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Webb Spartans defy ‘1-Point Curse’ to claim 1981 football state crown

The TSSAA football playoffs had been running full steam for 12 years by 1981. Two Knoxville teams had reached the state finals during that span: the 1974 Fulton Falcons had fallen 1 point short of the state championship, and in 1980 the Golden Bears of Rule also lost the Gold Ball by 1 point.

There seemed to be a “1-Point Curse” hanging over Knoxville championship football. In 1981 the question facing Knoxville teams was simple: was there a team that could break the curse?

Preseason predictions said District IV-A would be a battle between Webb School of Knoxville and Knoxville Catholic, with possibly Gatlinburg-Pittman as a challenger. Could the Spartans break the curse? Could they even get that far to find out?

Webb began the season with Wartburg and dominated the game, but blew a 12-to-0 lead and lost in double overtime 18-to-12. The Spartans recovered and ran off three consecutive shutouts. A 28-to 0 victory of arch-rival Catholic made the supporters happy. “We needed this one to win the district,” Webb head coach coach Ron Gratz said,

Midway went down 20-to-0 and Gatlinburg Pittman fell 21-to-0. Greenback battled the Spartans before falling 35-to-12. Gratz’s Spartans now had a record of 4-and-1.

The Spartans now prepared to face the Tornados of Alcoa. Alcoa proved too much for Gratz’s men that night and won 17-to -0. The next week was a step up to Class AA and Seymour. In a statistical dead heat, the Eagles managed to score 17 points and the Spartans could not find a way to score. Webb now had a record of 4-and-3.

Powell Valley was 2-and-0 in the district — so was Webb. It was time for the two to meet and decide the District IV championship. The Spartans would travel to Powell Valley and pitch a shutout, winning 13-to-0. “Winning a district championship is always a big win, and when you win a district championship you take it with a smile,” Gratz said.

The regular season would end with two victories. The Spartans traveled to Oliver Springs and battled to a 14-to-7 win. In week 10 Webb hosted Happy Valley and coasted to a 27-to-7 victory, ending the regular season with a 7-and-3 record.

It was now playoff time, and the Spartans would open against Sweetwater, which eliminated Alcoa from the playoffs and was everyone’s favorite to win the Class A state championship.

The Spartans traveled down the road to Sweetwater and engaged in an old fashioned slug fest. At the end of regulation the score was even at 7 to 7. Sweetwater had the ball first in overtime and decided to kick a field goal on 4th down from inches away. It was now Webb’s turn and on 4th down the ball was handed to Steve Fry who sealed the victory. “We were highly the underdogs, except to our boys,” Coach Gratz said. “We believe could win and you come out and play tough and things happen sometimes. We got lucky, we got some breaks, but we took advantage of them. It’s just amazing.”

The second round was a trip to Coalfield. The Yellow Jackets were ready for the Knoxville visitors and Webb struggled to a 20 to 16 mistake filled victory. Coach Gratz described the victory best, “We were not crisp, not ready – but – there are only four teams left in Class A and we are one of them. Now we have one week to get it back together.”

The State Class A Semi Finals was played in front of 2000 fans at Bearden High School. Webb hosted Meigs County and dominated the Tigers 32 to 2. The Spartans played an outstanding game and Coach Gratz said, “This one was a lot sweeter than the other wins.” The Spartans would now play 13 and 0 Memphis Prep for the State Championship. Coach Gratz said it best, “I now believe we are in the big time.”

The State Championship game was in Knoxville and the Spartans were ready. Memphis Prep held a 6 to 0 lead until the middle of the 3rd quarter when Mark Clark broke loose on a 41 yard touchdown gallop. Ned Babb kicked through the PAT and the Spartans now held a 7 to 6 lead. The defense then took over and dominated the game holding the Memphis bunch scoreless.

It was over, Webb 7 Memphis Prep 6. The 1 point Curse was broken by 1 point! Coach Ron Gratz and the Webb Spartans had brought the first TSSAA State football Championship home to Knoxville!

Coach Gratz explained the feeling, “What can I say? It’s sweeter than I ever thought it would be. This is the smallest, guttiest, and fightingest team I’ve ever had. They’re an incredible bunch.”