We lost a loyal cheerleader Sunday morning.
Heaven called up Johnny Higdon for his final home game.
The world is an emptier place without Johnny. Anyone who was blessed to know him, or know of him, is richer for it.
Im not sure there has ever been a more passionate high school sports fan in this city. Billy Henderson, his coach at Willingham High School, once called him the greatest high school sports fan in America.
Although Johnny pledged allegiance to three schools at different times in his life -- Willingham, Southwest and Mount de Sales high schools -- he was a friend of every player, coach and fan in Macon.
He loved them. And they loved him back.
When he would reach for his megaphone, his familiar voice would rise above the others.
Gooooooo Southwest!!!!!!! Gooooo Patriots!!!!!!!!!!
His official title was spirit director, and he wore it like a badge of honor. He answered roll call for every game, home and away. He would pace the sidelines for football, rattle the floor in bandbox gymnasiums and heckle umpires in baseball bleachers across Middle Georgia.
He was also known as the Candy Man. One of his trademarks was handing out bubble gum to fans. He probably gave away more pieces than there are cherry trees in this town.
Johnny was the oldest of Roscoe and Ruby Higdons nine children. As a sophomore at Willingham, he was considered one of the citys most promising young athletes.
He spent most of the past two decades in declining health in a local nursing home. His death Sunday came three weeks after the 50th anniversary of his accident Feb. 24, 1963. (It happened on the same day as one of the citys biggest fires, at the old Wesleyan College Conservatory.)
The Higdons lived near the airport at Cochran Field. Ruby Higdon was in the hospital following the birth of her son, Ricky. Roscoe Higdon had made a kite for the children.
When the kite got caught in some branches, Johnny climbed the tree to retrieve it. He lost his balance and fell headfirst to the ground. He remained in a coma for several months. The accident left him physically and mentally impaired. Doctors told his parents Johnny would never walk again, but the Higdon family nursed him back to health with giant quantities of love and ice cream. His coaches and teachers challenged and motivated him.
His sister Millie Arnold said Johnny had to relearn to do everything. When he walked, he always looked like he was falling forward. He would often come home with his arms and knees all skinned. It was heartbreaking.
When the family moved to Pendleton Homes, Johnny rode his three-wheel bicycle around town. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1977, he was attacked by three thugs. They beat him, robbed him of $30, stole his watch and left him in a church parking lot. He managed to walk three blocks and call an ambulance.
A police officer later said, If theres an award for creep of the year, these guys ought to get it for picking on a boy like that. He would never hurt anybody.
Johnny, for his part, turned the other cheek. He said he would count it as a bad day and try to overlook it.
Theres no telling how many people Johnny Higdon inspired. Twenty-five years ago, he was recognized by The Telegraph as the 1988 recipient of the Sam Burke Award for sportsmanship and service. In 2009, I had the honor of introducing him when he was inducted into the Macon Sports Hall of Fame. Trust me, there wasnt a dry eye in the house.
That same year, readers of the annual Reindeer Gang came through in a big way to help pay for a new set of teeth for Johnny. (All those years of candy finally caught up with him.)
I was touched when the family asked me to speak at the 11 a.m. graveside service Wednesday at Evergreen Cemetery off Houston Avenue.
To will celebrate his life. I plan on bringing several hundred pieces of bubble gum. I am going to ask everyone to blow a bubble in honor of Johnny.
It will be a toast.
Were gonna miss you, brother.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.