Written by Mike Cheatham ('50)
Amid shortage of funds in state coffers and the ravages of the Great Depression, John (’27) and Billy Maddox (’30) of Rome were among the Bulldog athletes setting the bar high in varsity competition. They cut a wide swath across the Southland in those days of the early 1930s.
The pair set several university records and marks in the old Southern Conference, as well as taking AAU (all-amateur) track titles. Moreover, they were a handsome and popular duo among their classmates and greatly admired by the deeply-committed sports fans of the day. However, the lads’ chief mission lay in preparing the way for a super athlete who retired the Maddox brothers multiple hurdles records and becamese the first Olympic Gold Medal winner in state history at the storied 1936 Games in Adolph Hitler’s fatherland at Berlin.
Like the Maddoxes, young Forrest (Spec) Towns from Augusta, Ga., set school, AAU and conference records. He also captured a NCAA championship in the 120 high hurdles. Spec also set a world record in the event at Oslo prior to going for the gold at Berlin; and it was a mark that stood for an unheard-of 14 years.
The Maddox boys came from a distinguished Roman background and excelled in athletics at the city’s Darlington School for Boys. The picturesque campus was nestled on Rome’s southern border, a jewel amid the legendary seven hills and near the confluence of three major rivers: the Etowah, the Oostanaula and the Coosa.
John and Billy Maddox were among the most honored undergraduates of their era at Athens, according to a contemporary, retired Athens cardiologist, Goodloe Y. Erwin. Dr. Erwin, says legendary UGA sports historian Dan Magill, not only was an SEC swimming champion, but may well have been the most outstanding competitive merman ever produced by the city of Athens.
Like his older brother, Howell, the physician was a swim team member. Direct descendants of Confederate Gen. Howell Cobb, the Erwins developed a lasting friendship with the Maddox brothers from Georgia’s other classic city of Rome. The foursome used to visit in one another’s homes while their alumnus fathers were attending to university business in Athens as members of what was called The Prudential Committee.
That body stepped in and ran all affairs of the state university between semesters. Its members were indeed powerful citizens. The four boys had much in common with each other, including a keen spirit of competition with their respective blood brothers. But while the Maddoxes refrained from all-out, no-holds-barred competition with their kin, Dr. Erwin admits he “tried as hard as I could to just annihilate brother Howell when it came to competing in the pool.”
The younger siblings, however, felt a considerable measure of respect for their respective elder brothers.
The Maddoxes, like the Erwin boys, were renowned for their many achievements, both during their college days and thereafter. Each won Phi Beta Kappa-style academic marks, as did the Erwin lads. John was president of his fraternity, a member of the inter-fraternity governing council and, was tapped, as was Billy, for a membership in the two most prestigious senior men’s honorary organizations – Sphinx and Gridiron.
Billy, too, was president of Blue Key, a top men’s honorary organization and scored well as a championship debater. Brother John was on the swimming team and was captain of the track and field team.
It surprised no one who knew them that Billy and John each married beautiful and cultured ladies and produced attractive and brainy children.
The Maddoxes’ hometown enjoyed a solid reputation virtually from its founding as a major river port. Its riverboats plied the waters of four southern states on a regular basis.
The brothers’ grandfather, the Hon. John W. Maddox, was a long-serving member of Congress from Georgia’s Seventh District who was also mayor of the mountain enclave on two occasions, serving as well as the Rome Circuit’s Superior Court judge. When he stepped down from elective office, he assumed the reins of a home-grown Rome corporation, State Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Not only was Billy CEO in the Maddox line, he was CEO of the Rome financial institution that was first The National City Bank, then First Union and later Wachovia. John was well-known across Georgia as a highly competent and principled attorney, heading what a legion of admirers deemed the most prestigious legal firm in Northwest Georgia.
Grandfather John W. just concidentally was elected to serve in both the Georgia House of Representatives and the state Senate. It was hardly surprising to see the brothers’ first cousin serve as Superior Court judge, or to see another cousin elected to serve as district attorney, to succeed brother Billy, and then, to see that cousin, John Davis of Summerville, Ga., fill the seat of the late John W. Maddox Sr. as the Seventh District’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A page in the 1934 Pandora, the school’s yearbook, lists holders of University of Georgia school records in track and field events. In addition to holding marks in the low hurdles, Billy Maddox is noted as the record-holder in the 120 high hurdles in 1934 and Johnny Maddox is listed for the same events in 1931.
Johnny continued his connection with intercollegiate athletics. While at Emory Law School, he served as coach for both the school’s track squad and swim team. He made the All-Emory football eleven, to boot. (An Emory Law contemporary earned tuition money, likewise, by coaching the backs at Georgia Tech; he was Don Miller, one of the immortal Four Hosemen of Notre Dame.)
In a classic Ole Timer column in the Atlanta Journal, the fabled Edwin Camp recounts the heroic manne rin which the blue-eyed, blond-haired Billy won a narrow victory in the conference hurdles competition over his elder brother. A stirring re-enactment of the competition between the dueling brothers was expected at the annual state AAU meet at Georgia Tech in June 1934. The youthful Spec Towns, however, was a contender in the legendary rematch.
John W. Maddox’s son, now a Rome industrial machinery distributor, stakes a claim for Uncle Billy’s being Spec Towns’ mentor when it came to hurdles. And Towns, the freckle-faced defensive end on the varsity football team, won the AAU hurdles crown – just as he won the Olympic Gold only 28 months after he ran his first hurdles competition. John W. Jr. says, “Dad claimed Spec was a mighty fast learner ... Obviously!”
William T. Maddox Jr. of Asheville, N.C., confirms the story. Young Bill is now chief of staff at a large Asheville hospital.
The John Maddox-Billy Maddox-Spec Towns AAU track and field trifecta was an incomparable thriller. A headline on an Ole Timer column in the Journal exclaimed, “Competition at Grant Field Saturday concluded South’s finest year on path and field.”
At no other time in the history of the Red & Black have its sons and daughters blazed such a path of unsurpassed, blazing speed and achievement. Spec Towns, for one, claimed Olympic Gold. The Maddox brothers, likewise, showed their heels and their leadership abilities to the people of America’s southland.