CLAYTON — They were ahead of their time, even though they played a brand of football that was unique to its time.
Clayton High fielded its first football team in 1952, playing games with six men on a field 80 yards by 40 yards. Thirteen games into their football existence, the Comets were state champions.
“We thought we might have a chance to get to the state playoffs,” said William Bagley, a 134-pound defensive center on the squad. “But I don’t think anybody ever thought about winning a state championship.”
Sixty years later, Clayton High will honor the 1952 team Friday night before the Comets’ 61st homecoming game against Smithfield-Selma.
Bucky Coats, a freshman reserve on the 1952 team, expects as many as 20 players and spouses from the team to be present. Of the team’s 25 members, 10 are deceased.
During the 1940s and 1950s when small towns like Clayton, population 2,300, wanted to play football, they turned to the six-man game. Clayton High had 68 male students in the fall of 1952, and more than a third of those boys played for coach Joe Hicks’ squad. (Project that same percentage to today, and Clayton would be fielding a team of about 250 players every Friday night.)
Players on the 1952 team say the decision to form a team was probably Hicks’ as much as anyone else, although former Clayton coach Glenn Nixon believed the program was started because neighboring Smithfield was fielding a team.
Hicks, who was hired to coach basketball at Clayton, coached football for the first time when the Comets’ program began with four exhibition games in 1951.
The players raised money to purchase their uniforms and equipment by picking cotton in a local farmer’s field and selling magazine subscriptions. Principal James O. Waters, who helped the students pick cotton, let school out early that day.
Players on that 1951 team recruited more boys from the school to play a year later, including brothers Raymond and Jerry Capps, who fit practice between their chores on their family’s tobacco and dairy farm.
Raymond Capps recalled milking cows in the morning, working the tobacco fields during the day and milking the cows again in the afternoon before going off to football practice in the evening, according to a 1987 Raleigh Times story on the team.
He was one of many who made time for a sport that wasn’t shown on TV and whose chief publicity came in newspaper accounts of North Carolina star Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.
Enter Hicks, a leader still revered by players 60 years later. Hicks, 91, lives in an assisted living center in Greenville with his wife, Connie. He will be unable to attend the reunion.
“Coach Hicks had never coached football, so he learned with us,” said Clark Davis, a standout runner on the 1952 team. “He was a very inspiring but gentle coach. I played football for a lot of coaches, but there was no coach who compared to him when it came to explaining what you needed to do.”
Six-man football is played with three linemen, a fullback, a quarterback and wingback.
“It was a more wide-open game than 11-man football,” Coats said. “If your running back breaks free of the line, if he’s any good, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to score.”
The Comets’ offensive attack was known as “shake, rattle and roll,” a phrase coined two years before Big Joe Turner recorded the song of the same name. The Clayton offense featured the passing of Bobby Dodd, with Davis and Eugene Capps in the backfield usually running behind Winfred Hall, Lamar Lee and Charles Gordon.
“The blocking was much more serious than what I see now,” Davis said. “Of course, we could do a lot more then because they didn’t have all the rules they have now. But I played football of all kinds for 11 years, and I never played a season of football where there was more contact and physical play than I did in six-man football.”
Davis was one of three Comets on the 1952 team who later played football at East Carolina College (now ECU). He also played at a military academy for a year after leaving Clayton, then later played on Army teams. (Hall and Gordon also later played at East Carolina.)
That inaugural season ended with the Comets a perfect 13-0, outscoring their opponents by an average score of 38-10. Defense was a strong a suit for Clayton. In a game where getting past the line of scrimmage often resulted in a touchdown because there were so few players and so much open field, the Comets gave up more than 14 points to only one team that season.
Defensive center William Bagley best epitomized the Clayton defensive mantra of “root, hog or die.” He became the most feared defender in practices although he weighed only 134 pounds.
“You couldn’t get him off of you or get away from him,” Davis said of practicing against Bagley. “It was like trying to get a spider off of you.”
The state championship game between Clayton and Hildebran was played Nov. 27 on a snowy and freezing rain Thanksgiving afternoon at Lenoir-Rhyne College.
Quarterback Bobby Dodd played with a broken thumb but still threw two touchdown passes, while Davis broke off a 40-yard TD run. The Comets clinched the 20-14 championship game when sophomore Raeford Underwood deflected a Hildebran pass in the end zone.
As the decades pass, memories of the games fade for the team members, now in their mid- to late 70s. However, the lessons learned by a small group of men and a coach on a field located at the site of the current Clayton Post Office are still strong.
“It was very important to us to be accountable to a group of people, our team, that was headed by a leader everyone respected,” Davis said. “That concept of being loyal and having a one-mind approach on the field. Every time you took your stance, you were going to make sure you were accountable to your coaches and the other players, living up to what they were going to think of you, that accountability.”
It’s that level of dedication that many say helped them so much later in life. In the days when a college education was not the norm, the 23-player squad produced more than 10 college graduates, including three lawyers, two pharmacists, a certified public accountant, a regional director of finance for a national firm and two clergymen.
One of those clergymen is Davis, pastor emeritus at Antioch Christian Church in Bear Grass.
“Those lessons we learned in football were very much something that came back to me when I was called to be a minister,” he said. “It was the same but a bigger concept than what I felt on the football field with that team. The idea that in order to serve the Lord best, I was going to use everything I read, I learned and felt in my heart to be the absolute best person that I could be for my congregation, just like we all did for each other on that football team.” Tim Stevens contributed to this report.