The mournful cooing of doves and early morning moisture in a river bottom field this time of year always remind me of high school football.
It prompts a faint feeling of uneasiness, perhaps a combination of the nervousness before a game and sense of dread before a hard, mid-week practice.
My high school football days were at Wilkes Central in the mid to late 1970s. It was at the very end and immediately after Marvin “Red” Hoffman’s coaching dynasty and before the “new” Wilkes Central opened in Moravian Falls in the early 1980s.
Our practice field was below the old high school along the south side of the Yadkin River, which likely was the same for every Wilkes Central team since the school was built with the merger of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Ferguson high schools in the early 1950s.
Home games were along the north side of the Yadkin in Memorial Park, which North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro high schools had shared since the late 1940s.
With my mind’s eye, I vividly see Memorial Park’s rickety wooden bleachers, unheated cinderblock dressing room and an aged, dark green fence around the perimeter. I recall the fence being made of vertical, wooden planks, but will defer to Keith Miller’s memory of it being metal considering his unmatched knowledge of Wilkes Central athletic lore.
When I emailed Keith a photo of the 1963 Wilkes Central football team because it had the fence in the background, he said that team lost to Shelby High School on a field goal in overtime 16-13 in the 3A semi-finals of the Western North Carolina High School Athletic Association (WNCHSSA). The game was played in ice-cold weather in Shelby, said Keith, who was there.
In 1962, Wilkes Central defeated Asheboro High School 14-7 to become the WNCHSSA 3A champion. The state was divided into two high school athletic associations then.
Following Hoffman’s retirement after the 1975 season, Richard Grissom was named head Eagle football coach. Grissom brought in Buzz Simms to coach the offensive line.
The pair of recent Gardner-Webb graduates had an intimidating presence and brought youthful boldness and a greater emphasis on weight training to Wilkes Central football. They preached firing off the line quick and low and that physical conditioning was the key to success.
We used an I formation offense, with speedster Arlie Bynum at tailback, and ran a lot of dives, isolations, options, traps, counters and play action pass plays.
Wilkes Central was in the Northwestern 3A Conference then. My senior year (1977-78), the league also included Watauga, Alexander Central, Hibriten, North Iredell and two newly-created high schools, South Caldwell and West Caldwell. We also played Mount Airy, Surry Central, Hickory and Statesville that year. South Caldwell was runner-up state 3A champion in 1977, and Watauga was state champion the next year.
South Caldwell beat us 14-6 the last game of the ’77 season, even though we more than doubled the Spartans in rushing and overall yardage. The game was played on a soggy Memorial Park field delayed by rain to Monday night.
The other Eagle seniors that season included Arlie Bynum, Mike Moore, Eddie (Ed) Martin, Danny Barlow, Chris Thomas, Alan Sharp, Boyd Rogers, Steve Call, Ty Manship and Dana Bentley.
Ty died tragically young in 1990, and Dana also left us prematurely about seven years ago. Ty was a smart player and led the defense while Dana, as a split end, had great hands and a remarkable knack for getting open. The two also continued a tradition of outstanding baseball players from the Moravian Falls area.
Grissom later returned to his hometown of Elkin and led Elkin High School to 1A state football championships in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006. Simms was later head coach at Wilkes Central and West Caldwell high schools.
Grissom and Simms had a strong impact on many teenage boys at Wilkes Central, and I’m sure elsewhere. For me, it was learning how to work hard to achieve something.
Such important lessons and the relationships created among young people of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds are among primary reasons public high school athletics matter.