2021 INDUCTEE - CLIFT KNIGHT
By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily
HARTSELLE – When Glenn Thompson told Clift Knight he had been chosen to be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, the retired newspaperman had a question.
When Thompson explained it was for a half century of covering sports in Hartselle and Morgan County, Knight still didn’t quite understand.
“That was my job. That’s what I loved to do,” Knight said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be nominated for something like this.
“I still feel a little bit embarrassed because I wasn’t the one out there on the field running the football or making the tackle, but it is certainly an honor.”
There was more to Knight’s work than just sports. He chronicled daily life in Hartselle and the surrounding communities. He covered everything from football games on Friday nights to city council meetings on Tuesday nights.
“He was just so dedicated to covering high school sports that he became a fixture at games,” Thompson said. “He was always there with his camera and taking notes. You could relive the games from his accounts.”
It may surprise some people to find out that Knight hasn’t always been a part of Hartselle. He grew up on a farm near Lineville in Clay County. He loved to read and write. When a teacher told him he had a talent for writing, it led him to a journalism career.
After serving in the Air Force for four years, Knight went to the University of Alabama to get a journalism degree in 1961.
“I got there about the same time Coach Bryant came to Alabama,” Knight said. “I remember sitting in the stands and hearing the crowd cheer when Alabama kicked a field goal to tie Vanderbilt. It wasn’t long before the standards for the program changed.”
Knight’s goal was to practice small-town journalism. After a short stint in Mississippi, he found his way to the Hartselle Enquirer.
“There were a lot of jobs coming to Morgan County and North Alabama,” Knight said. “It looked like this was the place to be. We (he and his wife Geanell) fell in love with Hartselle. We never wanted to leave.”
Knight remembers his first Hartselle vs. Decatur football game in 1961. J.P. Cain was the Hartselle head coach. H.L. “Shorty” Ogle coached Decatur. The Red Raiders thumped the Tigers, 33-0.
“Decatur was an impressive football machine,” Knight said. “Hartselle was outmanned and didn’t look like it should have been on the field with Decatur.”
Four years later, Hartselle broke a 15-game losing streak to Decatur with a 14-7 win at Ogle Stadium. Late in the game, Richard Grammer recovered a fumble in the end zone for the winning touchdown.
“At the time that was one of the biggest things to happen in Hartselle,” Knight said. “It turned that rivalry around into a real rivalry.
“I remember the Hartselle fans coming down to the field to celebrate. They had to turn the stadium lights off to get everybody to leave.”
Bucky Pitts became head coach in 1969. In 11 seasons, his teams won 72 games. His last two teams were a combined 19-3 with two region championships.
“The program really picked it up and showed it could compete with the big boys,” Knight said.
The Tigers ran an option attack called the veer. One of the stars of that Hartselle team was quarterback Randy Campbell, who later played the same position for the Auburn Tigers.
“I always tried to show readers what the athletes had to put into a sport to be successful,” Knight said. “One thing I liked to do would be to mention somebody who doesn’t usually get recognition, like a nose guard. They work hard, too.”
Of course there’s more to Hartselle athletics than football. The school has one of the best all-around athletic programs in the state with boys and girls winning championships in many sports. Knight has covered the championships and legendary athletes.
Three that Knight especially remembers are Randy Sittason, Vickie Orr and Boonie Russell. Sittason was a star football player at Hartselle. His father, Bob Sittason, was a big Alabama booster, but the Crimson Tide didn’t offer the younger Sittason a scholarship.
“He played at Vanderbilt and I can remember one game against Alabama where he was a monster,” Knight said. “He had fire in his eyes and gave Alabama fits.”
Orr starred on state championship girls basketball teams at Hartselle in 1984 and 1985. She was an All-American at Auburn, named SEC Player of the Year in 1988 and played in the Olympics.
“She wasn’t going to play basketball until George Thornton (her junior high coach) stopped her from getting on the school bus to go home and made her try out,” Knight said. “It worked out pretty good for her.”
Russell starred on Hartselle’s 1971 boys basketball state championship team. He later played at Alabama. After college he returned to Hartselle and worked for the city’s park and recreation for many years before retiring.
“Boonie really became an ambassador for Hartselle, especially with the children,” Knight said.
Knight saw Hartselle baseball set a standard for success that other schools around the state have tried to copy. Under the leadership of William Booth, Hartselle has won eight state championships, sent countless players to college and even some to pro baseball.
“It used to be that football was the most important spring sports,” Knight said. “Hartselle had a baseball team and they might play 20 games. When Booth took over the program that all changed.”
Knight said that he and Booth had a running joke through the years over who would retire first. Knight won when he retired in 2016. He still is on call when the Enquirer needs some occasional help.
“He’s a special person and has meant a lot to this community,” Booth said. “He covered everything that happened in our schools and I’m not just talking sports. He’s had a lot to do with making Hartselle a special place.”