By Abe Hardesty, www.furmanpaladins.com
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- At least five times a month, Sonny Horton is reminded that he made a good decision when he enrolled at Furman University in the fall of 1948.
As often as is possible, Horton meets with former Furman football teammates at Tommy's Ham House, where they reminisce about college days of 1948-51. One group meets monthly; another group meets weekly.
All are part of a network of close friends that Horton has cherished for 65 years, even though the team never experienced a winning season.
"I'm glad I went to Furman. It had that closeness about it that you don't have at the big schools," Horton says. "And it's still there in our little group. It's real community."
That affection for the school and its athletic department has prompted Keeter – who played an active role in Horton's 1948 decision to attend Furman – and Sonny Horton to provide the major gift that will help make the new Paladin Stadium addition a reality.
Construction on the Pearce-Horton Football Complex, and fund-raising for the $12 million facility, is on schedule, thanks in part to a capstone gift from the Hortons.
The 44,000-square-foot complex, which will serve as the new home to the Furman football department, Heritage Hall, presidents box, club seating and press box, is expected to open in late fall.
The Hortons' gift put the finishing touches on a fund-raising project that has already made an impact on the football program.
"The capstone gift from Keeter and Sonny allowed Furman to fulfill our dream of providing the football program with facilities comparable to the rest of the Southern Conference and Football Championship Subdivision schools with whom we compete," said associate athletic director for athletic development Ken Pettus, a former assistant football coach who chaired the fund-raising committee.
"The new facility shows our fan base, alumni and recruits that we are serious about returning the Paladins to national prominence. This beautiful building could not have been realized without the generosity of devoted alumni such as the Hortons and many others."
Second-year coach Bruce Fowler enjoyed a banner recruiting year, and he thinks the excitement generated by the Pearce-Horton Football Complex was a big reason.
"It gave recruits a good picture of the future," Fowler says. "We'd take each recruit by the stadium, and seeing the construction seemed to make a huge difference,
"I find myself going out there and looking at it. It's super-exciting to me because it's a reminder of a cooperative effort, of people rallying together to make something happen."
The Hortons have a history of making things happen – Sonny as a player and Keeter as a fan. That camaraderie,is something that Horton knows he could easily have missed.
As the "Mr. Inside" of an undefeated, state-championship Greenwood High team of 1947, Horton was heavily recruited by larger schools. He even signed a letter of intent with one (Tennessee, a perennial top-10 power at the time under legendary coach Robert Neyland). In an era that allowed athletes to sign more than one letter, he also visited the University of Georgia. Many in the Upstate suggested he attend Clemson.
The interest from the major-college coaches was warranted. The captain of those Greenwood teams and the captain of the 1948 South Carolina Shrine Bowl team, Horton was a powerful 200-pound fullback, who, according to the writers of the day, "had the speed of a halfback." He could run, throw, catch and kick. And as a prodigy of J.W. "Pinky" Babb, the Furman graduate who was quickly making his mark as Greenwood coach, Horton was a young man of strong leadership skills.
Horton insists that Babb, who molded character and leadership well, didn't pressure him to select Furman. Nor did Furman freshman football coach Lyles Alley, a recruiter whom Horton admired.
The greatest influence came from the Pearce household in the Greenwood community. Charlie Pearce, a former Furman student and athlete, had earned Horton's admiration. He also had a very attractive daughter, Keeter, who happened to be dating Horton at the time.
Keeter admits that when Clemson coaches planned to visit Horton, she and best friend Pat Horton (Sonny's sister) "would take him off and hide him."
"Lots of schools wanted him," says Keeter, who began dating Horton in 1945 and married him seven years later.
Keeter didn't attend Furman (her father insisted on an all-girls school, Winthrop) but she admired the little school in downtown Greenville whose students proudly rang a bell when it claimed football victories. And she had been rooting for Furman even longer than she had been dating Horton.
As early as age 8, she recalls listening, alongside her father, to Furman football on the radio.
"I remember being in my den, listening to Furman games. My dad would say, 'you're my cheerleader – you've got to cheer for Furman. And I did. A few years later, he started bringing me to games at Sirrine Stadium."
Keeter's connection to Furman couldn't have been any stronger had she been a Furman student. It began at Greenwood High, when Babb spotted Keeter in the gym one day, handed her a scorebook, and informed her that she had just volunteered to be the Emeralds' official scorekeeper.
"I told him I didn't know how," Keeter said.
""You'll learn," Babb said as he walked away.
"That was the end of the conversation. I kept score for the boys and girls team the rest of my time at Greenwood. I was too afraid of Coach Babb to tell him I wouldn't."
She grew close to Furman coaches as well. Alley was also the head baseball coach at the time, and when he spotted Keeter in the stands he typically had a comment.
Moments before one game, Alley "came over to me and said, 'you've got to make Sonny put more time into his studies," Keeter recalls. "I told him, 'you've got a lot better chance to do that than I do. You see him five days a week; I only get to see him on weekends.'"
Alley went back toward the field, as if plotting a different strategy.
Later, she and Sonny also became close friends with Melvin Bell, who took over the basketball team for one season (1949-50) when Alley worked on his Master's degree. They remain good friends today.
"We've both enjoyed Furman. For a long time, Furman has meant a lot to Sonny and a lot to me," says Keeter Horton, who has taken art and computer classes at Furman. The lifelong learning art classes, which included trips to New York, have been especially meaningful.
Several other trips – to Missouri, Wyoming, Montana and Arizona – were made following Paladin football teams.
"We've seen a lot of things we wouldn't have seen otherwise, because of our connection to Furman."
Charlie Pearce, who played on Furman football teams of '21 and '22, in the days of Manley Field, wasn't a star player.
In the setting of single-wing football, Horton was a quadruple threat. Known best as a between-the-tackles running back, he averaged 4.9 yards a carry – a remarkable career average in that era. At a time when 500 yards was a feat of All-America credentials, Horton rushed for 1,667 yards and 14 touchdowns in a 3-year career. He also caught 13 passes for 225 yards, completed 11 passes for 176 yads, and was a quick-kick specialist used frequently. At the time, the Paladins also boasted one of the nation's leading punters (Paul Stombaugh).
Joining a team that had scored only two touchdowns in the entire 1948 season (when Horton was on the freshman team), Horton helped make Furman competitive in '49. He scored the winning touchdown in a win over South Carolina, and a 3-6 record included narrow losses at Florida (28-27) and Clemson (28-21). The next two seasons, under new coach Bill Young, were also marked by struggles: the team finished 2-8-1 and 3-6-1, which made it notable feat that Horton was twice selected to the All-South Carolina team. That distinction was earned by only 10 offensive backs in Furman history – Horton, Roten Shetley, Dewey Proctor, Ed Jasonek, John Popson, Tom Campbell, Stanford Jennings, David Charpia, Robbie Gardner, and Carl Tremble.
Keeter quickly became a devoted Furman fan. She's actually seen more Furman games than Horton because she watched many of those – including a game at Georgia memorable for its sub-freezing setting – during Sonny's playing days.
Furman closed the '50 season, Horton's junior year, with a Nov. 25 game at Georgia that was painful for Sonny and Keeter. The Paladins lost 40-0; Keeter and Pat Horton sat in the stands the entire sub-freezing game.
"It was seven degrees and windy. We both had skirts on and it was so cold that ice crystals formed inside our nylon hose. I looked down in the second half and the ice had pushed the hose a half-inch away from my legs," Keeter recalls. "It got so cold that Sonny's parents left. But we stayed the entire game."
Long after their college days, the Hortons have been fixtures at Furman games. And Horton's name has become synonymous with the football tradition. Sonny Horton was elected to the Furman Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987, a reception of the Southern Conference Service Award in 2006, the Bell Tower Award in 2008, and the Order of the Paladin in 2000, as one of the charter members.
An Eagle Scout as a teenager, Horton continued as a leader of young men as an adult. He taught Sunday School for 30 years at Greenville First Baptist Church, working much of that time with teen boys.
Horton's leadership skills were no doubt apparent to Babb, and to Charlie Pearce, back in the 1940s in Greenwood.
"He and Sonny were always best of friends," says Keeter.
It gives the Pearce-Horton Football Complex a fitting label.