Two former Forsyth County standout high school athletes say they pursued their sport at the next level in roundabout ways.
But after Saturday, Jeff Carpenter and Ron Riddle’s collegiate achievements are enshrined forever in University of West Georgia history.
Carpenter graduated from South Forsyth in 2002 and set multiple UWG records as a punter on the football team. Riddle, a Forsyth Central product, made opposing pitchers miserable in 2001 and 2002 after spending time in the junior college baseball ranks.
Both were honored at halftime of the Wolves’ football game this past weekend as members of the UWG 2011 Athletic Hall of Fame class.
While neither lacked confidence as an amateur athlete, Carpenter and Riddle may have scoffed at the notion of ranking among the best in their college’s 54-year history as a four-year institution.
As a West Georgia second baseman that chalked up a hit in 40 percent of his career at-bats, Ron Riddle earned the nickname “Popeye” for his chiseled upper body.
A decade later, the former Central Bulldog can’t lift a Gatorade bottle.
After averaging better than .400 throughout his high school, junior college and West Georgia careers, Riddle developed a muscular disorder diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His current specialist is skeptical that ALS is the reason Riddle is in an electric wheelchair, unable to stand, walk or grip anything. What is certain is Riddle’s outlook.
“It’s just like baseball, really,” he said. “You may be down, but if you keep getting back up you’re never out.”
It’s not the first apparent physical hurdle Riddle’s transcended.
Despite a stellar three-sport tenure at Central, college baseball coaches initially overlooked him because of his height.
The 5-foot-10-inch football, basketball and baseball player thoroughly enjoyed his prep career. He played in two state baseball playoffs, including the Bulldogs’ semifinal loss to Columbus in 1996.
The right-handed infielder — and catcher his junior year — estimates his high school batting average was in the mid-.400s.
The state tourney loss to Columbus ranks as his worst recollection. The best came earlier that season against a major leaguer pitching in the World Series this week.
Madison County hurler Jake Westbrook, now a St. Louis Cardinal, threw Riddle an 0-2 fastball during a game in 1996. Big mistake, especially given the contingent seated behind home plate.
“There was about 40 scouts sitting there, and I hit it out [of the park] on him,” Riddle said.
After earning all-region honors his senior year, Riddle walked on and redshirted at South Georgia Junior College in Douglas. He batted .406 there while playing shortstop, and nearly ended up as a Bulldog again.
Then-UGA coach Ron Polk recruited Riddle out of South Georgia, but left for Mississippi State before making an offer.
“They’d offered me a full ride at West Georgia,” Riddle said. “I had to take that.”
In his two years in Carrollton, he hit at a .422 clip with 156 hits and stole base 46 times. His junior year, he eclipsed a school record with 28 doubles, drove in 49 runs and scored 70 more.
He was named to the all-Gulf South Conference and American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings all-South Central Region teams.
After graduating in 2002, Riddle spent a short stint with the Dubois County Dragons of the Frontier League. He then started working in sales for a floor company and coached his niece’s softball team before his life changed dramatically.
It began when he struggled to draw his bow while hunting deer. It escalated when he noticed a lack of reflex and energy while working with the Coal Mountain Lightning, an under-14 club team that produced several current local varsity softball players.
“When I got to where I couldn’t write, my hands would cramp up, I said, ‘Dang, there’s something wrong,’” Riddle said. “First couple years, I was mad.”
He was first diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropothy before seeking a second opinion from a doctor at Emory University. That physician said it was ALS, but his current one isn’t convinced.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, ALS “often occurs within three to five years of diagnosis. About 25 percent of patients survive for more than five years after diagnosis.”
“Yet, here I am,” Riddle said.
Some of the first functions to fail in many ALS patients are speech and breathing. Riddle doesn’t struggle mightily with either of those.
“If I had ALS going on five years, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you having a conversation,” Riddle said.
Living with his parents, Ron and Joy Riddle, he spends his days taking in sports and politics on TV and hunting, among other hobbies.
“I try to do as much as I can,” said Riddle, who receives treatments every two to three weeks. “You just live life one day at a time, and thank the Lord you’re waking up.”
When opportunity knocks
Jeff Carpenter just wanted to be on the field. The location didn’t necessarily matter, nor did the sport.
His desire to keep kicking a ball, whether it was perfectly round or shaped like a lemon, was the only thing on the 18-year-old’s mind.
“I wasn’t heavily recruited in either soccer or football,” Carpenter said. “It wasn’t like I had to make a big decision between the two. I just wanted to play, and play right away.
“When the coaches at West Georgia told me I had a chance to do that, I started taking things a lot more seriously.”
After transferring from Plano, Texas, Carpenter became an immediate star at South as a forward on the soccer team and punter and kickoff specialist during football season.
Like many kickers or punters with a soccer background, autumn seemed like a break compared to spring.
“In high school, football practices were fairly lax from time to time,” Carpenter said. “I knew leading up to it what I needed to do to get ready for that week’s game.”
The two-time all-county and all-region punter’s ability to pin opponents deep benefited the War Eagles greatly, especially during their playoff run his senior year.
Under coach Norris Vaughan, South put together a late-season surge and reached the state quarterfinals. The War Eagles fell behind at Fitzgerald, but a late touchdown narrowed the deficit to 29-24 with moments left.
Carpenter executed what he describes as a near-perfect onside kick, and was about to corral it himself. But a teammate touched the ball illegally before it traveled 10 yards, and the most successful season in South history came to an end.
“That game was both my saddest and best moment,” Carpenter said. “We were an onside kick [and subsequent touchdown] away from playing in the Georgia Dome.”
The War Eagles finished 10-3 in 2001, and Carpenter earned all-state honorable mention recognition. No other South team has won more than nine games.
Carpenter’s adroit foot gleaned minimal interest from small colleges. That was of little concern as he concentrated on making his final soccer season a memorable one.
“I got some letters basically acknowledging my existence, and that was about it,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it. I’d played soccer all my life and was more focused on that.
“It was really on a whim that I ended up at West Georgia at all.”
A South teammate suggested Carpenter accompany him to an open summer tryout at the Braves’ (now Wolves) campus in Carrollton.
Carpenter recalls punting 15 to 20 footballs, changing into street clothes then immediately being called into the coaches’ office.
The NCAA Division II school could pay only for his first set of college textbooks, but offered him the chance to compete for a starting job right away. Sold.
“I didn’t want to risk trying to go to a bigger school and get stuck behind someone.”
After winning the starting job during fall camp, Carpenter set school records for highest season average (43.8 yards per punt), most total career yards and most total yards in a season. Both marks came during his junior year.
Carpenter’s college success earned him a spot in the 2006 Cactus Bowl and tryouts with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins, but his NFL aspirations never came to fruition.
“I wasn’t the guy who was going to live in his parents’ basement trying to make it in NFL.”
Now settled in Alpharetta, Carpenter helps sell systems for fast food restaurants. He often attends football games at Lambert, where his niece is a sophomore and his mother works in the front office.
When the Longhorns started their football program in 2009, Carpenter worked with their kickers and punters a couple times a week.
“I loved being out there with the kids coaching,” he said. “I’d like to have more free time from work and do coaching later on in life, that’s for sure.”
Worthy of recognition
At halftime of West Georgia’s 23-21 win over St. Augustine’s College on Saturday, Carpenter and Riddle approached midfield at University Stadium alongside two other new Hall of Fame members.
The former punter gawked at the new football facility, which is in its third year.
“We played on a high school field when I was there,” Carpenter said. “We were probably lowest on the totem pole of D-2 schools when it came to football facilities. Walking out into that beautiful new stadium made me think back to all the hard work, all the time we spent practicing.”
Both Forsyth County natives received honorary plaques, their humble beginnings forging some of the greatest accolades a college athlete can receive.
Said Riddle: “It was a good day … Some good news finally in my life after going downhill a little bit.”
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