Ritter’s incredible journey began with Hitchcock Award
Note: On Thursday, the Montgomery YMCA will celebrate the 50th renewal of the Jimmy Hitchcock Memorial Award. River Region Sports will pay special tribute each day leading up to the event, which will be held at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church. Former winners will be highlighted each day along with little-known facts regarding the award. Today, RRS looks back at one of the most intriguing winners in the award’s history.
By Graham Dunn
Bob Ritter has plenty of stories to tell.
He can tell you about turning down the Bear to play football at Missouri. Or he can tell you about his four tours of duty in Vietnam. He has pictures from all of his life’s events.
But ask him about the plaque that sits in the middle of the photos from previous experiences and he’ll tell his most favorite tale of all.
Ritter was the second-ever winner of the Jimmy Hitchcock Memorial Award in 1961. The former football and track star at Robert E. Lee High School followed Sidney Lanier standout Lewis Gayden, who won the first award in 1960.
“Lewis and I were dear friends,” Ritter said in an interview from his home in Aiken, S.C. “We were leaders at Camp Chandler (YMCA Camp). I felt honored and blessed to be considered, much less win it.
“They have tried to duplicate it in many places. I knew Jimmy (Hitchcock’s) son and was close to the Hitchcock family. The award was smaller so we knew every one back then.”
After helping the Generals win the 1961 state championship, Ritter was a hot commodity for college recruiters. His choice of schools came down to Alabama and Missouri. It was rare for Paul “Bear” Bryant to lose a recruit from the state.
Ritter was not the typical recruit. He became one of the few to tell Bryant he was playing somewhere else.
“I visited both schools for three or four days,” he explained. “I just felt like Missouri was more of the type of program that fit what I needed. I was very impressed by Dan Devine. I thought I had more chemistry with the staff but it was a tough decision.
“Charlie Bradshaw was an assistant under Bear and he was the one recruiting me. After I told him my decision, he asked me to take a few more days but I felt like Missouri was where I needed to be. I felt more compatable in that program.”
Ritter would have an impressive career for the Tigers and eventually was invited back home to Montgomery to participate in the annual Blue-Gray Football Classic. He would become the first native of the Capital City to play for the North.
Ironically, he would line up against one of his old rivals.
“Tommy Neville (Mississippi State) was on the South and we played against each other in the Lee-Lanier game in ‘61 and then returned for the Blue-Gray game in ’64,” Ritter said. “I still keep in contact with him and have done business with him. We enjoy a respectful friendship.”
Ritter left Missouri and made the decision to join the Armed Forces and eventually served in Vietnam where he was an Air Force fighter pilot for four terms. He flew more than 400 combat missions as part of a secret squadron.
When he retired from the Air Force, he went into private business in St. Louis and later in South Carolina where he retired nine years ago.
“If you would have told me back in 1961 at graduation what would have happened in my life, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ritter said. “I am an A-type person, high energy, deep-seeded Christian. I felt like my life was guided by the Lord. I didn’t worry about things.”
Where ever he has been, Ritter has delivered the message of the Hitchcock Award as part of his testimony.
“I tell people about the award,” he said. “I have always talked about it. I was blessed enough to be one of the recipients. It gives me a chance to tell my testimony. Academics have always been important. Kyle Renfroe was my junior high school coach and he was the first one to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to eat a football. I knew I had to get an education.
“I knew the day would come, people would start asking me, ‘what was your GPA?’ The Hitchcock Award allowed me to talk about education and the importance of both. So many athletes look at the game and can’t see beyond that last game. Games are short but education last forever.”
Ritter plans to be present for Thursday’s banquet. He has been asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, a request he says he cherishes.
“I owe a lot to my dear friends. I learn the basics in Montgomery and when time came to follow the next stage, I followed my heart,” he said. “The Lord took care of me. Nobody could have a more exciting life and I thank God for that.”