Penn State defensive coordinator Larry Johnson was left thinking of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife after a recruiting visit to Bunn High School in 2007. When he came into Bunn football coach David Howle’s office, Franklin County Sheriff Kent Winstead was in there too, having just walked across the street for an afternoon chat with Howle.
Johnson called Howle a little later and said: “Man, this place is just like Mayberry.”
On Saturday, “Mayberry” comes to N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2AA football championship as the Bunn Wildcats (13-2) take on the Monroe Redhawks (15-0).
Bunn is one of 16 teams playing for state high school championships Friday and Saturday. It will be Bunn’s first appearance in a state championship game.
Just across the Wake County line —about 34 miles northeast of Raleigh, Bunn turns back the clock to a time when small, one-school towns were the norm. The high school has 909 students, drawing from southern and western parts of Franklin County. Monroe has 1,131 students.
“We’re not a rich county. And we’ve got some coaches with me who are really good coaches, and we don’t make much, but the kids are so good they don’t want to leave. Our kids don’t mind working and they’re ‘Yes sir, no sir,’” Howle said. “It’s kind of like we’re 10 years behind (the) time, and that’s a good thing.”
When I started, some of the kids drove tractors to practice. Then if we had a good year, some of the farmers would come up, give us $500 and say ‘Coach, go get these boys something to eat.’
Bunn football coach David Howle
The town of about 357 residents has a Food Lion, a Subway, and mom and pop stores like Sisters Cafe, Farmers Table, and Howes Your Pizza?
Kids grow up dreaming of playing for the hometown high school team and the hometown rallies around them. The recreation teams in Bunn wear the high school’s green and gold and many also take the “Wildcats” name.
“I do little football camps in the summer, and we’ll have 75 to 100 kids. We try to get them in that green-and-gold early,” Howle said. “They’re all there at every game with their hands stuck out when we come out (onto the field).”
Bunn Baptist, Poplar Springs Baptist, White Level Baptist and Bunn Methodist are among the area churches that help feed the team pregame meals. As he walked into Sisters Cafe this week, Howle – who won his 200th game this season – was greeted with cheers.
“It’s not even a town; it’s like a big family. Everybody knows everybody,” senior running back Tevin Perry said.
“Family” is what this year’s senior class chose to be the front decal on the team’s helmet, placed just above the facemask.
“We really do play as a family. Some of us have been together for 10 years now. Family’s not who you’re born with, it’s who you play with,” said senior tight end/defensive lineman Ian Land. “We all grew up together, we all played in the rec leagues together; it’s a real great thing.”
In his 28th year at the school and 24th as head coach, Howle has been around long enough that he coached the fathers of some players on this year’s team.
“I’ve never wanted to leave. It’s just such a small-town flavor,” Howle said. “When I started, some of the kids drove tractors to practice. Then if we had a good year, some of the farmers would come up, give us $500 and say ‘Coach, go get these boys something to eat.’ ”
When Howle won his first conference championships in 1993 and 1994, the townspeople were swept up in the excitement and eager to help out. At the time, Bunn played football games on its baseball field, and it wasn’t the safest setup.
“The community decided we needed a stadium,” Howle said. “We started (construction) in April and we played there in August. The track around it and the bleachers were put in; the light poles were done by the community and all the paving ... We’d work at night and on the weekends, and the ladies would come out and make meals for the men. It was an amazing thing. We called it the ‘Field of Dreams.’”
The town’s investment paid off.
Bunn has had nothing but winning seasons since.
Recruiters like Johnson want to know if there’s something in the water.
Bunn has sent players on scholarship to N.C. State, North Carolina, Notre Dame and, in the case of Howle’s son Ty, Penn State. The ones that get overlooked, like two-team MEAC player of the year Tarik Cohen at N.C. A&T, become major contributors.
Now it’s time for bigger things.
Saturday’s game may be the biggest thing to happen in the quiet town in decades. It’s quiet enough already. It’ll be silent Saturday night.
“There ain’t gonna be nothing open – Sisters, Farmers Table, all of it,” Land said. “You can count on that.”