Some high school athletes have a difficult time picking a single highlight of their athletic career.
For me, it’s never been a problem. My magical moment happened on a November night in 1969 in Bryson City, North Carolina. And what happened then helped plant the seed that led me to telling the stories of future generations of coaches and athletes.
I was a sophomore at Swain County High School. I lived there with my parents while my dad was serving as pastor at Bryson City Presbyterian Church. I was good friends at church with a young man named Max Witt who was a rabid University of Tennessee football fan and who helped encourage my own growing interest in the sport.
In the fall of 1969, I was enthralled by the book “Instant Replay,” the autobiography of Green Bay Packer great Jerry Kramer, and went totally overboard. I decided to go out for the Swain County football team.
Our coach, Milton Barden, was incredibly kind to someone who had a better chance of being first to land on the moon than he did of being a football player. I finally realized I was woefully out of my league and eventually asked Coach Barden if I could be the team manager. He accepted.
So I was still around and felt like a part of the program. We got off to a 6-0 start and were looking good, then we hit the meat of our schedule and went 0-2-1 against the three teams we absolutely had to beat to make the state playoffs.
And that’s what led to that magic night. Our last game was with Towns County, Georgia. A new, struggling program that only had a handful of guys and could barely field a team.
Coach Barden decided if we couldn’t make the playoffs, maybe we could make history. He dressed every player we had, varsity and jayvee, for the game, and handed me a No. 88 jersey and said I could suit up.
This would be my first and only high school football game. Coach Barden’s plan was simple. We’d play our first team on offense and they would score with relative ease and try to allow a number of players to set some school records. As an example, our star running back, Larry Beck, rushed eight times for 427 yards. Nat Watson, my sophomore classmate and wide receiver, had three touchdown catches to give him a total of 15 for the season.
Defense was a different story. Guys of my talent level and only slightly better spent much of the night on the field. That way, Towns could score too and wouldn’t get beaten to death.
The final score was 81-46. I had a hand in two plays that led to the 46. I got totally burned on a kickoff return where the ballcarrier zipped by me. And I made my best tackle of the night on a two-point conversion try. Trouble was, the ballcarrier was five yards into the endzone at the time.
If you want to take the trouble, you can find this game listed in the online NC High School Athletic Association record book as one of the highest-scoring football games in state history. And unlike some games on that list, we set our records in regulation, without the benefit of overtime.
I was nostalgic now because this week I got a very special piece of mail from Swain County. It was a big envelope containing a Maroon Swain home jersey with the No. 88 on it — not THE jersey of course, but still my number from my one and only football game.
What does this have to do with being a reporter? Well, someone took the time to get the information on that game to Asheville’s The Citizen-Times. The following week, a reporter called coach Barden and did a column, and I got my name in the paper on the sports page for the first time in my life.
I’ve tried to make that same experience happen for young people in the 45 years I’ve been doing this. It’s also a reminder of why it’s important to make sure and tell someone in the media about what your athletes are doing. You never know when a magic moment will happen — and when history will be made.