Write Again… A part of the Long Blue Line

Published 3:01 pm Wednesday, June 22, 2022

It was a long, hard trip. I mean long.

From Little Washington to Canton, in a bumpy bus, in 1956, was a long, long trip. Few on the bus had ever been west of Raleigh. Fact is, I may have been the only one who had ever been to Canton.

That small mill town was not exactly a tourist mecca. It could have been named “Champion,” for Champion Mills was the economic engine that provided the bulk of employment for its citizens.

For many decades, if one had been asked what was the defining characteristic of Canton, a non-resident would have immediately said, “the smell!” A resident would have said, “smells like money to me.” It was home to six-thousand mountain folk.

For the players on that team, this trip, this game, was the final stop on a journey that drew its motivation, at least in part, from the previous season.

That year, ’55, our final record was 2-7-1, the least successful in legendary Coach J. G. (Choppy) Wagner’s long tenure at the helm of Pam Pack football.

You see, we who were returning from that team came together, many evenings in the summer of’56, working out voluntarily (back then sports seasons were not interminably long) prior to the official beginning of two-a-day practices August 15.

Our commitment, our hopes, our dreams, were not only to “redeem” ourselves, but to accomplish something special. Playing for a state championship – the first time ever for a Pam Pack football team – probably wasn’t in our sights. We just wanted to have a successful season.

Yet here we found ourselves on that long bus ride (back then home sites were alternated each year, a situation that was finally rectified later, when neutral sites, in college stadiums, became the system used. (Much fairer).

There were no underclass players on the ’56 team. All were juniors or seniors. Although regulars and reserves were established, in truth almost all on that team notched regular playing time. On any given Friday night, a number of non-starters could have, and did, play, with no appreciable drop off in positive results. Everyone was important. We were a team.

Now, I’ll certainly not recount a game by game history. That has been done. I will mention that we set new team records in points scored, and fewest points allowed. At one point in the second half of the season that team held opponents scoreless for five consecutive games. No team reached past our 35-yard line. Fact.

And then the dream died. On a bitterly cold night, before an estimated ten-

thousand spectators the navy blue and white fell. Midway through the third quarter, trailing 6-0 (the first time in thirteen games we fell behind) the bottom fell out.

I recall, in pre-game warmup, our most celebrated lineman, a huge fellow who was a real factor both offensively and defensively, wasn’t doing calisthenics, and he managed to get out, “I can’t breathe, Bart.” That did not auger well for we eastern flatland lads.

The return trip the following day seemed about twice as long as the one we had embarked upon two days prior. The mood on that bus was somber. Understandably so.

When we finally arrived back in our little riverside town, the bus headed for City Hall, where there we were met by the mayor, and some caring people. They showed us love.

Now, these many, so many years later, what might I take away from that experience? From that entire season?

It would have to be, unquestionably, how grateful I am to have been a part of the Long Blue Line.

Let me end, now, by sharing the names of our coaches and players, and support persons, who remain today, even through the mists of age-impaired memory, an integral part of my being.

Coaches: J. G. (Choppy) Wagner, Bill Sweel, Pete Everett, Emory Bush. They are all gone.

Players: Ronald Alligood, Donald Ambrose, Billy Carter, Steve Cochran, Doug Currier, Durwood Dixon, Carl Jones, Dickie Jones, Jess Harrington, Bartow Houston, Eddie Knott, Skybo Langley, Ward Marslender, Ben McHorney, Graham Singleton, Marshall Singleton, Lee Tankard.

The Honor Roll: Those who have gone on to the next “season”: Larry Aldridge, Earl Daniels, Billy Gilgo, Joe Hassell, George Kelley, Paul Leggett, John Ratcliffe, Jimmy Silverthorne, Fritz Tanner, Dukie Watson, Jack Warren, Eddie Snow (mgr.).

They are not forgotten.