one way or another who Vanderbilt hired to replace Edwards,” Horton said. “I was brought to Vanderbilt on a grant-in-aid scholarship to play football and whoever the coach was – was the coach. Art Guepe brought in a completely different system. Edwards was a wide-open offense.

“Coach Guepe had a tight T-offense, which developed into what he called a ‘Variegated T’ where he had either flankers out to one side or the other. The quarterback under his system was more of a running option-type quarterback that did some passing, but not like the straight drop back passing like Bill Edwards. That year we went from the double platoon to the single platoon. I was playing some at safety and left halfback.”

Horton was starting in the backfield as a halfback, but it just took the opening game of his sophomore year for the 6-foot, 180-pound speedster to establish himself as the Commodores’ top rusher that season with a 78-yard romp for a touchdown at Pennsylvania in a 13-7 loss. Horton also caught eight passes for 51 yards that season.

Art Huepe and Charley HortonIn that 1953 season, Vanderbilt was 3-7 (1-5 SEC) with wins over Virginia, Tulane and MTSU. Horton recorded the highest rushing average among leading carriers (with 75 or more attempts) in the SEC at 6.1 yards per carry and 464 total yards.

Vanderbilt’s first game in 1954 was on Dudley Field against No. 10 ranked Baylor. This would be an historic game for it was the first night game in the stadium. That summer evangelist Billy Graham held a crusade at the stadium and donated the permanent lights. Horton collected two touchdowns and 42 total yards rushing (eight carries) in the 25-19 loss to the Bears.

In his next game at Alabama, Horton scored two touchdowns (one rushing and one receiving) in guiding the Commodores to a 14-7 lead. Then an injury against the Tide slowed a promising season for Horton.

“I hurt my knee early in the third quarter and missed the rest of the game,” said Horton. “Alabama had a good team with Bart Starr. We were ahead and Starr brought them back in the second half. I ran hard with my legs and was prone to get hematomas in my quadriceps. A fancy term for blood clots. I missed a few ball games that year.”

Starr led the Tide to a 28-14 comeback victory over the ’Dores. Horton missed the next three games before returning against Kentucky. Though not at full speed, Horton scored Vandy’s lone touchdown in a 19-7 loss to the Cats.

“The Kentucky game was a transition getting back into shape after being out three weeks,” Horton said. “Kentucky beat us 19-7 and Tulane beat us in a close ball game (6-0). Then we came back strong against Villanova to win 34-19. Against Tennessee we played at Dudley Field. ‘Tom the Bomb’ Tracy for Tennessee needed less than 100 yards to set a school record and our defensive line absolutely shut Tennessee out that year.

“Larry Hayes probably had one of his better ball games for us that day. Every time the guards pulled, he would shoot the gap and get Tracy or whoever was running the ball. Everything clicked on offense. It was the most fun I ever had playing Tennessee. We shut them down, 26-0.”

Vanderbilt finished that season 2-7 (1-5 SEC). Horton led the Commodores in punt returns in each of his four varsity seasons. He ranks third all-time in Vanderbilt career yards with 677 for a 14.4 average per return.

“I returned punts in high school and I had speed,” said Horton. “In high school I ran the 100-yard dash at 10.1 and ran the low and high hurdles. The only time I was clocked was in sprints. When I got to Vanderbilt I ran the low and high hurdles so I didn’t get clocked very much, but I did run once at 10.1. It does help when you’ve got speed in football. You can’t teach speed. It’s God’s gift. When you’ve got speed it really helps for you to get to the outside quicker. You can make a mistake in running and make it up with speed.”

In Horton’s first three years as a Commodore football player, his teams finished 8-19 overall. Losing was not fun for the native Floridian.

“Well, it was just fun playing football,” said Horton. “I loved football. I started playing football when I was 10 years old. In St. Petersburg we had six-man football and so I started playing football then. When I got into the ninth grade I went into 11-man junior high football team and into high school.

“I was a little guy. When I was a sophomore I was about 5-foot-2-inches and weighed 105 pounds. Between my sophomore and senior year I grew about nine inches just shy of six foot tall and I weighed 165 pounds when I graduated from high school. I’ve always loved football; it was my favorite sport. Even though we played on losing teams at Vanderbilt, which was disheartening, just being able to play the game was good for me.

Horton left Vanderbilt a winner after his senior season. The Commodores finished that historic season 8-3 (4-3 SEC) with the school’s first bowl invitation.

“We won seven of our last eight games and earned a Gator Bowl bid in Jacksonville,” said Horton. “That was really a fun season. We won eight ball games during the year and probably should have won 10 counting the bowl game. We had Georgia beat 13-0 and Coach Guepe used the first team most of the game. Our lineman averaged playing 45 minutes and the backs nearly the entire game. I played 58 minutes. We absolutely ran out of gas in that game. It was 98 degrees. And Georgia between the hedges when it is 98 degrees with a high humidity takes a lot out of you. We were in good shape, but the second half was murder on us and we were playing on guts. We lost 14-13.

“We lost to Ole Miss 13-0. They called our signals. [Vandy QB] Don Orr would say, ‘down, set’ and the next word he would say was ‘hike.’ It would be on one, two, three or something like that. When Don would say ‘down, set’ the Ole Miss defense started calling ‘hike, hike.’ And we were like a bunch of jackrabbits with everybody jumping off sides. Don threw about five interceptions that day. The defense said they were calling out their plays. When they said ‘hike’ they would shift. The rules changed the next year so they couldn’t do that.”

In Vanderbilt’s first six games that season, Horton recorded the first touchdown in each game. Horton scored three touchdowns in Vanderbilt’s 34-0 upset win over No. 14 ranked Kentucky.

“That was really a fun ball game,” Horton said. “Kentucky was favored by14 points over Vanderbilt. Coach Guepe convinced us that we could play with them and win the ball game. We did have a key on their right halfback. His name was [Dick] Moloney. When he lined up a certain way, he went to the left. When he lined up another way, he would either go straight ahead or to his right. That helped us defensively to shut him down. Offensively we just had a great ball game. I scored three touchdowns and ran a punt back around 62 yards. And I scored twice around right end and one was a short-yard run.”

Vanderbilt lost the season finale at No. 19 ranked Tennessee, 20-14, and more was riding on that game than the Vanderbilt players knew.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but if we had beaten Tennessee we had a tentative bowl bid to the Sugar Bowl,” Horton said. “That would have been a great thrill, but going to Jacksonville, my home state was a great thrill too. We were just elated. They asked us if we wanted to go to the bowl game and we voted 100 percent to accept. We should have beaten Tennessee because we had a better team. We made some mistakes in the ball game and they took advantage.”

Vanderbilt won the 1955 Gator Bowl, 25-13, over fellow SEC member Auburn on New Year’s Eve. The teams did not face off against each other during the regular season.

“Don Orr, our quarterback, had been injured in the Tennessee game,” said Horton. “He dislocated his right elbow, which was his passing arm. So it was questionable whether he was going to play or not. He rehabilitated his arm and got it in shape. Coach Guepe did not decide until moments before the game that he was going to start Don, which was a big asset to us. Tommy Harkins was our left end and had played quarterback in high school in Memphis so he was going to be quarterback if Don was not able to play.

“Larry Hayes set the stage for the ball game. We had a bet with everybody on the kickoff team to put a dollar in the pot. Whoever made the tackle got the 11 dollars. Hayes went down on the first kickoff and hit Fob James, who was an all-American, for the tackle. We were offsides. We said that it was Hayes that was offsides.

“He wanted to collect the money because he said he made the tackle. But we told him he was offsides that he couldn’t have the money. So we kicked a second time. I was the fastest man on the field and I thought I had a great chance getting down there and winning that 11 bucks. I was going down the field wide open and I went for James then all of a sudden like a bolt of lightening, Hayes went airborne and absolutely tattooed James. That set the stage for the game. Our defense played a wonderful game against Auburn. I think they underestimated how good we were. We came out ready for the game.”

HortonHorton rushed for 57 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown. Orr was the game’s Most Valuable Player. Horton established a then-school record of 12 touchdowns in a season. International News Service also named him an all-American. He was First Team all-SEC as a senior and Second Team All-SEC as a junior. Horton was selected as the Birmingham Quarterback Club’s “Most Valuable SEC Back” in 1955.

Horton also ran track for Vanderbilt’s longtime coach Herc Alley. Alley had been an assistant football coach for Vanderbilt.

“I really didn’t like track,” said Horton. “I preferred to play baseball, but Coach Guepe told me I needed to run track. I was hoping to run track and play baseball, but they told me no. I didn’t really enjoy running the individuals. Coach Alley was an inspiration to me during my track days at Vanderbilt.

“I ran the high and low hurdles, the 440-yard relay and threw the javelin. I even put the shot in one dual meet. I used to get very nervous. I would have butterflies like crazy before every individual event especially in the hurdles. It helped me on my speed and agility. I won the state high school high hurdles in 1952. The hurdles were three inches lower than the hurdles at Vanderbilt. I think the best time I had was 14.9 and I knocked every hurdle down. But I did break the state record.”

Another sport the athletic Horton learned was fencing. At the time Louisville and Kentucky were dominant in the sport of fencing.

“I was in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and a pledge,” Horton said. “Fencing was an intramural sport at that time and they decided I was going to be a fencer representing Phi Delta Theta. I said, ‘OK.’ They didn’t have enough people participating in the various fraternities so they decided not to make it an intramural sport. It became a varsity sport.

“I enjoyed it. I always played like I was a buccaneer when we were having a fencing match. It was like my life against the other person’s life. It was really fun and I fenced for four years. I felt that fencing would help my agility. It helped my hand-eye coordination a lot. Dr. [Herbert] Sanborn was our coach and a fabulous fencing instructor. He took us on trips to Louisville and the University of Kentucky for matches.”

Because of track, Horton was unable to play in the Shrine and Senior Bowls though invited. But he was a participate in the College/NFL All-Star game.

“Coach Alley wanted me to run track,” said Horton. “Even though I didn’t like track, I knew that it was good for me to be out there running and trying to increase my speed. So I decided to stay my senior year and not play in the bowl games. I have mixed emotions on that. I enjoyed the fellows on the track team. When I was nervous I was afraid I would false start and scratch. I guess I was my own worse enemy in track. I’d get too uptight. I did make the decision to run track instead of playing in the bowls, which would have made me ineligible to run track.

“I got the mumps about two weeks before reporting to practice for the College All-Star game. I was in bed for about a week. On my way to Chicago I used a lot of ice because of the swelling. I didn’t get to practice a lot with them. It was tough. I dressed out, but didn’t play in the game.”

The Los Angeles Rams in the 1956 NFL draft selected Horton. He was the 11th pick in the first round. But he had an obligation to Uncle Sam that first needed to me met.

“I was NROTC at Vanderbilt,” said Horton. “At the end of the program I was required to serve two years in the Navy. It was an obligation. I had to go. The navy did give a leave of absence for a couple of weeks so I could go to the College All-Star game then I reported to the navy after that game.

“I interviewed with the Rams. They offered me a contract, which was I found out later was not a great offer. I went into the service and played service ball for two years. I spent two years at Little Creek [Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, VA]. We had a good team that used the Vanderbilt system. I was fortunate enough to be Most Valuable All-Service player in 1957, which was my second year.

“After the two years a coach by the name of [Douglas] “Peahead” Walker, who was an infamous coach at Wake Forest – a real character, contacted me. He was coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He came down to the base and invited me to their camp. Johnny Majors had played at Montreal the year before, however, he pulled a hamstring muscle and didn’t get to play. They needed someone to come in as a replacement for Johnny.

“They offered me a handsome contract with a wonderful signing bonus and I accepted and went to Canada. In hindsight I probably would have been better off negotiating something with the Rams. The games in Canada lasted four hours where the games in the states last two-and-a-half hours. The Americans played both ways in Canada — offense and defense.

“It was tough on the body and I pulled my hamstring the third day of practice. I re-injured it about three weeks later. I lost my speed and played about three-fourths of the season. I came back to the states and decided it was best to make money the old fashion way.

“After Montreal, I had a daughter born in Elizabethtown, N.C., which is my wife’s hometown. Later we moved to Nashville and I went to work for Genesco, which was General Shoe Company at that time. I went into their management training program in January 1959. I worked my way through their organization for nearly 11 years. I moved back to North Carolina in May 1969.

“A job opportunity with a work shoe company became available in Morgantown, N.C., and so I interviewed for it, prayed about it, and made the decision to come over to Morgantown. I worked for Carolina Shoe Company, which was a division of H. H. Brown Shoe Company out of Worcester, Mass. I worked for them for almost 30 years and retired.”

Horton would keep football in his life, when he became a football official that began in Nashville.

“Don Orr and Art Demmas [former Vanderbilt teammate] were both high school football officials in the Nashville area,” said Horton. “Don asked me to come out and officiate football. So I went out the next year and started out with junior high, junior varsity and after a year I started doing high school games. I officiated for five years in high school.

“In the meantime Art and Don had both put in applications for the SEC. They encouraged me to get into the SEC also. I put in an application as a back judge in 1964. Then I moved over to Morgantown after their selections for that year. I never said anything about where I’d be coming out. They said, ‘That’s not a problem. you can officiate in the SEC and still live in Morgantown.’ I officiated in the SEC for 29 years.”

Both Orr and Demmas had long, successful NFL officiating careers. They each encouraged Horton to enter the NFL, but he declined believing that college football was his “nitch.” Horton enjoyed the pageantry and excitement of the “odd twists that college football produces.”

Horton was also a high school official on Friday nights in North Carolina. As an SEC official, Horton participated in 17 bowls including three college national championship games. These championship games included the Orange Bowl (1986), Fiesta Bowl (1987) and Rose Bowl (1992).

“That was the fun part of officiating in the bowl games,” said Horton. “The bowl that I enjoyed the most was the Rose Bowl. That’s because it was the granddaddy of them all. It was the first year they opened the officiating to a neutral crew. In the past they had Big Ten and Pac-Ten officials split for the ball games The way you got assigned to bowl games was because of your ranking.

“If you were ranked No. 1 at your position then you got your choice of the bowl games. I was ranked No.1 back judge at that time. The best football game I officiated was the Fiesta Bowl [1987] between [No. 1] Penn State and [No. 2] Miami. It was a war. It was almost like officiating a pro game. Both teams were outstanding.

“They had good personnel and really good athletes, fast, tough and the game came right down to the end. Vinny Testaverde had the ball first-and-goal on the 9-yard line. Three plays later he was still (fourth) and goal from the 9-yard line. He threw a pass that was intercepted with about 20 seconds to go in the game. It was a real thriller.”

Penn State defeated the Hurricanes 14-10. Both teams entered the contest 11-0. Horton would also be on the field with some of the greatest college athletes and memorable games.

“I was an official in Herschel Walker’s first game [1980] with Georgia at Tennessee,” Horton said. “I saw Herschel run over Tennessee players. He was just awesome. I had Bo Jackson; he was so fast and an incredible athlete. Emmitt Smith was probably the very best that I saw. He could make short yardage. He was like a knuckleball going through the line. My first game was Auburn against Texas of the Southwest Conference. We had split crews from the SEC and Southwest Conference.

“I officiated at the Gator Bowl in 1979 when [Ohio State legendary coach] Woody Hayes hit the linebacker for Clemson. I didn’t see that happen. Woody Hayes would not get off the field so we penalized him. I was the last official to throw a flag on Woody, which I’m not proud. He was in perfect control until that pass interception. All he had to do was grind out another 10 yards, kick a field goal and they would have won the ball game. As it was the quarterback threw a pass that was intercepted by Charlie Bauman and he ran out of bounds right at the feet of Woody Hayes and unfortunately Woody exploded.”

Clemson won that game 17-15 and Hayes was fired by the Ohio State administration the next day for striking an opposing player.

As a Vanderbilt athlete, Horton was All-SEC, All-American, Vanderbilt Athlete of the Year (1955-56), earned 12 varsity letters with many other awards and achievements. Horton was asked to look back about what it meant to be a Vanderbilt graduate.

“It opened doors,” said Horton. “Getting an education from Vanderbilt was priceless. When I would interview for a job and people knew that I had graduated from Vanderbilt it opened doors wide open. Of course, once the doors are opened you have to walk through them. You have to perform and produce. It gave me the chance to do things I would never have had the opportunity to do without an education from Vanderbilt. I’m extremely proud of that education and that time I spent at Vanderbilt.

“I was almost not at Vanderbilt. After the second day of football practice I called my mother and told her what they were doing to us at practice. I mean they were absolutely beating us up. My mother asked if I had given it enough opportunity. I said, ‘Mom, they’re killing us. You don’t know what they are doing to us. I’m so sore that my hair hurts.’ She wanted me to stay another two weeks, but if I came home my older brothers would meet me at the train station in St. Petersburg. I thought I’d rather take my chances at Vanderbilt.”

Traughber’s Tidbit: Steve Belichick was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt from 1949-52. He played his college football at Western Reserve (1938-40) where Bill Edwards was the head coach (1935-40). Edwards became the head coach of the Detroit Lions in 1941 and part of the 1942 season. After graduation from Western Reserve, Belichick joined Edwards and the Lions as the equipment manager. A story goes that Belichick told Edwards, whose Lions were struggling, “I can do better than most of the guys you’ve got.” Belichick was signed as a player with modest success, but did score a TD on a 65-yard punt return. He played just one season in the pro ranks. Belichick began his coaching career at Hiram (1946-48) and joined Edwards at Vanderbilt as the backfield coach.

His son, Bill Belichick was born in Nashville on April 16, 1952 and followed his father in the football coaching profession. His success is known including winning three Super Bowls (2001, 2003-04) with the New England Patriots. Edwards was the godfather of Bill.

If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email at



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