When Paul Cornwell was an assistant head football coach for North Pitt in the late 1990s, he had an exercise for his players on the offensive line called the “board drill.” He’d take a piece of wood — about 2 feet wide by 10 or 12 feet long — and put the linemen face to face with their feet on either side of it.
On Cornwell’s whistle, the players would go hard against each other, trying to push the other down the length of it.
“When you need to fire up a team, it’s a great drill to run,” said Cornwell, now the head coach at Ayden-Grifton.
Two of the best players to ever run the board drill at North Pitt for Cornwell were identical twin brothers Allen and Brent Wooten.
“They were so competitive against each other all the time,” Cornwell recalled. “They never backed down from anyone, and especially from each other.”
A decade and half later, the Wooten twins are now the head coaches of Greene Central (Allen, in his fourth season) and North Pitt (Brent, in his first). Their teams played each other Friday night, with Allen’s Rams defeating Brent’s Panthers, 45-21.
It was a close game early, but Allen’s team — which has surprised many observers by starting the season 5-1 after losing 22 seniors (including 17 starters) — started to pull away early in the second quarter en route to the victory.
Mom stays neutral
It was an emotional night for the brothers — but even more so for their mother, Jackie. She was peppered all week with questions by friends and family on whom she would pull for when the Friday night lights came on in Bethel.
Would it be Allen, whose Rams were one of the best 2A teams in North Carolina in 2015 and who entered Friday’s game with a sterling 4-1 mark? Or would it be Brent, whose Panthers were winless in their first four games of 2016?
“I really was pulling for both of them,” she said with a laugh Monday night. “While Brent was looking for his first win as a head coach, I wanted Allen’s record to remain strong.”
She continued: “I wish it could’ve ended in a tie!”
At the game, she intentionally wore a gray T-shirt (“I didn’t want a shirt with either team’s color in it,” she said) with Greene Central stenciled on one side of it and North Pitt on the other. She sat outside one of the end zones — in the middle so no one could accuse of her being biased.
She was honored in the pregame, too; on a suggestion from North Pitt public address announcer Tim Peaden, she received a corsage from her sons at the 40-yard line with both team’s colors in it.
Jackie — whose husband Kenneth passed away on D-Day earlier this decade — said her boys have always been competitive with each other.
They weren’t just competitive, though; they were also very bright. Both were in the top five of their senior class and attended the University of North Carolina, where they roomed together until their junior year. Today, they teach AP classes at their respective schools.
They played football, baseball and basketball together in middle school, then played football (offensive and defensive line), baseball (Allen at first base, Brent at third) and wrestled at North Pitt. They graduated from North Pitt in 1999.
After their time at UNC — Allen stayed one more year to obtain his master’s degree — they began coaching together at North Pitt under former coach David Boal, where they were assistants for nine years.
Allen left North Pitt to take over a struggling Greene Central program in 2013. It was an emotional decision for him, and not just because he was leaving his brother at North Pitt; his father — a Greene Central alum — had passed away only a few weeks earlier.
“I knew he would’ve been proud of my decision,” Allen said.
Brent’s first season at North Pitt is mirroring Allen’s inaugural 2013 season in Snow Hill; while Brent’s Panthers are 0-5 this season, Allen’s Rams were 0-7 before they won their first game.
After that breakthrough victory, Greene Central won three of its final four games that season to advance to the 2AA playoffs. They’ve played in the postseason in each of Allen’s three full seasons, including after last year’s 10-1 regular season, the best in school history. It’s the longest postseason streak since an eight-year playoff run from 2001-08.
Allen sees the same thing happening for his brother this season.
“It would not surprise me at all if he has them going 4-1 or 3-2 in conference,” Allen said of Brent’s team in the Eastern Plains 2A. “There is a lot of talent on that team and he’s a very good coach. They could honestly win the league.”
Brent has high expectations for his Panthers, too.
“My senior class is a hard-working group of young men,” he said. “They just haven’t been able to get over the hump. I know this: They will do anything for me. When the clock hit zero, zero, zero on Friday night, I knew they had given me everything they had.”
While Friday’s game was the first time they’d appeared as head coaches against each other, it’s far from the final time. Cornwell predicts the pair will be at Greene Central and North Pitt for years to come.
“They were both really tough kids who were very, very bright and came from good parents and a great family,” Cornwell said. “I am very proud of them.”
You can reach Bryan Hanks at firstname.lastname@example.org.