Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
Jesse Thomas “Tommy” Garrett Jr. was born February 21, 1917 in the small mill town of Tallassee, Alabama to Jesse Thomas Garrett Sr. and Aurelia Mae Hornsby. He was one of six children – Ailean, Lillian, Mary Jo, Jeff and Joyce were his siblings. The family moved to Phenix City in when Tommy was six years old.
Garrett married Kathryn “Kate” Bockman of Phenix City. The couple’s first date was to attend the annual Central High reception. The couple was married for 57 years and had three children – Kathryn, Rebecca and Tommy III.
Garrett received his education through the Phenix City school system, attending Phenix City and Summerville Elementary schools and Central High. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Troy State Teacher’s College and a Masters degree in Education Administration from Auburn University. He worked for both the Phenix City and Russell County school systems during his adult years.
Garrett gained his first notoriety as an athlete at Central where he lettered in both baseball and football. It was football where he excelled. A local newspaper in 1936 said of the senior running back, “As long as Central can call on Tommy Garrett to run with the ball, the Red Devils are always a threat, Garrett is fast but not big and powerful. His great gift is control over his hips and feet and containing him is almost impossible. Tommy is a keen passer, too.”
While playing sports, Garrett was honored as an All-Bi-City player in football and baseball. He lettered in both sports at Troy. He was named an All-Alabama Conference back and Little All-American honorable mention while at Troy.
While at Troy, he once ran 40 yards for a touchdown on a twisted ankle. As a leading scorer in the Alabama Inter-Collegiate Conference, Garrett was one of the most feared players though he was the smallest player on the Troy football team.
After his playing days were over and after graduating from Troy, Garrett returned to Phenix City and Central High as an assistant coach for football under Head Coach William Frank Darnell in 1940. He was also named the school’s baseball coach.
Over his coaching career, Garrett would coach football, baseball, basketball and track and field at Central. Upon the retirement of Darnell as football coach in 1942, Garrett took over and began Central’s first era of winning. He produced the school’s first undefeated football season in 1944, a perfect 9-0. Central did not have another undefeated team until the 2018 Red Devils went 15-0 and won the Class 7A State football title. His overall record of 91-49-14 (1942-1958) was not topped until Wayne Trawick (185-85-2, 1973-1997) and Ron Nelson (92-42, 1998-2009) did so during their years with the Red Devils.
In 1986, Phenix Municipal Stadium was renamed in Garrett’s honor. The same stadium he coached his teams in – Martin Stadium – was renamed Garrett Stadium. Many of his former players gathered to help honor their former coach. He had a special dinner held in his honor and was given a new car.
During his coaching career, Garrett’s teams won the Bi-City title outright six times and tied for it once. He coached the South squad to a 32-0 victory over the North squad at the Alabama All-Star Football Game. He was named Man of the Year in 1944.
In the summertime when Garrett could have rested from his coaching duties, he chose not to rest. He spent many hours working with youth in the programs sponsored by the Phenix City Parks and Recreation Department. He always wanted to be there to help children grow to adulthood.
Outside of sports, Garrett was also active. He was a member of the “C” Club at Central, the “T” Club at Troy, was a past president of the Phenix City Rotary Club, Russell County Civitan Club, and Troy Alumni Association on the Board of Directors of the Phenix City Boys Club and a member of the Phenix City School Board.
During his career in education, Garrett was a teacher, coach, and principal. He was principal at Central Elementary and Central High and at Ladonia Elementary. After he retired from that career, he became County Manager for Alabama Farm Bureau in Troy.
While he coached many of the best athletes to ever step on the turf of a football field in Phenix City, Garrett was reluctant to name an all-star team of those former Central players.
“I couldn’t do that. I might forget someone and they were all my boys and they were all great players,” Garrett said years after his retirement to a local sports writer. When the sports writer pushed saying he had coached both Leroy Propst and Don Bailey, Garrett said, “Yes, they were both very good players and they played with other boys who were very good. I loved coaching them all.”
It is most unfortunate that such a beloved coach and educator spent the final 12 years of his life battling Alzheimer’s disease. Even so, he continued to participate in community activities.