Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 1977: The Cruelest, Greatest Month

The WCBS radio broadcast of Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

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© Tim Peeler, 2017

I have no idea how my dad talked my mom into letting me skip school for most of a week in the middle of October 1977. There we were, however, on a Tuesday afternoon, packing up his black Ford pickup, hitching up his 14 ½-foot fiberglass boat and heading towards Harkers Island on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

We probably had a few days off from school, and I wriggled out of practice for my eighth-grade football team. He knocked off from work as a plant engineer for a local tool-making company. At the age of 12, it was the first time I remember going east of Interstate-95, a full world away from our little three-bedroom house tucked deeply into the western North Carolina foothills.

Fishing was something we had done—grudgingly, on my part—since I was an infant, when my dad used to put a couple of bottles of formula in his tackle box and could make dual use of cloth diapers as hand towels after cleaning his daily catch.

We spent countless hours as a family on that old boat on Lake Norman, buzzing from crappie hole to crappie hole, trying to catch enough fish to fill the freezer. Sometimes we did, but often we just sat on the lake, turning pinker by the hour and sweating like a ham steak in a frying pan.

What made this trip special was that it was boys-only. No sisters, no mom. Along with a couple of dad’s fishing buddies from work, we were going to catch and prepare all of our own meals for the week. We were going to stay in a hotel near the beach. We weren’t going to go to bed at any particular time.

First, however, we had to get there in an uncomfortable, un-air-conditioned truck with nothing but an 8-track tape player, an AM/FM radio and set of speakers that seemed to be little more than a set of low-tech kazoos. From foothills to lighthouse, it was about 10 hours.

Oh god, the music. Three songs alternated on radio playlists that October:  “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle. I hate them all to this day.

What I really wanted to hear, like all junior high boys at the time, was Southern-style rock, the marriage of blues, country, folk and heavy metal, perfected by the Allman Brothers and Tom Petty, but also practiced by a handful of other bands with three guitars and long hair that we often heard on WROQ-FM in Charlotte.

With an abundance of good taste, dad had no interest in my music.

What we settled on, as we drove through the night towards the coast, was Game 6 of the 1977 World Series—played 40 years ago tonight at the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx—
We listened to a lot of baseball on the radio when we were driving at night. The call-letter jingle for WOWO radio of Fort Wayne, Indiana, still echoes in my memory. Besides, the rare television entertainment we had at home came from WRET-TV, a UHF station in Charlotte owned by Ted Turner that had an evening lineup of comedy shows: “Sanford and Son,” “Bewitched” and the Atlanta Braves.

I never much liked the Braves, other than Hank Aaron and Biff Pocoroba. Back then, my only athletic devotion was to the West Lincoln Junior High, the Washington Redskins and the Boston Red Sox, the latter of which I knew only through  Monday Night Football halftime highlights and two-day old boxscores in the Charlotte Observer.

I became a Red Sox fan two Octobers before, watching the 1975 World Series on a 15-inch black-and-white television. My favorite players were outfielders Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, two guys I later learned were as cuddly and lovable as feral cats. Didn't change my opinion of them, of course, nor my quest to collect every baseball card that featured either of them, something that ultimately failed thanks to the Fleer and Donruss corporations.

Dad has been a Dodgers fan since birth and a baseball player from the time he started walking. The first book I ever remember seeing him read was Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer.

We bonded over baseball and an aversion to all Yankees, which were defined in our part of North Carolina as anyone from Catawba County to Canada. The pinstriped ones from New York, those swept by the beloved Reds in the 1976 World Series, were the worst. Like most non-Yankee fans, the player we disliked the most was hired gun Reggie Jackson, the controversial outfielder who had signed with the Yankees in the off-season as a free agent after one season with Baltimore. He had been tolerable when he played for Charlie Finley and Billy Martin, and alongside North Carolina native Jim "Catfish" Hunter, with the Oakland A’s, but his big personality made the insufferable Big Apple even less sufferable.

That night, we hoped the Dodgers would tie the series, which stood at 3-2 after they won two nights earlier in Los Angeles, thanks to a Don Sutton complete-game, 10-4 victory. Burt Hooton was on the mound for Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers and Mike Torrez was pitching for the Martin's Yankees. After a first-inning error by Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, Steve Garvey tripled to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.

Jackson came up in the bottom of the second and, with no regard for anyone, walked on four pitches. Couldn’t even be bothered to swing against Hooton’s dodging fastball. Chris Chambliss tied the game in the next at-bat with a two-run homer. The Dodgers retook the lead on a solo homer by Reggie Smith, but he was the last good Reggie to hit a home run that evening.

Jackson saw three more pitches in the game, from three different pitchers. He planted each of them over the outfield wall, three home runs on three consecutive swings. He had a two-run shot off Hooton, a two-run shot off Elias Sosa and a solo shot off knuckleballer Charlie Hough, becoming only the second player in World Series history, after Babe Ruth in 1926 and ’28, to hit three homers in a single game. Of his series-leading nine hits, five flew out of the park. He scored 10 runs and drove in eight, a postseason performance that still stands 40 years later. There was absolutely no denying his title as “Mr. October.”

We drove silently through the night to our inlet-side hotel.

The fishing trip was better than I could've imagined. We took dad’s little boat a couple miles out into the ocean, where we stumbled into a school of blues that filled our coolers. We got up in the morning and tooled around Cape Lookout, in the shadow of the lighthouse, just because we could. We dragged the boat onto the beach of Shackleford Banks, where the curious wild horses came right up to the boat to watch us cast our nets for bait.

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

The morning we left, Oct. 21, we managed to get reception again on the truck radio as we drove off Harkers Island. They were still talking about Jackson on the sports report, but the lead news was of a plane crash the night before that took the lives of three members of a Southern rock band, shortly after leaving a concert a concert in Greenville, South Carolina. It took three more top-of-the-hour updates to learn that the band involved was Lynyrd Skynyrd, which lost founder Ronnie Van Zant, singer Steve Gaines and his sister, Cassie, a backup singer, along with both pilots and an assistant road manager.

They played their last show at Greenville's Auditorium, a place where I later drove by every day to work for the Greenville News and Piedmont, where I covered Furman Paladin basketball and where I saw my only Bob Dylan concert.

I don’t remember the ride home from the Outer Banks. The Yankees had won the World Series. Jackson had become a hero of Ruthian proportions. And my favorite version of Southern rock had died somewhere in the woods of Gillsburg, Mississippi.

Through the years, I made peace with Yankees of all sorts and moved on from provincial music of the American South. But 40 years later, I still get a little blue whenever I hear the name Reggie Jackson or the song "Free Bird."

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When Billy Cowher's Pre-Game Speech Brought Down Pittsburgh

NOTE: If you enjoy reading "One Brick Back" and would like to help offset research expenses for stories such as this one, please make a small donation to the cause and help keep posts like this free of ads.

© Tim Peeler, 2017

Former NC State linebacker and ex-Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

Bill Cowher is a Pittsburgh hero, a hometown boy who wandered away for college and then returned to lead the hometown team to a Super Bowl championship.

It’s inconceivable that Cowher would ever say something negative about the town where he grew up or any of its institutions.


On Dec. 23, 1978, just before Cowher played in the final game of his NC State football career, he stood up in the locker room of Orlando Stadium to let the 16th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers absolutely have it in a profanity-laced pregame speech before the 33rd Tangerine Bowl that obviously had an impact on the unranked Wolfpack.

Maybe the senior linebacker was remembering how his hometown school never offered him a scholarship.

Maybe he believed the newspaper report from earlier in the week that said Pittsburgh’s players forced the patients at an Orlando-area children’s hospital to trade their Wolfpack souvenirs for Panthers memorabilia during a bowl-week visit. Pitt spent much of the week before the game playing in Orlando, going to Disney World, Sea World and competing in a tug-of-war contest with an elephant at Ringling’s Circus World facility.

Maybe he just didn’t like any of coach Jackie Sherrill’s players, which included defensive tackle Hugh Green, quarterback Rick Trocano and running back Freddy Jacobs, who were either members of or were recruited immediately following the Panthers’ national championship of 1976 with Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Tony Dorsett.

Or maybe he was just taking advantage of the dissension on the Pitt coaching staff. Linebackers coach Jimmy Johnson had been hired as the head coach of Oklahoma State after the regular season but had been allowed to stay for the bowl game, along with some other coaches he was taking with him. (Future Pitt head coaches Dave Wannstedt and Foge Fazio were also part of the Pitt staff.)

Whatever his motivation, Cowher and his teammates were certainly fired up, or in the words of the Orlando Sentinel the next day “aroused.”

“I'd be happy to repeat [the speech],'' Cowher said in a telephone interview in 2001, when he was still the head coach of the Steelers and I was still reporting for the Greensboro News & Record, “but I don’t think you could print any of it. It was one of those things that came from emotion. It was my last game as a senior and we were playing Pittsburgh, which is where I am from.

“It got pretty emotional.”

Cowher grew up in the Pittsburgh-adjacent borough of Crafton, only a few miles west of downtown. He had hoped he would be recruited to play for the Panthers, but never received a scholarship offer from Hall of Fame coach Johnny Majors or any member of his staff.

Instead, Cowher came south as part of Lou Holtz’s final recruiting class, which also included another linebacker, Kyle Wescoe of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a quarterback, Kevin Scanlon, who had broken all of Joe Namath’s passing records at Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, High School.

(Scanlon played in only one game in two seasons with the Wolfpack, as the backup to Johnny Evans, and was later re-recruited by Holtz to play at Arkansas, where he was the 1979 Southwest Conference Player of the Year after leading the league in total offense and passing accuracy and taking the Razorbacks to the 1980 Sugar Bowl.)

There were also three running backs from North Carolina in that class, a tailback from Greensboro’s Ragsdale High School who was considered the top recruit in the state, Rickey Adams; Nebo-native Scott Wade; and an undersized scatback from High Point’s Andrews High School, Ted Brown.

Cowher and Wescoe played side-by-side their entire careers, and were known as the emotional leaders on defenses that included stars like Woodrow Wilson, Donnie LeGrande, Simon Gupton and Bubba Green. That group was led by another Pennsylvania native, linebackers coach Chuck Amato, who never let Cowher and Wescoe forget the snub of their hometown team, especially when the Wolfpack was invited to face the No. 16 Panthers that December afternoon in Orlando.

As good as his performance was on the field that afternoon—unranked State upset Pitt 30-17 in a totally dominant performance—his pregame speech is the memory that has lasted a lifetime for his teammates.

“It was completely X-rated,” Amato said. “But it was awfully good.”

Said former senior associate athletics director David Horning, who was a sophomore defensive end on that team: "His speech brought out the best in us all that day."

Cowher didn’t let the hyper-extended elbow he suffered in the first quarter of the game dampen his emotions. Mainly because he was not about to lose to another team from his home state in his final season. The Wolfpack had lost to Penn State, 19-10, in early November.

“No way he was coming out,” Amato said.

Neither was Brown, who was knocked out of the game twice, once after he ran into a truck on the sidelines that held a television camera platform and hurt his wrist. That didn’t keep the All-American running back, who had finished fifth in Heisman voting that season, from rushing for 120 yards on 28 carries, postseason stats that are not included in his 4,602 career rushing yards. (None of his bowl stats are.)

To this day, Cowher blames his minor knee injury on Pittsburgh tackle Russ Grimm, who was later a member of his Steelers’ coaching staff.

He always said that he wasn’t playing offense at the time,” Cowher said, “but I still think it was him.”

The Wolfpack jumped out to a 17-0 lead before halftime, forcing Pitt quarterbacks Trocano and Jeff Delaney to throw 48 times in the game. State’s swarming defense intercepted four of those, including one by Mike Nall that he returned 66 yards for a touchdown.

Tiny State placekicker Nathan Ritter, who had led all NCAA kickers in field goal accuracy that season, booted three more in the game, including a Tangerine-record 51-yarder.

Things were so bad for the Panthers, according to stories that were circulated years after the game, Sherrill fired Johnson and the members considering going with him to Stillwater during halftime.

“Our defense played an emotional football game,” said Wolfpack head coach Bo Rein said after the game. “They were quicker and stronger, and gave us big plays when we needed them. Never underestimate emotions in a football game.

“Without that ingredient, these were two evenly matched teams.”

Fueled by Cowher’s emotions, the upset victory propelled the Wolfpack to a No. 18 finish in the final Associated Press poll of the season, a satisfying accomplishment for the third-year head coach and his staff who led the Wolfpack to the 1979 ACC title.

“Pitt was very good that year,'' Amato said. ""We weren't supposed to have a chance.''

The game featured not only Brown, but also two future Outland Trophy winners in Pitt's Mark May and N.C. State's Jim Ritcher and legendary Pitt defensive end Green, who finished second in the Heisman voting of 1980, his senior year.

“What I remember most about that game is that we won and I always thought it was fitting that I was able to play my last college football game against Pitt,” said Cowher, whose 195 tackles that season still stands as a single-season school record. “That was a special win.”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Football Sprinter, Like Ted Brown Used to Be

Many a defender fell flat on his face trying to catch Ted Brown.
NOTE: If you enjoy reading "One Brick Back" and would like to help offset research expenses for stories such as this one, please make a small donation to the cause and help keep posts like this free of ads.

© Tim Peeler, 2017

Ted Brown never won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship as a member of NC State’s football team, but it's a little remembered part of history that the league’s all-time leading rusher did help the Wolfpack win the first 4x100-meter relay at the 1978 track and field championships.

Like current Wolfpack leading rusher Nyheim Hines, a junior who has helped win back-to-back 4x100-meter titles at the ACC meet and is now the football team's top rushing threat, Brown used his natural speed in both sports, though he's mostly remembered for holding the ACC career rushing record of 4,602 yards ever since his career ended in 1978.

In fact, the NC State track program has greatly benefited from having football players on its roster, and the football program has benefited from borrowing track recruits. Both Danny Peebles and Alvis Whitted were originally recruited for track, but ended up playing professional football in the NFL.

Since that first race in ’78, NC State has won a total of 12 titles in the 4x100, the second most of any ACC school. Of those titles, 10 had at least one football player in the lineup, including the two most recent with Hines.

Peebles, of course, helped win four ACC titles and one NCAA title during his career from 1985-88. His son Dylan, a freshman, ran the anchor leg of last year’s title race with Hines.

For Brown, running track at State was just a natural extension of his track career at High Point’s Andrews High School. Frankly, he doesn’t remember how long he ran track at State and the records from those years are pretty spotty.

In 1978, following a record-setting junior year in which he rushed for 1,251 yards and 14 touchdowns, Brown helped the Wolfpack track team set the stage for breaking Maryland’s strangle-hold on the ACC title. The Terps won their 23rd consecutive conference crown that year, but not without being pushed by coach Jim Wescott’s Wolfpack.

By 1982, with the help of a couple key football players and new head coach Tom Jones, the Wolfpack started a championship streak of its own, winning seven consecutive men’s outdoor track championships.

Brown says he never participated in a spring football practice. In fact, head coach Bo Rein, who took over for Lou Holtz after Brown’s freshman year, never had a spring game. He cancelled the scheduled 1976 Red and White Game the day before it was supposed to be played at Carter Stadium and had only spring-ending scrimmages after that.

So Brown wasn’t necessarily needed. Besides, he says, track did him more good than football during the off-season.

“I ran track to help my speed and to be in better shape,” Brown says. “In track, we ran every day, in bad weather, no matter what we had going on. In football, we would lift weights one day and run gassers the next and not always focus on sprinting.

“I always felt like I was in better shape coming into the fall after I ran track in the spring.”

Brown was fortunate to be on the same team as a world-class sprinter who helped the Wolfpack win that inaugural 4x100 title.

His name was Albert Lomotey, a native of Ghana who had qualified to be on his country’s 1976 Olympic team. He never competed in the Montreal Games, however, because of the 1976 African boycott.

Instead, the diminutive Lomotey—who stood all of 5-feet, 4-inches—enrolled at Pembroke State in the fall of 1976, but transferred to NC State in the winter of 1977 because his country gave him a scholarship to study agricultural science. He was not eligible to run in 1977, joined the track team for a spectacular 1978 season. (He left school after that to return to Africa, and neither he nor Brown ran track in 1979.)

With Brown leading the way, the Wolfpack’s relay team won the 440-yard relay at the fifth-annual Atlantic Coast Relays hosted by NC State at the Paul Derr Track. They were at their peak that April when they went to Clemson for the ACC Championship meet, where all anyone wanted to talk about was Maryland freshman sensation Renaldo Nehemiah, who had set a world indoor record in the 110-meter high hurdles before he enrolled in college.

The 6-feet, 1-inch Nehemiah out-leaned Lomotey to win the 100-meter dash by .01 seconds, but the heralded freshman slipped out of the blocks in the 200 meters and Lomotey won the race in an ACC-record 21.09 seconds. Nehemiah also finished second in both hurdles races.

Brown liked being on the track because of his relative anonymity. He had just completed his second 1,000-yard season with the Wolfpack and was already being hyped as a Heisman candidate for his senior campaign that fall.

“Running track, I was incognito and under the radar,” Brown says.

He was also a huge asset in getting the Wolfpack sprinters off to a good start.

“The reason they wanted me in the leadoff position was I had a very quick first step and the ability to get out fast,” Brown says. “The main goal was for us to be in position to get to Lomotey. If we got him the baton with the lead or only one or two steps to make up, it was over.”

Kind of like when Touchdown Ted, who still owns the ACC record for career rushing touchdowns and scoring, had the ball in his hands and the end zone in his sights.

NC State’s 4x100-meter ACC champions
Ted Brown, Calvin Lanier, Darryl Patterson, Albert Lomotey
Marcus Smith, Ed McIntyre, Brian Burns, Ron Foreman
Auguston Young, Ed McIntyre, Greg Smith, Marcus Smith
Perry Williams, Dee Dee Hoggard, Alston Glenn, Harvey McSwain
Auguston Young, Alston Glenn, Danny Peebles, Harvey McSwain*
Danny Peebles, Harvey McSwain, Jake Howard, Dwight Frazier
Malcolm Branham, Dwight Frazier, Darian Bryant, Danny Peebles
Danny Peebles, Harvey McSwain, Jake Howard, Dwight Frazier
Darian Bryant, Kevin Braunskill, Michael Brooks, Dwight Frazier
Butch McClelland, Neil Chance, Lloyd Harrison, Alvis Whitted
Quashawn Cunningham, Shannon Patterson, Nyheim Hines, Jonathan Addison
Nyheim Hines, Cravont Charleston, Junpai Dowdy, Dylan Peebles
Football players in bold
*NCAA Champion