Steve was a tough-as-nails running back and defensive safety for the West Fannin Yellow Jackets from the autumn of 1962 through his senior season of 1965. He graduated in the spring of 1966. Physically, Cheatham topped out at 154 pounds distributed on a frame that was 5 feet, 8 inches tall. He was small for a football player at any position.
When asked about his size in relation to the behemoths against whom he competed on the gridiron, Steve just smiles and said “I didn’t know that I was small. I thought I was as big as anybody”. This attitude of courage and toughness served him well. He was not just courageous, however. He was exceptionally quick, faster than most and had an uncanny ability to make tacklers miss him or deliver glancing blows. He could stop on a dime, cut to the left or right without breaking stride and had great starting speed. He was often 5 yards through the line of scrimmage before most of the defense had made their initial reactions.
Steve grew up in McCaysville, Georgia, one of three children raised by France and Winnie Lee Cheatham. His dad worked for the Tennessee Copper Company as a hoist engineer and his mom worked as a cook at the local hospital. Steve’s dad never had the opportunity to play football, but had a passion for the game and had a strong desire that his sons compete at the sport. Steve’s older brother Charles suffered a knee injury that prematurely ended his athletic career, sister Nancy played some basketball but of course could not play football, so the onus of becoming a football star fell to Steve.
Cheatham first tasted action on the gridiron as a 5th grader as a member of the famous Copperhill/McCaysville ‘River Rats’. That was in 1958 before either Copperhill or McCaysville Elementary Schools sponsored organized football teams. McCaysville school started a football program in 1959 and Steve eagerly signed up and played and excelled for the next three years.
When he arrived at West Fannin, Steve was already considered a bright prospect. He did not disappoint and became the star of the ‘B’ team as a freshman. He made the varsity as a sophomore and played enough to earn a letter. He also played basketball as a sophomore and earned a letter in that sport as well.
Steve became a starter as a junior in 1964. He had a number of nagging injuries that year — a year that ended with a disappointing 2-8 record for the Yellow Jackets. The season did end on a high note, however, for both Cheatham and his teammates. After defeating Murray County for their first victory after eight straight defeats, West Fannin entered the season finale with bitter rival Copper Basin as a decided underdog. This game always brought out the competitive fire in both squads and their fans. Former Jacket coach and Physics teacher Jim Haymore went a bit over the top in 1964 when he announced that he would award no grade lower than a ‘B’ to all of the boys in his class for that six-weeks period, if the team would bring home a victory over the neighboring Cougars. With this added incentive, Steve and his mates went out and upset Basin 13-12 and Steve had himself an unexpected ‘B’ in his Physics class.
Everything came together in 1965 for Steve Cheatham, and the team in general. In his final season of competition, Steve became the first running back in West Fannin football history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season. He had big game after big game that season and gained the impressive total of 1,134 yards for the year. He won the Region 3AA rushing title by more than 400 yards over his nearest competitor. His offensive onslaught resulted in eight touchdowns.
Steve had a lot of outstanding games in 1965 and throughout his career, but three games stand out a bit over all of the other great performances. West Fannin had lost to region rival North Whitfield by a score of 53-14 in 1964. It was the first time that North Whitfield had ever defeated West Fannin since the two teams began playing each other in 1955. To say that revenge was on the minds of the Yellow Jacket players in 1965 would be an understatement. In that game, Cheatham rushed for an amazing total of 206 yards, an all-time West Fannin record, to lead his teammates to a resounding 34-0 win over the Pioneers.
The game at perennial power East Rome provided another stage for an award-winning performance for Steve Cheatham in 1965. In that game, he rushed for 111 yards in 18 carries to help lift the team to a hard-earned victory over a top flight opponent. In addition to his rushing yardage, Steve had a 59-yard kickoff return in this game.
West Fannin played Murphy North Carolina 18 times over the years. Only two times were the West Fannin teams able to defeat Murphy, although the 1963 game ended in a tie. In 1965, led again by the heroics of Steve Cheatham, the Yellow Jackets were able to travel to North Carolina and administer a 27-14 whipping to the always tough Bulldogs. It would be the last time that West Fannin would ever defeat Murphy.
In recognition of his gridiron exploits, Steve was named to the Chattanooga Times All Tri-State first team after the 1965 season. He was also selected to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Class AA Honorable Mention team and received the Copperhill/McCaysville Kiwanis Club Award as the team MVP for that season. He was also named Most Valuable Back by his teammates and served as the team Co-captain in 1965.
Despite his size, Steve was offered tryouts by several teams, including the University of Tennessee, following the 1965 season. Rules were more relaxed at that time and tryouts, a taboo in today’s rule book, were permitted. Steve had married his high school sweetheart Barbara Queen in December of his senior year, however, and felt that he needed to begin earning a living. He accepted a position with the Tennessee Copper Company and settled down to family life.
As was the case with many young men of that era, however, Steve soon found himself in the employment of Uncle Sam and on his way to the not-so-popular destination of Vietnam. He served his one year hitch there as a combat engineer and squad leader and returned to Fannin County unscathed, at least physically, a year or so later where he resumed his employment with the Tennessee Copper Company.
Steve and Barbara Cheatham are still happily married nearly 50 years later. They raised two sons, Robbie and Chad, both of whom have become successful in the coaching profession. Also included in the family are six grandchildren.
Steve Cheatham is a very sincere, humble man who seems very grateful for what life has brought to him—- or more accurately, what he has earned in life. He is a Deacon in the Epworth First Baptist Church and remains very active physically by hiking and biking.