Remembering “Big Jim”

Originally posted on Feb. 7, 2009:


Scarlett’s Aunt Pittypat may have fretted about “Yankees in Georgia!” but for a couple of decades before the Vince Dooley era, UGA got some of its best players by venturing north of the Mason-Dixon line, particularly to Pennsylvania, where the Bulldogs signed Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi, John Rauch and the outstanding pair of All-American tackles who anchored Dooley’s first offensive line … Ray Rissmiller and Jim Wilson.

Both went on to play in the NFL and Wilson, who died this past week at age 67, began a controversial career in the “sports entertainment” field as wrestler “Big Jim” Wilson while still in the NFL, working primarily in the Atlanta-based promotion that was a precursor to Ted Turner’s late WCW, where another Bulldog, Bill Goldberg, wrestled a generation later. Being a former Dawg and an NFL player, Wilson quickly became something of a star on the wrestling circuit, and in high school I remember kids on the bus in Athens talking about going out to the old J&J Center to see “Big Jim” top the bill.

But Wilson bucked the system in the National Wrestling Alliance, reportedly chafing at some of the scripted moves (he didn’t want to do “blade jobs,” where a wrestler intentionally cuts himself) and balking at being ordered to lose certain bouts. But more importantly Wilson was branded a troublemaker for working to try to unionize wrestlers, who had no pension or health care benefits. This didn’t sit will with the promoters, nor even with all his fellow grapplers and the fans, and Wilson said he was blackballed out of the NWA around 1973, though he continued to wrestle in smaller promotions for another dozen years. To this day, his name produces a wide range of reactions among wrestling fans, with one telling me he was a “snitch” and “crybaby,” while another called him “an unsung hero.”

One thing’s for sure, Wilson was one of the best offensive linemen UGA ever produced, and in 2001 was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, followed by UGA’s Circle of Honor in 2005. A memorial service for Wilson is set for 3 p.m. Feb. 13 at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, 3434 Roswell Road in Atlanta. …

Speaking of offensive linemen, I’d feel a whole lot better about Mark Richt’s latest “Top 10″ recruiting class if it had more than just three players intended for the OL, which has continually been a trouble spot for the Dawgs during most of Richt’s years at the helm, sometimes due to injuries (as was the case last season) and other times due to poor coaching and underperforming players (hallmarks of former OL coach Neil Callaway’s tenure). As the Dawgs learned this past season, all the talent in the world at skill positions won’t win titles if you don’t win the battle of the trenches. …

My son was one of the die-hards at the Steg this past week as the men’s basketball team continued its downward spiral in the wake of Dennis Felton’s firing. Official attendance was listed as 6,659 but that has about as much basis in reality as pro wrestling. A couple of thousand at most, my son said. Apparently UGA’s athletic officials must count not only all those lower-level season ticket holders’ seats that so frequently go unfilled as part of the “attendance,” but also the sections blocked off for UGA students, which were sparsely populated this time around. Even the crowd that was there didn’t seem much into the game, with the Dawgs’ late first-half rally to within 4 points generating little fan enthusiasm. Seems the only way to get anyone interested in UGA basketball right now is to mention Bobby Knight. Truly, a “lost” season. …

And a note of interest to Middle Georgia Dawg fans: Vince Dooley is the opening-night headliner at this year’s Macon Film and Video Festival, with the Georgia Public Broadcasting documentary “Vince Dooley: Beyond Football” screening Feb. 18 at the Grand Opera House, and the legendary coach himself on hand to talk about the film and take questions.

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