Blast from the Past: The Legend of Big George Ritchie

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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By C.Y. Peters

Legends are born not just through their achievements but through the impact they leave on their community. One such legend was George Ritchie, affectionately known as “Hooper.” Standing tall at 6’5″, Ritchie first made waves as the first Unaka Ranger to dunk a basketball, a feat that sent ripples through the county and earned him a permanent spot in local folklore.

George Ritchie graduated from Unaka High School in 1955, a year that would forever be carved in the archives of the school’s history. Known for his talent on both the basketball court and the baseball field, Ritchie was a dynamo of athletic talent. His remarkable abilities earned him a spot among the five players selected for the all-county team in 1955. Throughout the season, Ritchie was the spark plug that ignited the Rangers’ fiery performances. His notable games included scoring 25 points against Sulphur Springs and 20 points against Bluff City, but his standout performance came when he poured in 27 points against Cloudland, leading the Rangers to a thrilling 75-67 victory.

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Ritchie’s talents didn’t stop at high school. His journey continued at Milligan University, where he expanded his athletic repertoire to include track and field. It was here that he discovered a natural aptitude for the high jump, quickly becoming a champion in the discipline. Milligan’s Athletic Director, Duard Walker, once remarked, “Ritchie is one of the finest men I ever met; he was a true asset to Milligan.”

This sentiment was echoed by many who had the privilege of knowing George, both on and off the field. Despite his many accomplishments, George Ritchie remained humble and grounded. He often spoke with admiration about Milburn Ellis of Hampton, a player he looked up to during his own high school days. George would often say, “If there had been a three-point line back then, it’s untelling how many Ellis would have scored.” This humility and respect for his peers only endeared him more to those around him.

After his schooling, George moved to Unicoi, where he became a pillar of the community. His children and grandchildren followed in his athletic footsteps, attending Unicoi High School and making their own marks as great athletes.

George’s legacy extended beyond the sports arena; he was deeply involved in numerous local organizations. He was a dedicated member of the Unicoi Masonic Lodge 681, the Unicoi Shrine Club, the Unicoi Ruritan Club, and the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society. Additionally, he served as the election commissioner in Unicoi for many years, ensuring the democratic process ran smoothly in his community. George was also a faithful member of the Unicoi United Methodist Church. He belonged to the New Beginnings Sunday School Class and sang in the choir, sharing his voice and spirit with his fellow congregants. His presence in the church and community was a testament to his character and the values he held dear.

The town of Unicoi and the surrounding areas felt a profound loss when George Ritchie passed away in April 2021. His life, marked by extraordinary athletic achievements, unwavering community service, and a legacy of kindness and humility, left an indelible mark on all who knew him. Big George Ritchie, the “Hooper,” will forever be remembered not just as a remarkable athlete but as a true gentleman whose life exemplified the best of what it means to be a part of a close-knit community. His story will continue to inspire future generations of Unaka Rangers and Milligan Buffaloes, reminding them that greatness is not just in what you achieve, but in how you live your life and uplift those around you.