Football murder mystery revealed in new book

By Jake Cole

The Auburn Plainsman, Auburn U. via UWIRE

When former Auburn football player Bobby Hoppe proposed to Sherry Lee in 1971, he told her about a grand jury hearing a few years back in which he’d been briefly considered a suspect in the death of a Chattanooga man named Don Hudson.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Sherry Lee, I want you to know that I have never murdered anyone,’” Sherry Lee Hoppe said.

Sixteen years later, whispers of a reopening of the case prompted Bobby to meet Sherry on their afternoon walk and confess that, on July 20, 1957, he shot and killed Hudson.

Now, two years after her husband’s passing, Sherry Lee Hoppe is telling his story in “A Matter of Conscience: Redemption of a Hometown Hero, Bobby Hoppe.”

Before the Homecoming game last Saturday, Sherry Lee signed copies of her biography in the campus bookstore.

“So many people knew bits and pieces or heard rumors, but they didn’t know the truth,” Sherry Lee said on why she chose to write about their ordeal.

Upon returning to Auburn University, Bobby suffered mental anguish from the incident, and the playing field became a place to exorcise his demons.

Bobby helped the Auburn Tigers to the national championship, gaining a reputation as a brutal blocking back and also placing fifth on the team’s all-time rushing list.

“When he was on the football field, he was able to totally focus on that,” Sherry Lee said. “It was the only escape he had for this terrible secret he held inside.”

A 1966 grand jury hearing collected evidence against Bobby, but the case never went to trial.

Then, 22 years later, Chattanooga police indicted Bobby on charges of first-degree murder in one of the first cold-case trials in the country.

The Hoppes hired Bobby Lee Cook, one of the most prominent attorneys in the nation.

Cook’s ability to catch the discrepancies in testimonies, combined with the absence of records from the 31-year-old case, resulted in a hung jury that never led to any more court battles.

After the trial, the Hoppes moved so Sherry Lee could take a job as president of Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn. Living in a more rural area allowed them to escape the notoriety of the publicized trial and to quietly move on with life.

Yet Sherry Lee wanted to tell the truth about her husband’s tribulations, obtaining his blessing to write his story weeks before his death in July 2008.

Returning to the campus where her husband helped win a victory he could never fully enjoy, Sherry Lee signed copies of her book, coauthored with Dennie Burke.

Burke was her colleague from Austin Peay State University, where Sherry Lee served as president from 2001 until her retirement in 2007.

The event was organized by the campus bookstore.

Among those who stopped by Sherry Lee’s signing were fans of her husband and the ’57 Tigers, as well as some with more personal connections.

“My mom e-mailed me an article about the event,” said Jennifer Wilson McCraw, holding a signed copy dedicated to her father, Jerry Wilson, who played with Bobby. “I had been interested, and since I was here for Homecoming, I just stopped by.”

Sherry Lee described her book as being “80 percent courtroom drama,” but said the central theme can be found in the title.

Bobby’s conscience, which haunted him for decades, is the focus.

Yet there are others remarked upon as well, from the preacher who accepted Bobby’s confession in confidence, but could not stay silent, to the witness who lied repeatedly on the stand even after she gave herself away, to an IHOP waitress who unexpectedly provided the key to the entire trial.

“I hope readers take away that conscience can come in many forms,” Hoppe said. 

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