Harnett Central, which plays Middle Creek in the third round of the NCHSAA 4-A football playoffs Friday, is building a reputation for exceptional football.
The Trojans are 13-0 after beating Southeast Raleigh 27-21 in overtime last week and have gone 55-9 during the past five seasons.
But Central was once known for something else. In the Oct. 7, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated, the Trojans gained national attention for losing.
Todd Taylor, a junior lineman that year, had written what it was like to play for a team that had lost 36 straight games and had managed to score only one touchdown during the 1984 season.
Central doesn't bear much resemblance to the program described in "At This High School, Losing Games Isn't Everything, It's The Only Thing."
Taylor wrote the story in about three hours. Todd Taylor's mother, Louise, an English professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, suggested he send it to the local paper or the school paper.
Instead, he sent it to Sports Illustrated, which accepted it for publication.
The story was filled with lines about playing for a loser. Taylor said the general perception was that the losing players should be crushed, subdued, embarrassed and glum.
"I can understand it under normal circumstances. But most members of the team felt that it would be unreasonable if on 10 successive Friday nights we were utterly and completely ruined by a loss - especially if there was a school dance to follow," he wrote.
The only touchdown
On the team's only touchdown in 1984, the quarterback rolled out because "standing in the pocket was like standing in a trash compactor, and threw to an open receiver to cut South Johnston's lead to 30-6. Pandemonium erupted.
"The only thing missing from that magic moment was the sound of music," he wrote. "The band had left shortly after halftime and the members were now in the school building eating pizza. It was really a shame, too. They had been practicing 'On Wisconsin' all season just in case we scored, and they missed their only chance of the season."
Taylor, 41, later worked at the Greensboro News and Record newspaper and taught at Central Carolina College before discovering another talent. He now lives in Las Vegas and is a professional poker player.
"I try to play poker 40 hours a week," Taylor said. "The saying goes that it is a hard way to make an easy living."
Taylor has lost touch with the Central football team, although he heard that the team was winning a lot of games in recent years.
"I think we could have won before, but we had kids coming from so many different places - Angier, Buies Creek, Lafayette," he said. "We didn't have the closeness that a lot of other community schools had. That hadn't developed yet."
Marc Morris, Central's coach, said the football team has a great sense of community now.
"I don't know what it was like here 20 years ago," Morris said. "But we have the community with us, and the administration supports us. When I got here, we had four or five assistants. Now we have nine.
"A couple of keys to having a solid program is having the coaches that you need and players who are dedicated to getting better. We've got that."
Jay Brown, who now lives in Raleigh, played nose guard, offensive line and other positions on the losing teams. "I remember one game changing jerseys because I had to keep changing position," he said.
Brown, a senior when Taylor was a junior, was 1-39 in his football career at Central.
"We experienced the other side of high school football," Brown said. "These teams that win a lot of games, I don't know if the players appreciate each win the way we would have."
Brown said one of the most emotional moments of his life was when Taylor called him after Central broke the long losing streak in 1985. Brown was a freshman at Appalachian State then.
"He called right after the game and told me that we'd won. We'd won a game. It was really emotional," Brown said.
Brown and Taylor take a great deal of pride from their football-playing days, although the losses far outnumbered the wins.
"The thing about it, nobody on our team ever quit," Brown said. "We were trying just as hard in our last game as we were in the first. There were not very many of us, but we stuck it out. There was some talk of disbanding the varsity and just playing junior varsity, but we didn't want to hear any of that.
"There was no doubt in my mind that Central could be good in football. Back then we had a hard time getting some of the guys to come out. Tobacco was still being harvested when practice started, and guys couldn't leave the crops to play football.
"But I thought we could be successful in football someday if the players kept trying as hard as we did."
Brown is a musician of note, playing bass guitar for Tift Merritt, who had a Grammy Award nomination for best country album in 2005.
"I learned a lot from football," he said. "One of the biggest things is that we were a team. We stuck together. It is like a band. You have to handle disappointments and setbacks, but you stick together."
Taylor hasn't seen Central play in a long while, but he likes to think that he is a part of the team's success in recent years. Central broke the losing streak during his senior year and finished third in the league.
"I like to think maybe we had something to do with turning the program around," he said. "Maybe we helped the program turn the corner."
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