Leo Costa enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame.
He was Georgia’s first elite placekicker, one who scored a point in the Rose Bowl that enabled him to be remembered for scoring in every game he played in for three years.
An accomplished athlete at old Athens High Scholl, Costa enjoyed a long life filled with warm memories — memories of love and loyalty. Love of family, heritage and alma mater was embraced to the fullest.
He grew up in simple times when sports brought about fulfillment in life, not enrichment. When you could no longer play, you sought gainful employment.
There were no entitlements and nobody sued because they didn’t like the system. Pro football was seldom a consideration. There were few specialists-only in his day. Lou Groza, the NFL’s first great kicker, played offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns. That was a time when specialists played other positions.
For Costa, who had enjoyed a memorable career with the Bulldogs, playing in Georgia’s first bowl at the 1941 Orange Bowl left him with deep and abiding feelings for his alma mater. Georgia still had priority in his heart, long after the days when he could line up behind the holder, see the ball put in place and then swing his right leg through and score another point for the Bulldogs.
If you know anything about Costa and those early days of the Wallace Butts era, then you likely know the story that Costa never saw a single one of his kicks go through the uprights. He had been schooled under line coach J.B. Whitworth, who also taught the placekickers.
Coach Whitworth told Costa after every kick that he was to lean over and pick up a blade of grass as if it were a silver dollar. That routine was to be followed explicitly in practice. Coasta knew that if he ever peeked, even when he was practicing alone, that he would likely hear Whitworth bellow harsh reprimand.
After leaving Georgia in the 40s but returning in 1959 to reunite with Butts for what would become a serendipitous season with the Bulldogs winning the SEC title and the Orange Bowl, Whitworth coached Durward Pennington, who became know as the “Automatic Toe.”
After missing a place kick in a game, Whitworth asked Pennington the next week in practice where he had missed the kick. Pennington said, “to the right.” With that Whitworth sent Pennington to running laps that lasted all afternoon. He went back on the field and told Pennington he could stop running and then said. “I’m not punishing you for missing a kick, I’m punishing you for looking up.” Pennington remembered that he never “looked up again.” Nobody loved that story more than Leo. He could relate.
When he was interviewed a couple of years ago for the archives, you could sense the feelings for alma mater as Costa recalled growing up in Athens and playing for the Bulldogs.
From the day he left campus until the day he died Sunday, he remained the consummate fan. He and his wife, Carolyn, were always returning for games between the hedges. They often strolled the campus, recalling the good times and the good memories.
We often compare times and usually lament the lack of feeling we see in today’s players when compared to those of previous eras. Today’s players are imbued with expediency with NFL riches on their mind. They might enjoy life more abundantly if they thought in Leo’s terms.
Enjoy the experience and find lasting reward in commitment to alma mater.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald.