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Loran Smith: Rholetter shouldn’t go out with anonymity

David Rholetter died without headlines recently with only his teammates and coaches fully appreciating his football worth.

Offensive linemen are the workhorses of the game that enraptures America. Even their counterparts, defensive linemen, are the beneficiary of camera-ready plays. They make a sack and are singled out. But to make sure they receive attention, they prance and strut to make sure everybody knows is was me who just did that.

It does not go unnoticed that offensive linemen gain recognition for a negative. You hear the referee calling out to 80,000 on hand and millions on network television, that No. 79 is being penalized for holding. Offensive linemen get more recognition, via replay, for the blocks they miss than the ones they make. They give up a sack, they can’t hide from the analysts. They make a critical block, they don’t strut. If they did, nobody would know why they are strutting.

I thought about this upon learning the news about Rholetter, who lettered for the Bulldogs 1966-68. Rholetter, whose life of obscurity is reserved for those who belong to the “trench” fraternity in which the games we play deals them the back of its hand when it comes to recognition and appreciation for their roles in sport, was a big lineman for his time (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and had the ideal personality for an offensive lineman in the full house backfield days of Vince Dooley.

He could spring backs into the open field where their numbers were indelibly linked into the minds of Georgia fans. When Larry Munson screamed “touchdown” on the radio, he never said, “made possible by David Rholetter.” Like the dozens of sports writers covering the game, they didn’t know who made those consequential blocks. Even his coaches didn’t know until they “looked at the game film.”

It may have leaked out from that point that Rholetter was a factor in the success of a game winning play or drive, but for the most part, he was only appreciated by his teammates who gathered to view the films of the game with the coaches.

Rholetter came along as weight training was getting traction. No telling what he could have become had he been a disciple of weight lifting. He was a robust, small-town boy who grew big but worked at the fundamentals of football, his first teacher being the legendary high school coach in his hometown of LaGrange, Oliver Hunnicutt.

At Georgia, his freshman line coach was Ken Cooper who had been influenced by Wallace Butts. Rholetter spent only one year under Bill Dooley, Vince’s brother, but at the time, there was not a more respected offensive line coach in the country.

As if it were meant to be for an offensive lineman, Rholetter had two of the biggest and most powerful blocks in history of Georgia football, albeit a negative result in each case. Against Florida in 1967, he blocked a Gator defensive lineman with such force, he upended the defender, whose foot was so exposed that he actually blocked the extra point attempt. Georgia lost the game 17-16. In the 1969 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas, a similar result took place. Rholetter slammed a Razorback defensive lineman so hard that the defender’s foot swung around and knocked the ball from fullback Brad Johnson’s grasp through the end zone for a touchback. Arkansas was leading 10-2 at the time and a Georgia touchdown at that juncture might have brought about a different result.

Rholetter’s death is a reminder that there have been countless college football players who play in anonymity and lived afterwards in anonymity, even dying in anonymity.

But there are teammates who knew his contributions and that sang his praises as he went on to that great Gridiron in the sky. Knowing David, I suspect he preferred it that way. He didn’t make All-America, but on game day, no All-American linemen ever gave greater effort.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald.

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