It was also a somber one.
Mackey realized on that long bus ride home from Repton in 1985 that the Wildcats’ football careers had come full circle. They would never play together on the football field again.
“It was one of those things where the game went by so fast,” Mackey said. “It was over, and you realized that you’d accomplished it all. Even though we were so happy, we were sad about not being able to hang out again, practice together and have bus trips together. We had a really close group, and I think that was very important to our success. It was bittersweet.”
Mackey and the Wildcats’ varsity football careers not only saw the pinnacle of success, but also the lowest of lows, including a 0-10 season in 1983 under first-year head coach Russell Jacoway.
By the end of his sophomore season, Mackey was a bruised and battered quarterback, but he persevered. He did what it took to leave the football field a champion.
After guiding the Wildcats to an 8-3 record in 1984, Mackey helped take the Wildcats even further. He passed for over 1,400 yards and ran for over 500 more his senior year.
Mackey’s efforts earned him the Alabama Sportswriters Association Class 1A Player of the Year. He was also named to the Super 12 and All-State teams.
Against Repton in the Class 1A title game, Mackey completed 7 of 13 passes for 111 yards. He also scored the Wildcats’ final touchdown – a 1-yard run – that gave Sand Rock a 14-6 victory.
Mackey’s determination not only helped lead the Wildcats to a state championship, it’s now secured him a place in the Cherokee County Hall of Fame.
Mackey, along with Cherokee County High School basketball and football standout Ronald Rooks and Cedar Bluff basketball and football standout Harry Tucker, comprise the Class of 2012.
The trio will be formally inducted on June 9 at the Gadsden State-Cherokee community room at 6 p.m. Reservations can be made through June 5 by calling Tommy Moon at (256) 927-3577. Advance tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce or the Cherokee County Historical Museum.
“I’m surprised and shocked (by the honor),” Mackey said. “I wished they could enshrine our entire team. I feel like mine (selection) is the result of being on a team that won a state championship. It is an honor.”
Presenting Mackey into the Hall of Fame is Jacoway. He said Mackey’s biggest attributes on the football field were his never-give-up attitude and his leadership ability.
“When I say he was a leader, I mean he was a great leader,” Jacoway said. “He was on a team of really good leaders, but in that department, he kind of stood out as the man. That never-give-up attitude that sophomore year, that led into an eight-win season his junior year and 15 wins his senior year. That was a great group of guys, and he was kind of the spiritual leader of that group.”
Mackey credited Jacoway, along with former Sand Rock coach Jim Lowery, for helping the Wildcats become the players they were.
Mackey said the Wildcats picked up their toughness under Lowery his freshman year.
“He was an old-school, tough disciplinarian,” Mackey said. “As a player, I hated practicing football because it was so rough and physical. We went in pads four days a week a lot, then played on Friday nights. He made us mentally tough, and I believe that the foundation of our team was built there. He talked to us about winning a state championship when we were 2-8 and I was in ninth grade. He could see there was something there.”
Lowery said Mackey was “one of those guys who would bear in there, grit his teeth and keep on going.”
“He was a leader as a seventh-grader and all three years I was there coaching him,” Lowery said. “He was the type guy that made you look forward to practice because you knew things were going to get better at practice that day. He was going to work hard, and he made sure everybody else was going to work hard. He’s a great young man. He was an excellent student in school, and he was an A-plus student on the field too.
“When I was there, we didn’t throw the ball a lot. We were a hard-nosed running team. Lance, being a young quarterback, we didn’t throw it a lot that first year, but I knew he was going to have to improve his passing. We were a triple-option and a veer team. Lance, as a ninth-grader, could run triple option and veer. He could read it and could carry out the plays without any problem whatsoever.”
When Lowery left and Jacoway took over, Mackey said there was a contrast in style. The young Jacoway liked to open things up more and keep defenses on their toes. Mackey said Jacoway was “almost like having another player” on the team.
“He was very young and excited, energetic and very organized,” Mackey said. “He let the players have a little bit more input, and that was cutting-edge stuff back then. At the time, it was unheard of that players had any input, but we had a mature bunch, and we made the right decisions I think.”
One of the lessons Mackey said he learned most from Jacoway was to set his goals high.
“He’d have us sit down and write what our goals were for the next season, how many games we thought we could win, what we thought our bench press should be, if we wanted to be all-state or all-area players,” Mackey said. “I remember my senior year I thought we’d go 8-3, and I put down that I thought I might make all-area and all-county. That was my goals. He was like ‘Do you think these goals are high enough?’ I’d lost 18 or 19 games in a row, and I was like ‘Eight wins is pretty dang good.’ He realized there was a lot more there and we were just kind of scratching the surface of what we could accomplish. He was very motivational.”
Jacoway recalled Mackey taking charge of summer workouts during the quarterback’s junior year in 1984, working with his receivers on routes and timing patterns.
One of those receivers was Jeff Whaley.
“It really paid off,” Whaley said. “Back then, nobody had quarterbacks and receivers who could make plays. They might have a quarterback who could throw the ball, but they didn’t have anybody who could catch it. Luckily that year, there were several of us that ended up being pretty good receivers. It was so fun. I wouldn’t take anything for any of those memories.”
Jacoway said the group “worked really hard at it.”
“Back then, you didn’t have 7-on-7 camps during the summer, but there were a lot of days you’d see Lance throwing the football and working with the guys before and after workouts. Artie Mackey, Jeff Whaley, Craig Twilley, Dwayne Heard, that group came up with Lance. He started getting confidence in them, and they started getting confidence in him.
“It was unreal how much Lance improved from his 10th grade year to his senior year. He had a lot of ability, and he just kept getting better.”
Mackey said the turning point for the Wildcats was when they played Valley Head his junior year in the second round of the state playoffs. Sand Rock had lost to the Tigers 48-7 earlier that season, but the rematch was much closer.
Even though Sand Rock’s season came to an end with a 17-16 loss to the eventual state champions, the Wildcats realized then they could play with any team.
“I think after that game, we really realized we were really close,” Mackey said.
Added Whaley: “When we found out we could play with them, I think that put the seed in our head that we could do this. It gave us a goal to work toward, and from that point on, that’s what we talked about.”
The confidence gained from the Valley Head playoff game carried over throughout the 1985 season. After a 38-8 victory at Spring Garden to begin the season, the Wildcats scraped past Cedar Bluff 7-6. From Week 3 through Week 9, Sand Rock breezed past its opponents, pitching three shutouts along the way.
The Wildcats were on the brink of earning a 10-0 regular season, but standing in their way was West End of Walnut Grove. Sand Rock earned a hard-fought 14-0 victory to clinch the school’s first undefeated regular season.
After blowing past Speake 34-0 in the first round of the playoffs, Sand Rock once again played Cherokee County rival Cedar Bluff. The Wildcats won the rematch, 21-7.
Both Mackey and Whaley said the Cedar Bluff playoff game was a memorable one on the path to the Wildcats’ championship.
“We didn’t feel like we played well the first time,” Mackey said. “We kind of got a little revenge in that game, even though we won the first one. Winning that game was big.”
Whaley recalled a special pass play designed for him and Mackey against Cedar Bluff.
“That was so satisfying because David Blevins was covering me and he told me I couldn’t catch a pass over him,” Whaley said.
A pair of 17-0 victories against Mount Hope and Carrollton the following two weeks sent the Wildcats packing for the state championship at Repton.
It was an experience Mackey said he will never forget.
“There was a huge crowd of people there, a great atmosphere, just two teams going after it,” Mackey said. “It’s hard to explain unless you played in it. It was a very special game.”
Whaley called the state championship season “a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
“I really think everybody came to the point where no matter what we did, we would pick each other up, and we just refused to lose,” he said. “It was a really fun time. It’s so nice to look back on it now. What a way for all of us to end our careers.
“I want to congratulate Lance and say thanks to him and all my teammates for all the memories. It’s something I’ll never forget. I was very honored to be a part of it.”
Even though Mackey’s playing days were done following the state championship game, he still remains an active supporter of Wildcat athletics.
He’s currently an assistant coach on the Wildcat varsity baseball team and is also involved with the school athletic club. Mackey and his wife Stacey have two children who attend Sand Rock, Cameron and Chandler.
“As a parent, I try to be supportive and do whatever I need to do to help,” Mackey said. “I really enjoy being around the kids. It keeps me young.”
“He has been an asset to our athletic program for years and years,” Jacoway said. “There’s not a bad thing I can say about him.”
Lowery said he’s proud to see Mackey earn a spot in the Cherokee County Hall of Fame.
“He’s carried leadership throughout his life, but he’ll be the first one to tell you it wasn’t a one-man show,” Lowery said. “There were a lot of good kids on that team who were just hard workers who made it happen. It’s a real pleasure knowing Lance is being inducted. He’s very deserving. I’m looking forward to his induction.”