Nothing could keep Francis Combs from N.C. State’s season-opener at Michigan State in 1966.
He didn’t have a plane ticket or a car, so hitchhiked more than 700 miles from Raleigh to East Lansing, Mich.
Combs hasn’t missed an N.C. State football game since, a streak of 598 consecutive games. He won’t be there on Saturday when the Wolfpack hosts Miami at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Combs, who has worked with the Wolfpack radio crew ever since he thumbed his way to Michigan State, is going on a family vacation to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with his son, Chris, and Chris’ family instead.
“It’s a nice streak and I’ve enjoyed it, but it will be fun to be with family,” Combs said. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them.”
Chris Combs, who works for the Wolfpack Club, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in March. He had a chance to go with the N.C. State basketball team to the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas and made plans to take his wife, Gena, and their children Anne Marie (10), Ava (5) and Christopher (3).
Chris, 41, asked his father in the summer if he wanted to join them.
“There’s only one thing,” Chris said. “You’ll have to miss a football game.”
Combs, 70, initially balked.
“Then I started thinking, ‘Oh yeah I can go,’ ” Combs said. “That really wasn’t a hard decision.”
Chris’s symptoms have been slow progressing but ALS patients typically have a life expectancy of two to five years after diagnosis.
“You hope there’s a chance to take a lot more trips like this but you don’t know how many there could be,” Chris said. “I just figured this would be a great trip for us to get away.”
Francis Combs will have his own version of a bus-man’s holiday. He’ll probably help Wolfpack play-by-play announcer Gary Hahn during N.C. State’s three basketball games on the island.
It’s a nice streak and I’ve enjoyed it, but it will be fun to be with family. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them.
But he will be missed by the football team on Saturday.
“To see 598 straight games, working behind the scenes and never asking for recognition or credit is an amazing accomplishment,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “That’s true dedication and love for the Wolfpack.”
A case of bad timing
Francis Combs expects to feel a tinge at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday when the Wolfpack kicks off against Miami. It will be the first time he’ll ever miss an N.C. State football game at Carter-Finley Stadium, which opened in 1966.
Combs’ start as a spotter for the radio crew started after a case of bad timing.
Combs, and his twin brother, Freddie, were football and baseball stars growing up with future hall-of-fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter in Hertford, in the northeastern corner of the state.
The Combs brothers went to N.C. State in fall 1965 to play both football and baseball. Combs was the quarterback for the freshmen team and his brother a defensive back.
After the college baseball season, Combs went to visit Hunter, who was already pitching for the Kansas City A’s.
Combs had been helping Hunter and the A’s in batting practice and was invited by the team to take an East Coast road trip from Washington (back when the Senators were still a franchise) to New York to Baltimore and finally to Boston.
During one of the games on the trip, the radio announcer for the A’s mentioned Combs and told the story about how he grew up with Hunter, who died of ALS in 1999, and was his catcher in high school and was traveling with the team.
A member of the NCAA staff, which then had its headquarters in Kansas City, was listening to the radio broadcast when Combs was mentioned. By the time Combs got back to N.C. State for football practice, coach Earle Edwards wanted to have a word with him.
The NCAA had suspended Combs for the semester for the breach in his amateur status (even though the A’s never paid him). He never missed any time in baseball – he and his brother were instrumental to leading the Wolfpack to the College World Series in 1968 – but his football career was over.
New streak begins
Combs still wanted to see Freddie and the Wolfpack play in person so he got a ride to Winston-Salem the Thursday before the Michigan State game and literally started walking to East Lansing.
He got about a dozen different rides before he got to the stadium on Friday afternoon, about 30 hours after he left Raleigh.
Combs isn’t sure how he would have gotten to the game now if he had to make the same choice again.
“You wouldn’t do that anymore but back then, I used to hitchhike home and other places,” Combs said.
When he walked into the locker room, the team gave him a standing ovation. Frank Weedon, N.C. State’s longtime sports information director, told Combs he could help Bill Jackson, then the play-by-play man, identify tacklers and help with other key plays during the radio broadcast.
Five-hundred and ninety-eight games, 51 seasons, 11 head coaches and three play-by-play announcers later, Combs is still working on the broadcasts.
Edwards did let Combs travel back with the team to Raleigh. A streak was born. And next week, after a well-earned break, a new streak will begin in Chapel Hill.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio