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Football Rivals From Fifty-Three Yards, Friends For Life

Clay Hendrix, Bobby Lamb
Clay Hendrix, Bobby Lamb

By Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information

Since Dec. 19, 2016, when Clay Hendrix was named Furman's head football coach, I've pondered the day he and Mercer's Bobby Lamb would be separated by 53 yards on a football field for the first time:

as opposing head coaches;

at Paladin Stadium;

on October 21, 2017.

With that day rapidly approaching, I continue to grasp the uniqueness the moment will bring, trying as I may to fathom just how life's basket can be weaved so intricately into a finished product no one could have predicted.

Our God has a way about things....

Clay Hendrix and Bobby Lamb, two Commerce, Ga., boys of the same age who for years lived a flop wedge from each other on Dogwood Trail, shared a love and passion for the game that would shape their lives almost from the start.

At Commerce High School, they suited up for Bobby's father, Ray Lamb, and experienced tremendous success — a defining quality that would become ingrained in them as players, and later as coaches, husbands, and fathers.  There was the 1981 2A state championship, made possible by Lamb the all-state quarterback and Hendrix the standout offensive guard, which provided a springboard to the opportunity and world of college football.

Outside of Georgia and Georgia Tech and a couple of historically black schools, college football playing opportunities in the Peach State in early 1980s were limited.  Georgia Southern was a teacher's school essentially with a club team playing Jacksonville's police squad; Georgia State, a commuter's haven known for its MBA program but little else; and Kennesaw State, a sleepy, mostly-rural school with nothing more than a Civil War battlefield name.  There was no football at Mercer, Shorter, or Rhinehart.  Hard to imagine given the state of Georgia's longstanding passion for the game of football.

So the two decided on Furman University in Greenville, S.C., seventy five miles up Interstate 85.

Paladins.

College roommates from the start, the duo joined Dick Sheridan's program on its ascent.  With three Clarence Stasavich Southern Conference championship trophies secured over the previous four years, Furman was on the hunt for more, and Clay and Bobby delivered as the Paladins won league crowns in 1982, '83, and '85.

In 1983 Bobby engineered a 17-14 win over Georgia Tech.  A year later, with Clay at guard, the Paladins knocked off N.C. State, 34-30.

It was in late summer of 1985 that I came to Furman and met Clay and Bobby.  Given the closeness of our age (I was three years their senior) and shared small town Georgia roots (I was from Madison, the more beautiful of the two communities), we had a fertile field of commonality from which to draw.

I was the lucky one.

That first year at Furman was storybook.  We went 12-2, destroyed the SoCon in winning the school's sixth league title in eight years, and finished as national runner-up.

Bobby was a tremendous quarterback — to this day one of the best field generals I've ever witnessed.  I never saw him throw a ball 50 yards, but he could lay it softly on the back of a fleeing mosquito 35 yards down field.

Clay, meanwhile, performed brilliantly in the school of advanced offensive line studies under Robbie Caldwell, already a master teacher who would have considerable influence on his young pupil.

39-10-1 was Furman's four-year record with No. "19" and No. "62" wearing the purple and white.  Fierce competitors and winners they most certainly were.

It was a few years later, maybe 1988 or '89, Clay said something to me that seared a spot in my memory.  With respect to his coaching profile in the media guide, he asked, 'Why does it say in my bio that Bobby was my teammate, but in Bobby's bio it doesn't mention I was his teammate?' In one instructive offering Clay spoke for every offensive lineman who'd ever played the game, underscoring the fact that no football team wins without the man in the trenches doing his oftentimes under-appreciated task.  Evidence of a virtual sibling rivalry? Possibly.  But Clay, ever the analyst, was spot-on with his point.

Bobby may not realize it, but he finished off my days on the tennis court.  A torn ACL was the actual cause, but because he was on the other side of the net when I found myself on my back staring at cumulus nimbus clouds, he will always get the blame.  He was the better player.  Revenge would come on the golf course, where I schooled him — my only avenue of athletic supremacy since I was "0-for" versus Clay, who was in a class of his own with a golf club in his hands.  He could beat just about anybody — then, and to this day — with one hand tied behind his back.

Bobby's and Clay's tenures as assistant coaches under Jimmy Satterfield and Bobby Johnson featured more success — the 1988 NCAA I-AA (FCS) Championship, five SoCon championships and seven playoff appearances. There were many notable wins, including the forever fondly remembered playoff semifinal triumph over that institution from West Virginia in '88; the payback Georgia Southern had coming two weeks later in the championship game; and playoff victories over both the Eagles and Western Kentucky in '01.

The roles they played in extending Furman's road of success — Clay in recruiting and developing offensive linemen such as Steve Duggan, Ben Hall, Josh Moore, Donnie Littlejohn, Ben Bainbridge, and Joel Bell (all Jacobs Blocking Award winners), who could block the pants off the opposition; and Bobby, in recruiting and assisting in nurturing the talents of quarterback standouts Frankie DeBusk, Braniff Bonaventure, Justin Hill, and Billy Napier — built the foundations for their respective head coaching careers.

Bobby's inaugural season as a head coach in 2002 included one of the most brutal losses in Furman football history.  A textbook efficient scoring drive that yielded a Bear Rinehart touchdown catch to put us up, 15-14, at Appalachian State with 7.4 seconds remaining was cast onto the ash-heap of forgotten history after a two-point conversion pass was picked off and returned for the game winning points.  It was following that unimaginable finish that I encountered integrity I will never forget.  While supplying a post-game statement through me would have been perfectly acceptable given the gut-wrenching nature of the loss, Bobby and quarterback Billy Napier (now the offensive coordinator at Arizona State) emerged from the locker room and answered every single question posed to them.  No blame game or finger pointing, but collective accountability then and to this day.  To me, that said something about the type of men who have formed the brick and mortar of Furman Football.

Bobby and Clay would go on to share the same sideline for four more years, winning a SoCon championship in 2004 behind strong-armed Ingle Martin at quarterback and a bruising young fullback named Jerome Felton.

Following the 2006 campaign, Clay finally said "yes" to an offer to leave the Paladin fold, taking his considerable football acumen to the Air Force Academy.  With Clay's brilliance as offensive line coach removed, changes to the athletics funding landscape impacting the program, and other factors coming into play, Paladin football lost its status among the FCS elite.  It was hard on Bobby and all who were deeply invested in the program's tradition, including former signal calling great and long-time offensive coordinator Tim Sorrells, who, despite mounting pressure and every imaginable task and preparation coaches deal with in-season, joined Bobby in driving to Madison on a October Sunday afternoon in 2010 for my father's visitation.  Some things you just never forget.

Bobby and Furman parted ways following the 2010 campaign — something few considered remotely possible only a few years prior.  It was after the final contest that season I witnessed another defining moment of Furman Football brotherhood.  Outside the Paladin Stadium field house, after the players had been dismissed, a dozen of Bobby's former Paladin teammates had gathered — guys who had all strapped it on together, slayed dragons, and won championships while helping build a program.  They were there for their guy at one of the toughest moments of his life. A few memories and laughs were shared, but the unbreakable, everlasting respect and honor evident in their eyes ruled those moments.

Fast forward to late 2016.  Bobby's walk in the coaching wilderness took him to Macon, Ga., where he is four years into executing his blueprint for Mercer's revived football program, and Clay, following an impressive 10-year run as offensive line coach at Air Force, returned to Greenville to breathe life into the Paladins and serve notice that the Death Dealer rides again.

So it's game week, exactly 10 months after events transpired to pit Clay and Bobby against each other this Saturday for the first time — two life-long friends, former teammates and Paladin coaching colleagues, and now rival head coaches who will try to whip the other on the football field.  There will be no shortage of preparation, intensity, and desire to win in either coach — as it should be. 

The respect will be there.  There's too much shared history for there not to be.  53 yards of separation.  The distance has been well earned.

Go Paladins.