1987 state championship football team at Garner gathers for its first reunion

tstevens@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2013 

Eddie Gray, an assistant coach on the staff of Garner High’s 1987 football team, surveyed the 200 people gathered for a reunion and celebration Saturday and said what most of the former players probably were thinking.

“They don’t look much like athletes now,” Gray said.

Twenty-six years and plenty of meals have passed since the Trojans won at Richmond County, at Northern Durham and at Charlotte in the playoffs to claim the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 4A football championship.

More than 11,000 fans watched Garner’s 20-17 win over Northern Durham at Durham County Stadium and close to 20,000 filled Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium for the 40-21 championship win against Charlotte Harding.

Northern Durham and Harding were both undefeated before facing the Trojans and Richmond County went on to win the next three state 4A crowns.

“Nobody can say we backed into the title,” said Hal Stewart, the Trojans’ coach in ’87. “Imagine going on the road to play those three teams and winning every one. We had character.”

The impetus for the reunion was the recent death of Chris Thompson, a defensive lineman and a sometimes fullback on the title team. Thompson’s death impressed upon quarterback and leader Stacy Betts that time was catching up with the club.

“We were still close, we’ll always be close and be family, but we need to get together and enjoy one another,” Betts said.

Betts said the importance of the relationships resonated with him a few years ago when his son Landon was hospitalized and was in critical condition. Many of his former teammates came back into Betts’ life with prayers and concern.

“Landon is fine now, but my teammates were there when I needed them,” Betts said. “Just like they always were.”

A steering committee tried to contact every player, every coach, every cheerleader and every other person associated with the team. They tracked down all but two players. A majority of the 38-player varsity assembled at First Baptist Church Garner for the dinner and memories.

Many were surprised the bonds were still so close.

“It is just like going back in time,” said wide receiver Robert Hinton.

For many of the players, the reunion was the first time they had seen Pete Smith, perhaps the best player on the ’87 team, since he was named as the most outstanding player in the 1988 N.C. Coaches Association all-star football game in the Greensboro.

Smith dominated that game, just like he had the title game against Harding. Smith intercepted a pass for a touchdown, blocked a kick and disrupted the West offense in the all-star game.

A few years later he was arrested on drug trafficking charges and served a 13-year sentence in prison. He returned to Garner in 2005, but hadn’t had much contact with his former teammates. He earned a college degree while in prison and said he hasn’t had any legal issues since.

“It is so good to see an old friend,” Hinton said.

“I made some very bad choices,” Smith said. “If I could do it over again, I would never get involved with criminal behavior. If I could say anything to the kids today, it would be to get all the education you can and do the right thing.”

The night was filled with Pete Smith stories, about him picking up Charlotte Harding’s 225-pound fullback and slamming him to the ground. Smith intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown and he was sacking the Harding quarterback when the ball came loose. John Dykes grabbed the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

“Watch the tape,” Gray said about half seriously. “The defense won the championship game.”

Gray was the defensive coordinator.

“Eddie did a tremendous job,” Stewart said. “Tommy Knotts (who later dominated the state while coaching Charlotte Independence) had every offensive wrinkle you could imagine. But Eddie said, ‘The quarterback can’t pass, if he’s on his (rear end).’ And we put him there I don’t know how many times.”

But the championship game probably is most remembered for Anthony Barbour, the speedy Garner tailback who topped the national record that night with his 47th touchdown that season. He had scoring runs of 60, 55, 5 and 50 yards and rushed for 265 yards in about three quarters.

Barbour, later coach at Southern Durham, Smithfield-Selma and Middle Creek, spoke movingly to his old teammates and coaches.

He talked a little about football, but brought tears to the eyes of many of the players when he talked about growing up in Garner and what the coaches had meant to him.

“I wish every boy and girl in America could have the experience that I had growing up in Garner,” he said.

Hinton, who played in four bowl games at N.C. State, said there is no question his high school games were the most memorable of his career.

“I remember a lot about the games at State, but I remember everything about the ’87 games,” he said. “There is no comparison.”

Stewart, the coach, spent most of his remarks thanking people who supported the team.

Earlier, though, he said, “This is the greatest night of my life, because you are here.”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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