You can only curse “The Walk” so many times before you embrace it.
“The Walk” is a reality of playing football for Louisburg College. It might even be the Hurricanes’ secret to success.
There are 33 teams playing some form of college football in the state of North Carolina, but only Louisburg (8-0) is unbeaten.
“We’ve got to have the best glutes and quads in the whole South,” said running back Nehemiah Harris, who’s from Holly Springs and one of a dozen players who have made the 45-minute drive north from the Triangle.
Louisburg’s locker room is up on the campus. The practice field is three-tenths of a mile down the hill and carved out of the woods behind it.
Getting there is easy. Walking back uphill and then another four flights of steps to their lockers?
“The walk back is the worst,” sophomore defensive tackle Larrell Murchison said.
That gives you an idea the Hurricanes, who close their regular season on Saturday at Virginia University of Lynchburg, have it pretty good under second-year coach Trevor Highfield.
The Hurricanes went 7-1 a year ago and have won their eight games this season by an average of 32.1 points. They rank second in junior-college ranks nationally in scoring (51.6 points per game) and in the top 10 in total offense (523.8 yards per game) and rushing offense (287.9 yards per game).
A lack of glamour
As the only two-year college in the state with a football program, the Hurricanes have done well with in-state players. Assistants Will Orbin and Chris Tolbert, former high school coaches in the Triangle, have helped Highfield recruit locally.
There’s not a lot of glitz or glamour in junior-college football. “Last Chance U,” the Netflix series about a Mississippi junior college team, is not coming to Franklin County.
Cam Newton, who went from Florida to Auburn, via Blinn College in Texas, isn’t walking through the door, either. Although quarterback Terrance Ervin, a transfer from Norfolk State, has done just fine with 1,511 passing yards and 14 touchdowns.
There are few frills to Highfield’s successful program. The coaches, there are six including Highfield, have to line the practice field and help with the laundry. Getting a student to volunteer to help with filming practice is one of the toughest parts of the job.
“We’re a full-service staff,” Highfield, 43, likes to say.
There’s nary a seven-figure shoe contract to be found. The players have to buy their own cleats. The players bring their bookbags and a change of sneakers (makes “The Walk” easier) to practice like they’re going to day camp.
Practices are early and they are difficult.
“We’re always honest and up front with them,” Highfield said. “We run a tough practice. We want it to be hard because we’re here to push them so they can move on.”
Three players from last year’s team – OL Theis Bagknop (Charlotte), WR Sam Mobley (Catawba) and QB Darron Downing (Shaw) – moved on to four-year programs. Murchison, who’s listed as 6 feet 4 and 277 pounds, and left tackle Ray Miller (6-4, 295) have a good chance to follow them.
That matters more to the players than if the practice field has some dirt patches or they have to play their home games at the neighboring high school.
“Honestly,” freshman tight end Omar Salem, who’s from Holly Springs, said, “I just wanted to play ball again.”
Happy in Louisburg
Highfield offers his players a chance to be developed and re-recruited. He emphasizes academics and responsibility. There are no delusions of grandeur.
Highfield, a former offensive lineman at the University of Washington, has been to the top of the college football world.
His redshirt year at Washington in 1991, the Huskies went 12-0 and won the national title. He played for the Huskies in 1994 when they ended Miami’s 58-game home winning streak. He was a part of three Pac-10 championship teams and played in the Rose Bowl.
So he’s seen it all. He could chase that glory. He was a Division I assistant at UTEP for Mike Price for two years in the mid-2000s. But he met his wife, Clare, at UTEP and they have two children, Haylijane (9) and Kade (7). They’re happy in Louisburg, where Highfield spent his first six seasons as a defensive assistant.
“I’m here because I want to make a difference with young people, and I want to help,” Highfield said.
The straightforward approach has worked for Louisburg. Most of the players are here because they made a wrong turn academically, either with their grade point average in high school or on their SATs.
Fullback Jordan Mann had offers out of Apex High from Campbell, Appalachian State and Winston-Salem State. He didn’t have the grades, though.
“I thought I was such a good athlete that it wouldn’t matter,” Mann said.
Mann has embraced the second chance at Louisburg.
“You don’t come here to have fun,” Mann said. “You come here to get your grades up and get better.
“If you truly love football, you’re going to do whatever you can to continue to play.”
Well, there is some fun. The Hurricanes made a trip to Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 2 and beat Navy’s JV team, 27-23, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
A 71-12 win against N.C. Wesleyan’s JV team on Oct. 2 wasn’t bad, either.
“Winning is fun,” said guard Keanu Gonzales, who’s from Cary.
And unlike every other college program in the state, that’s all Louisburg has done this season.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio