Clarence Boynton’s black letter sweater from Mercer University has lived in a cedar box for 70 years.
It was packed up after Boynton played his one and only season of football for Mercer in 1941. He soon enlisted in the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor was attacked. The football team folded. The wool sweater, with a bright orange M on the left side and his last name sewn in cursive on the bottom right, was put away, a relic from another time.
But the sweater was granted new life three years ago when Mercer decided to bring back its football program. Boynton wore it to the groundbreaking for a new stadium in 2011 and received a standing ovation. That’s because at 93, Boynton, is among the last living members of the team of ‘41.
On Saturday, Boynton will don the sweater once again when he leads the Bears onto the field against Reinhardt for the school’s first football game in 72 years.
“I never thought I’d see the day after 70 years,” Boynton said, sitting in his home in Sharpsburg, flanked by his wife, Martha, sons Mike and Ridge and two of their five grandchildren, Charlie and Brittian. Stacks of books, some model airplanes and a few photographs from his days playing at Porter Stadium are on a nearby desk.
The sweater, without a moth hole to be found — it still bears the original “Rawlings” manufacturer’s tag — hangs on a doorknob nearby. Boynton, known as “Pappy,” and Martha, known as “Mimi,” pop off one-liner after one-liner, the chemistry of their 70 years of marriage very evident.
They are both excited about the first game. Boynton won’t run onto the field with the team. He will likely use a golf cart, due to a partially torn the Achilles tendon in his left leg. He has a good alibi for his injury: He was doing wind sprints in anticipation of football. The truth: He says it really happened in the shower.
Boynton and his family will attend some pregame events Friday and Saturday morning. As honorary co-captain, he will participate in the coin toss at midfield. He mimics tossing a coin and says he’s been practicing.
In addition to the old-school sweater, he will wear an old-school helmet, a leather one like he used to wear as a left guard, “the pulling guard,” he proudly says. Mike borrowed it from a local department store.
Boynton pulls out a picture of the team and points to himself: No. 86, seated on the front row. He looks fierce staring at the camera. He also has a full head of hair.
Boynton begins to recap how he wound up at Mercer. He was a part of a 1939 state championship team at Albany High School and was going to play at South Georgia. But after offering him a scholarship, the school ran out of money and couldn’t honor its commitment. Boynton instead went to Newberry in South Carolina. During his freshman year, he got a call from a Mercer coach asking if he would like to play for the Bears. Boynton didn’t hesitate.
He weighed 190 pounds back then, 30 more than now, going against guys who were 220 pounds. Outsized on defense, he said if they went left, he went right. If they went right, he went left. If they stayed low, he went high. If they went high, he stayed low. It’s the only way he could beat them, reminding his family that players played both ways back then. Mercer had just 33 players on the team.
The season of ‘41 wasn’t a great one. The Bears opened with an 81-0 loss to Georgia.
“We ran them ragged,” Boynton joked. “They were tired as they can be after that game.” He added if there was a fifth quarter, they would have rallied.
After the season ended with a 40-13 loss to Chattanooga, the Bears had gone 3-6, with wins against Georgia Teachers, Wofford and Presbyterian.
But it wasn’t all bad for Boynton. Ridge walks over to the photo and points to No. 72, Gene Brundage, Martha’s older brother and the man responsible for their marriage.
Boynton said Brundage was always bragging about what a good cook his mother was, so the players would egg him on, hoping for an invitation. Boynton finally got one. He walked into the Brundages’ house and saw a photo of Martha on the mantle.
“I said to Gene, ‘I’m going to marry her,’” Boynton said.
Gene told him he was too late. She was already engaged. Boynton remembers answering: “I’m not too late.”
After the season, Boynton earned the sweater by participating in a few hijinks that included rolling a peanut down Cherry Street, using nothing but his nose.
“To win something like that, it’s like a prize,” he said. “I thought it would impress Martha.”
He asks Martha if she was impressed the first time she saw it.
“Oh yes,” she said.
She then walks over and whispers what may have been the real attraction: “He had the prettiest blue eyes and the curliest hair.”
They were married in March 1943.
Martha says Clarence’s eyes are still blue but the curly hair is gone. He lifts his Mercer baseball cap to show the top of his head and laughs.
Boynton said they may donate the sweater to Mercer to put on display. Most of the remnants from their previous football teams are gone. Boynton said one of the coaches gave him some 8-millimeter film of some of the games. The film is somewhere in his house, but there’s no telling where.
Boynton points to his leg and says he wished he could be full speed when he takes the field Saturday. But he is excited about football’s return.
“I think it will be a shot in the arm for that area and for Mercer University,” he said.