Stevens: Neutral championship sites have ushered in a new era

tstevens@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2012 

Charlie Adams was a little nervous on Dec. 6, 1990 before the first N.C. High School Athletic Association state football championship game doubleheaders.

Burlington Cummings was playing Statesville in the 3A finals and Swain County was taking on Robersonville Roanoke in the 1A championship matchup in games scheduled to start at 6 and 9 p.m., at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium.

Cummings was led by Donnie Davis, then among the national leaders in passing yardage, while Swain had Heath Shuler, who was touted as one of the country’s best high school quarterbacks. They had passed for 4,478 and 3,675 yards, respectively, that seaon and they were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the state in career passing yards with 8,565 yads and 7,099 yards.

“The critics were saying that the game would last past midnight,” recalled Rick Strunk, an associate commissioner of the NCHSAA.

Cummings coach Dave Gutshall had developed an offense that never huddled. Every play was called at the line. Lots of teams have a no-huddle system now, but back then it was revolutionary. Davis passed on almost every down, something else that was fairly new.

Some people told Adams that his was a fool’s errand, trying to put all of the state football championship games in a major college facility. But he thought there was no other choice.

Garner’s 40-21 victory over Charlotte Harding at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium had convinced Adams that no high school facility in the state could hold the crowd that would attend a 4A final. Plus Jay Robinson, then the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, privately told Adams that no school in his system would attempt to hold a football championship game on campus.

Kenan host all of the state title games then and the doubleheader was necessary to avoid a UNC basketball game. Saturday’s 2A and 4A finals were scheduled for 2 and 7:30 p.m., but the Friday night doubleheader, had it been the all-nighter some critics suggested, could have damaged the NCHSAA’s move toward neutral sites.

So Adams had some things to think about on the Thursday before the games. He was confident he was right.The games would go off without a hitch. The Kenan Stadium turf would not be destroyed. And the kids would have the moment to savor for a lifetime.

He was right.

It was a great night of football. Cummings won 32-26 and Swain took a 40-14 victory and both quarterbacks sparkled.

I wrote a column the next day for The News & Observer and said that Davis was a sensational athlete -- he also was a state hurdles champion in track --but that Shuler looked like the better quarterback prospect.

I wrote about the games being over at a decent hour and about the sheer joy the players had to play in the stadium.

I menioned something had been lost, too.

There was something very special about playing high school sports at the local stadium. The entire community cackled with excitement in Clayton as preparations were made for the 2AA state championship game in 1989.

But years ago, mostly I wrote how lucky I had been to see two of the best high school quarterbacks ever in the state play on the same field on the same day.

Not only had the players gotten the memory of a lifetime so had I.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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