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Smith: Trippi’s path to UGA was paved by skill, sincerity and soda

Charley Trippi is a Georgia treasure. Though not a native — like another remarkable transplant to achieve super stardom in these parts, Hank Aaron — Trippi was of the ilk of Georgians Bobby Jones and Ty Cobb.

The Italian Stallion, as Trippi was known, was the best of his time, the greatest of his era. The respect Trippi has engendered historically always amazes. Only Herschel Walker among the living Bulldogs legends rivals Trippi’s universal admiration and esteem. And of all the factors that led Trippi to Georgia, much of the credit is due to another Georgia institution, Coca-Cola.

You may find that amusing, but a review of Trippi’s times would confirm the significance of the soft drink company’s influence on his life and his link to the University of Georgia.

Following the Great Depression, hard times permeated the country. Those were Charley Trippi’s times. It has always been interesting to note that the university dedicated Sanford Stadium on October 12, 1929, and the stock market crashed 17 days later. Alumni and friends had guaranteed the construction of the stadium by signing notes which were never called. That is an extraordinary highlight of University of Georgia history.

However, it was a never-ending challenge to try to balance the books in athletics. Harold Hirsch, for whom the law school is named, was general legal counsel for Coca-Cola and kept a watchful eye on Bulldogs athletics. He was the originator of the plan to hire Georgia players to work for the company in the summer.

They fanned out across the country, taking samples at drug counters to ensure that when customers ordered a Coke, it was Coca-Cola the soda jerk was serving.

Many Georgia players became permanently employed by Coca-Cola, and some of them, such as former Bulldogs letterman Harold Ketran, became bottlers. Ketran was a bottler in eastern Pennsylvania, operating out of Wilkes-Barre, which is eight miles from Trippi’s hometown of Pittston. Ketran was the first to see promise in Trippi, whose reputation as an exceptional athlete took root when he spent a year at LaSalle Prep in New York. By that time, Trippi had visited Athens and had committed to Georgia and not insignificantly to Ketran. In his junior and senior years, Trippi had his own Coca-Cola route, making about $30 a week. He was contributing significantly to the family budget, bringing more income to the household than his coal-mining father, who barely made $90 a month.

After his season at LaSalle, other colleges came calling, including Notre Dame. When Trippi told them he was committed to Georgia and had a nice job to help his family, Notre Dame promised to find him work that would remunerate him generously — at least for the times. There was one thing his Italian father, who lived a hard life trying to support his family, insisted on which the younger Trippi embraced and that was to “keep your word.”

In those days, Notre Dame had the preeminent college football program in the country. How could a young man turn down the Irish to enroll at the University of Georgia?

“It was simple,” Trippi says, “I had given Mr. Ketran and Georgia my word.”

Georgia honored Trippi on April 13 in a fitting tribute, highlighted by the presentation by coach Mark Richt of the first annual Charley Trippi Most Versatile Award to Brandon Boykin. Richt noted that the tradition Georgia enjoys today was built by Bulldog heroes like Trippi.

So the next time you drink a Coke, remember how Charley Trippi wound up at the University of Georgia.

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