The Commerce Tigers football program boasts a rich history, but few games equal the 1964 first round playoff thriller against the South Habersham Rebels. Fifty-five years later the game stands as one of the most exciting and bizarre finishes in Commerce Tigers lore.
In 1964 the Tigers were a powerhouse led by head coach Jeff Davis. Sporting four all-state players, the team went 9-1 in the regular season. Its only regular season loss came from playing their eventual playoff opponent, South Habersham. The Tigers lost 7-0 in Cornelia in September.
The Rebels of South Habersham had suffered two losses on the season but had six all-state players of their own. Their coach, Gene Alexander, coached high school football for 20 years compiling a 128-70-7 record. Thirteen years of his coaching career were spent with the Rebels.
“Coach Alexander had a team with discipline,” said Steve Gary, sophomore halfback for the Tigers in 1964. “He wanted the best for them, and he got the best out of them. He didn’t demand perfection, but he demanded them to be the best they could be.”
The rematch was played at neutral site Gainesville City Park. Five thousand fans filled the park for the game, and the Tigers were hungry for revenge.
In the fourth quarter of the game the score was still 0-0. The two teams were in a deadlock, and this was the playoffs. There could be no tie. In 1964 the rules for GHSA overtimes were drastically different.
In the event of a tie at the end of regulation the game would be decided by the statistician. Three criteria would be assessed: offensive yards, first downs and most non-scoring drives inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The team with the best statistics in these criteria would win the game.
With four minutes left both coaches met at midfield to be advised by the statistician. The two teams were tied in first downs with seven each. The Tigers and Rebels were also tied in penetration drives. South Habersham led by two yards in total offense.
Play resumed, and the Tigers had the ball at the Rebel 45-yard line.
“We knew the rule,” Gary said. “They thought we were going to grind it out to win with a few more yards on offense.”
Discontent to leave the game in the hands of a statistician, the Tigers went for the kill. With 1:29 on the clock quarterback Johnny Nix faked a handoff to the fullback before rolling out to connect with Gary for a 28-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers won the game 6-0.
“Yeah, I remember the play,” Gary said. “Their defensive backs and linebackers played up. I went out in the slot on the left. I ran eight yards and hit it diagonal. I got behind the linebacker and beat the safety.”
The Tigers advanced to play and defeat Monroe Area before losing to Carrolton in the third round. The Tigers finished the 1964 season 11-2. In 1965 and 1966 Gary made all-state, the Tigers enjoyed two consecutive undefeated seasons and in those two seasons the Tigers beat South Habersham by a combined score of 69-0.