GARNER — Kelly Hill and Pete Smith, the defensive ends on the Garner High state 4A football championship team in 1987, were ready to play last Friday night.
They are in their 40s, but after hearing Hal Stewart -- their coach during the championship run -- give the pregame talk to this year's team before a 34-27 victory over Fayetteville Jack Britt, players from the '87 squad were as fired up as they were as teenagers.
"I wish there was some way I could have played," said T.G. Rich, of the 1987 state championship team who sees a younger version of his team in this year's Trojans.
Former players have been welcome at Garner practices and in the locker room for years, but there is a special affinity between the '87 club, the last Wake County team to win an N.C. High School Athletic Association football championship, and the team that will play for the NCHSAA 4AA title against Greensboro Page in Winston-Salem today at 3 p.m.
There have been as many as 25 of the '87 players on the sidelines at games. A half dozen or more show up occasionally at practice.
"Whenever I think of '87, I remember how we all came together. We'd do anything for each other," said Chris Dorman, who was a 150-pound linebacker and fullback in his playing days. "We were not supposed to win. We were too little (with only four players weighing 200 pounds compared to 26 200-pounders this season). We were not good enough.
"But we were scrappy and we had speed and we played for each other. It is the same with this team."
Many of the '87 players have stayed in contact with each other as this year's 15-0 team won game after game. "I love this team," said Hill, a former defensive end who made a crucial interception in the 40-21 state championship win over Charlotte Harding. "I love their character. I love their heart. These guys don't give up."
Voice from the past
Stewart, the former head coach, is now an unofficial assistant coach with the Trojans. Garner coach Nelson Smith was an assistant for Stewart before succeeding him as Garner's head coach in 2000. Smith has turned to Stewart for advice on occasion.
"I was sitting on the porch one Saturday and Hal was really giving it to me about I should have done this or I should have done that," Smith recalled. "After I hung up, I got to thinking: 'OK, old boy, come on out and help.' I asked him and he surprised me by agreeing."
Among Stewart's opportunities is speaking to the team right before it takes the field.
Stewart talks with a passion and evokes visions of greatness bred of adversity, struggle and triumph. The former coach sees familiar faces when he looks around the locker room during his pregame talks. Smith, defensive coordinator Thurman Leach and offensive backs coach Eddie Gray were on Stewart's staff in '87. Current assistants Ronnie Lee, Brandon Perry and Jake Stevens played on Stewart's teams.
Stewart said the biggest similarity between the two teams is mental: "A lot of teams want to win so badly that they can taste it, but the '87 team and this year's team want to win a lot more than that. They play for each other. They all want to win for the other guy."
Levi Beckwith, a safety on the '87 team, has coached basketball teams at Southern Durham High and at Raleigh Word of God Academy and is now the coach at Clinton High. He said the spirit on this year's Garner team and on the '87 team can't be manufactured.
"We grew up playing together," Beckwith said. "We all knew each other before we got to high school. We had an uncommon bond. We had the kind of unity and focus that coaches wish all their teams had."
The former players usually just watch, but former fullback and linebacker John Leach, who set the ACC single-game rushing record while at Wake Forest University, worked with some current players in the offseason.
Hill tells them to cherish the moment and keep the memories.
"People say give it up, move on, forget about it," Hill said. "They don't understand. I didn't just play high school football. I played for Garner. Once you put on that Blue and Gold you are a Trojan for life."
Never say die
Robert Hinton said one thing he learned while playing was to never quit. Garner seemed beaten in the final three minutes at Richmond County in the '87 quarterfinals when a fourth down pass fell incomplete.
"I thought it was over," recalled quarterback Stacy Betts. "I was coming off the field and thought I had ended the season with an incomplete pass. Then everybody told me to go back on the field. They had called pass interference."
Betts threw a touchdown pass to Hinton on the next play.
"I played a lot of football games after that," said Hinton, who played at N.C. State, "but I never had a greater feeling."
Pete Smith, the defensive end and perhaps the '87 team's best athlete, was the star of the championship game, knocking a ball loose that was returned for a touchdown and intercepting a pass and returning it for another touchdown. He helped Garner build a 40-7 lead with 6:46 left before the reserves took over.
Smith did not play football again after earning most valuable player honors in the N.C. Coaches Association all-star game in the summer after his senior year. He made some bad choices, he said.
His advice is to enjoy every moment on the field and to cling to the friendships.
"But if I could tell them one thing, it would be to pay attention to your grades. Get a college degree if you can.," he said.
Anthony Barbour rushed for 3,150 yards and scored 47 touchdowns in '87. He scored on runs of 60, 55, 5 and 50 yards in the game. His final touchdown was the last carry of his high school career. Seconds before, Stewart had told Barbour, "Give them something to remember you by."
Barbour said his fondest memories from the championship season were of Dorman running for a touchdown, Pete Smith making a big hit, Hinton catching a pass, and other big plays by teammates. "I really don't remember any of my runs, but I sure remember the other guys," he said.
The '87 crowd sees that same type of unity on this year's team. Many will be in the stands today.
Their playing days are long gone, but they're still hungry for a championship.