High Schools

Stevens: Wake Forest High School's football team is tough as a Rock

tstevens@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2013 

  • NCHSAA 4A football championship

    Wake Forest vs. Charlotte Mallard Creek

    Saturday, 7 p.m.

    Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Rock Harrison would be proud.

The coach of what was then known as Wake Forest-Rolesville High School football loved the football program at his school, but he loved his school, his community and its athletes more. He dreamed of a day when Wake Forest, his school, would be a power, playing for state titles and giving its players the thrill of a lifetime.

That never happened during his life. He died in 2000 after battling brain cancer for nine years.

Harrison played center at the school and for years if you asked him who was the strongest person in the program, he’d say, “The Rock.”

Then he would laugh. “It’s not too good if the coach is the strongest guy is it?” he said. “We’ve got to get stronger if we want to go there I want us to go.”

He battled the cancer for years and once said, “I used to think ‘I love you’ were the greatest words in the English language. But to me, ‘It’s not growing’ are the most wonderful.”

He stayed with his boys for as long as he could. He battled. He lost vision in one eye and was forced to coach from a golf cart at times.

“I can’t see. I can’t hear. I can’t talk and I can’t walk. Otherwise, I’m great,” Harrison said months before his death.

Rock said it was tough, watching his body change and atrophy. But it wasn’t self-pity.

“If I had known how bad it was going to be, I wouldn’t have coached the last year,” he said.

“It wasn’t really fair to the kids.”

But the kids had no complaints. No complaints at all as he continued to live his life as well as he could.

His big, almost goofy, smile lit up a room until near the end.

His smile would be blindingly flashing now. Wake Forest is going to the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 4AA football championships on Saturday at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.

The Cougars are a massive underdog against an undefeated Charlotte Mallard Creek team that is filled with college prospects. But that would have been fine with Rock. You can show your toughness in tough times.

If he was here, he would be jumpy with excitement, twitching, ready to do anything to help.

Reggie Lucas, who is in his fifth season as head coach, played for Harrison and has made Rock’s dreams a reality.

Wake Forest is returning to the state finals for the second time in four years. The Cougars’ records during Lucas’ tenure are 14-1, 14-2, 11-3, 9-3 and 12-3 this season.

The program has become what former Wake Forest coach Earl Smith envisioned when he came out of coaching retirement to take the football job. Smith, who had built an area power at Millbrook, said the Wake Forest community supported the school and that the football coaching job there could be among the best in the state.

Smith’s last two teams were 12-3 and 12-1 and he left a firm foundation.

But it is Lucas who has been the dream maker.

In his first season in 2009, the school was housed at the current Heritage High while the old Wake Forest campus received extensive renovations.

Every chin strap, kicking tee, pad, barbell, football and everything else had to be boxed up and moved. The season was one disruption after another, but Lucas was steady and uncomplaining, preaching repeatedly that none of those things made any difference.

None of them did.

The team zipped through the regular season and into the fourth round of the playoffs before losing to Fayetteville Jack Britt 39-7. Britt was the only team to score more than 14 points against the Cougars that year.

Lucas preached a similar sermon this year. The Cougars lost Cap Eight 4A Conference games to Wakefield, Leesville Road and Sanderson and entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed from the Cap Eight and the No. 12 seed in the 16-team 4AA East.

The seeding meant that every playoff game would be on the road.

But Lucas said that didn’t matter. He noted the Cap Eight’s overall strength and pointed out that three losses all came down to the final seconds.

He predicted tight playoff games and noted his team had been in close games before. In the playoffs, the Cougars beat Panther Creek 35-14, Southern Pines Pinecrest 17-10, Millbrook 27-24 in four overtimes and Middle Creek 24-23.

Toughness counts, something the Cougars are reminded of every time they take the field for a home game and go by to rub the rock atop the Rodney “Rock” Harrison Memorial.

This Wake Forest team is tough. Rock would be proud.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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