Sports Desk: Valuable Lessons

Samuel Augustus Nunn Jr. has a ring of royalty, but even with his cogent brilliance as a U.S. senator from 1972 to 1997, Nunn functioned in a cocoon of modesty with a down-home demeanor that made him a powerful principal in the most exclusive club in the United States. If not kings, he walked with power brokers around the globe, but he never lost the common touch.

The traits the world came to know about Sen. Nunn – sacrifice, teamwork and team bonding, but most of all leadership – can be traced back to his high school days playing basketball at Perry High School under Coach Eric Staples.

Nunn has always held onto a part of his past, never forgetting his small-town lifestyle. His best friends have been the guys he played basketball with, and his memories of the genius of legendary coach Staples are readily on call when someone makes a point about teamwork and leadership.

Senator Sam may not have been a sports superstar, but he was something of a hometown hero for Perry in the mid-’50s. (“I was short and slow, but a good rebounder for my size,” he laughs). He also played basketball briefly at Georgia Tech under John T. “Whack” Hyder.

More a man of letters than an athlete, Nunn assessed his options and transferred to Emory, where he graduated with a law degree and, following active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, returned to Perry to practice law and manage the family farm. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1968 but had greater political ambition.

In 1972, he won a hard-fought Democratic primary battle with David Gambrell and then won the U.S. Senate seat by defeating Republican Fletcher Thompson.

He served in the U.S. Senate for more than 24 years, becoming one of its most respected and accomplished leaders. His longtime press aide, Roland McElroy, wrote a book with which many who know the senator heartily agree: The Best President the Nation Never Had.

For years he was chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee and was a hard-working mediator who earned the respect of not only his colleagues but world leaders as well. He was a confidante of presidents but chose not to run, noting that when he “looked into the mirror” he felt senatorial but never presidential.

Whatever he has achieved in life, he gladly offers a tip of the hat to those days of scrimmaging diligently under the sage eye of Staples, a master psychologist who was a moralist, teacher and friend.

He was never nervous on the floor of the U.S. Senate, because he had already experienced something far more intense: competing for a state high school basketball title. Teammates like Billy Powell, who wrote a book about those Eric Staples’ years (Pride of the Panthers), which covers the memorable days the Perry community still reveres, eagerly raise a toast in tribute to the senator.

“Sam was one of Perry’s greatest players,” Powell says. “He was a two-time all-state selection, a great shooter who scored 27 points that night when we beat undefeated Valley Point for the state title in 1956,” offering a moving disclaimer to the senator’s self-deprecating self-appraisal.

“You can’t imagine what basketball meant to the community,” Nunn says. “There would be 40 to 50 cars caravanning to our out-of-town games. We didn’t have a football team until I was a junior in high school. We were a small school, but under Coach Staples’ leadership we could compete with schools in higher classifications.”

Looking back, it was a growing-up experience to savor, a simple life from which a political titan emerged, one whose contributions to society are monumental. In the Senate he learned the art of compromise (Staples’ principles of teamwork), diligent study of tradition and rules (Staples’ underscoring of details) and not taking defeat personally (Staples’ management of emotions with a passionate affinity for sportsmanship).

His work in nuclear disarmament and, later, the destruction of nuclear weapon arsenals, was well served by the athletic competition and the leadership principles he learned from Eric Staples, who at one point was the winningest prep basketball coach in the country.

Nunn, with his wisdom, judgment and resolve, could face down an opponent with aplomb, which he did that night the Panthers defeated Valley Point for the state championship. If somebody should write a book about him, The Making of a Senator, they probably need to start with that game.

Categories: Downtime, Sports Desk