Author: Keith Neal
Originally Published: November 22, 2004

Gentlemen, if you ever get much of a chance to go dig around in your local library or high school, you can strike gold. Gold nuggets of information can be found about football from an era long gone but still relevant to today. I have been doing some digging and I find that the more I dig, the better the stories become and the clearer the pictures gets. Now keep in mind that I am a relative newcomer to this whole world of direct snap football and I learn a lot every day just from being on the Delphi board. I claim no expertise here. But I have to admit that I am hooked. There is something intoxicating about the whole idea of putting ideas into practice that have been around for three or more generations. The utter simplicity and beauty of single wing football just grabs you if you are even half a fan.

I have, for a week or so now, been looking for any sources about football as played around my home (western NC) in the 1920s and 1930s. In the course of the beginning of this journey, I have discovered some delightful stories and vignettes that I would like to pass along here. It is evident to me that the school boy game (which was by the time period in question well established in other parts of the country and some parts of the state) was just beginning to take off in this part of the state. In the middle and late twenties, it would appear that football madness had taken hold of the North Carolina back country. Towns like Shelby and Hickory and Lincolnton were getting their elevens together to do battle with each other and with the more established teams of the eastern Piedmont. The early ad hoc efforts must have resembled earlier efforts in towns and colleges all across the country as the game took hold. If you look at scores from the early days, it is not a pretty sight. For example, Shelby, which had played football as early as 1911 but did not do so regularly until 1920, lost a 1920 game to a school called Baird Prep by a score of 100-0. But apparently they thought this was just an aberration, so they pressed on and by 1922, under Coach R.N. “Dick” Gurley, they were able to advance to play Monroe in the state championship game. This was a game that was suspended at dark and at the end of a fifth quarter with the score tied 6-6. When play was resumed the next day, Monroe was able to pull out a 14-6 victory.

Dick Gurley was not done though. He would go on to coach other teams, notably the Newton High School team. The reason I mention him again is that there is a funny coincidence here. The sports writer for the Lincoln County News, one Jake Rudisill, had the quaint habit of referring to teams by the name of their coach. I suppose it was a touch of rhetorical opulence but it did lead to the following situation. The coach of the Lincolnton team was “Block” Smith and Rudisill, at times, referred to them as the “Smithmen”. Hence, the Newton team is referred to as the “Gurleymen” on a number of occasions in newspaper accounts of the game. I don’t suppose that he saw the humor in it any more than California Democrats.

Now, I said earlier that a kind of football madness had settled over this part of North Carolina in the twenties and thirties. Here is why I make that assertion. The papers in the early thirties are full of stories of great weight and gravity. In the midst of the Great Depression one would expect exactly the kinds of things that do indeed appear in the paper. In some issues there are a couple of pages dense with listings of properties due to be auctioned off for taxes “at the courthouse door”. Stories about people being hopeful that banks would be able to reopen after Federal intervention to save them are not in short supply. Advertisements for the National Recovery Act Trade Days are everywhere. Hot debates over the issue of Prohibition are prominent in almost every issue too. There are also stories of labor unrest in Charlotte and associated violence. But lo and behold, as you continue to dig through the papers, it hits you right in the face. There it is, right on the front page of an early September issue of the Lincoln County News: Block Smith Gloomy As High Gridders Begin Drills. The story details how Lincolnton coach C.D. “Block” Smith has his boys out drilling for the upcoming season. The story describes the pessimism of the coach for the upcoming season as he has lost all but 5 lettermen and has the “lightest group of ball toters in years.” In fact the guy who ended up being the star halfback for LHS that season weighed in at 135 pounds. The point is, however, that this was front page news material in a time when there was much news in other areas that might well have deserved the two column front page space taken up by the Lincolnton football team.

In fact, for a couple of weeks after the season started, the scores and game accounts were on the front page of the paper. It is also worth noting that as the team’s fortunes waned they were relegated to a place further back, in the schools or social section. Lincolnton won only 3 games that year and a 7-6 loss to powerhouse Hickory was written up as if it were the modern equivalent of the last stand of the 300 Spartans. But by the end of the season, schoolboy football was sent to the back pages of the paper. I guess the bandwagon effect is nothing new.

It is also worth noting that the practice of high school teams playing junior college teams or B teams from local four year colleges was still fairly common. The Lincolnton “second eleven” had a game with the B team of Belmont Abbey College. During this same period, Hickory High was recorded as playing Belmont Abbey and Rutherford College. That is an area that bears further exploration but as yet, I have only cracked the surface here.

If one requires further evidence, there is plenty of it. Lincolnton was scheduled to play Concord the last game of the 1933 season and the Lincoln County News printed a story (a plea almost) on the front page urging the town to turn out at the ball field in big numbers. This was to counter the flood of invaders in the form of the entire student body of Concord High School, that was rumored to be coming to Lincolnton with their team. The story goes on to say that that Concord school authorities granted the student body a half day holiday each year to follow the team to an away game!!!!

Now if that does not cinch it for you, consider the following: There was a story after the end of the 1933 season that was publicizing the upcoming game between the Lincolnton All-Stars and the Charlotte Bulldogs, a professional traveling team. The Lincoln County News made the game out to be a big deal and the ghosts of old Lincolnton teams were invoked. (This was the case, although football as a regularly occurring interscholastic game was only played there a little more than a decade or so previously.) The paper reminded readers of the past great exploits of the members of the Lincolnton All-Star team. The Lincolnton team won 12-0 and this too was a big deal. (One wonders if the Bulldogs gave it their all seeing as they might want to be invited back next year for a split of the gate.)

At any rate, this all feels like a great adventure in the making. I will, if you don’t throw too many tomatoes my way, occasionally keep you up on the world of football in western North Carolina in the twenties and thirties. In the meantime, you really owe it to yourself to go to a place that has old papers or yearbooks or any kind of records and spend the afternoon digging and looking. It is an amazing world.

Keith Neal