2022 GCSHOF: For Cherryville’s Stan Crisson, knee injury led to opportunity that made him a historic pro football champion
By Richard Walker
When Stan Crisson grew up in Cherryville in the 1950s, he was like many youngsters who were determined to help the town’s high school and American Legion Post 100 baseball teams win titles and pursue greatness.
However, it was a football injury during one of the best starts in Cherryville High School history in that sport that led Crisson to his 2022 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame induction.
With the Ironmen off to an unbeaten, unscored upon 3-0-2 start to their 1958 season, Crisson suffered an injury when he stepped into a hole during practice drills. The torn knee cartilage he suffered led to season-ending surgery but it also meant he made a contact that helped create a path to Duke University for an All-ACC football career and a historic professional career.
“It was kind of a freak injury,” Crisson said of the October 1958 injury and subsequent surgery. “The summer before, my knee had locked up when I slid into second but it was nothing serious. Then that fall, we were running warmup laps and I stepped in a hole and messed up my knee and we couldn’t get it unlocked. The cartilage had slipped into the joint and was blocking it. They took me to Gastonia to see Dr. (William) Roberts and his assistant at the time was doing his residency before he went to Duke.”
That resident doctor, Frank Bassett, would eventually become Duke University’s athletic team physician from 1966 to 1993 and later was inducted into that school’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
“Dr. Bassett is how I got recommended to Duke,” Crisson said of Bassett’s tip to then-Blue Devils head coach Bill Murray.
Since Bassett had played college football at the University of Kentucky when the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant was head coach, his positive words about Crisson meant a lot to Murray, a five-time ACC champion who guided the Blue Devils to two Orange Bowls and one Cotton Bowl his 15-year Hall of Fame tenure as Duke head coach.
A 6-foot-1, 205-pound end, Crisson led the Blue Devils in receiving in all three of his seasons (freshman weren’t allowed to play varsity in that era) and helped Duke to a 20-9-1 overall record, 17-3 ACC record and league titles in 1961 and 1962. His 98 receptions for 1,107 yards with 10 receptions were all career records after Crisson’s All-ACC senior year of 1963. And his 48-reception total in 1963 was second in the country that season.
After playing in the old Miami, Fla., North-South Shrine Bowl in December 1963, Crisson accepted an offer to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
In his two seasons in the CFL, Crisson caught 36 passes for 618 yards and two touchdowns to earn Eastern Conference All-Star honors and help Hamilton to back-to-back Grey Cup championship games; The Tiger-Cats lost 34-24 to British Columbia in 1964 and beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 22-16 in 1965 to become the first and so far only Gaston County player to ever win a professional football championship.
Crisson says now that while the knee injury helped him get to Duke, the knee was never sound again – another surgical procedure was done when he was at Duke – and it led to his retirement from football at 24 years old after the 1965 CFL title-winning season.
Crisson would remain involved with football for six more years as an assistant coach at Duke for head coaches Tom Harp (1966-70) and Mike McGee (1971) before leaving that profession to work in South Florida in the furniture business. After starting as a representative for Drexel Furniture, Crisson eventually formed his own company that represented several furniture companies.
Crisson and his wife Love, a Bethesda, Md., native he met at Duke, have lived in south Florida since 1972.
Born in Marion in 1941 before making stops in Newport News, Va., and Spindale, Crisson moved to Cherryville in 1950 as a fourth-grader.
Athletics and baseball in particular were huge in the town at the time – and Crisson recalls making connections that helped him in the present and the future during those years.
“When I was 10 years old, I met (2010 Gaston County Sports Hall of Famer) Max Crowder because he umpired our Little League baseball games,” Crisson said of Crowder, who was a Duke Hall of Fame athletic trainer from 1962 until his death in 1992. “We ended up spending a lot of time with each other and I certainly miss him.”
Crisson played for the Carlton Yarn Mill and Rhyne-Houser Little League teams that were coached by eventual Cherryville High School coaches Sherrill Cranford and Ovie Heavner.
And once he began playing Pony League baseball, Heavner was his coach and future major league star Tony Cloninger was one of his teammates.
“At the time, baseball was my favorite sport and I especially liked Legion ball because it was during the summer and the whole community supported the team,” Crisson said.
A regular fan during Post 100’s historic 1953 American Legion World Series team – Cherryville’s first in its storied history – Crisson was a reserve on the 1954 team as a 13-year-old and slowly but surely showed his talents in that sport.
He was a three-time All-Southwestern Conference baseball player for Cherryville High and an all-state Legion player for Post 100 while playing alongside future major league star Tony Cloninger of Rock Springs and future professionals Steve Bolick of Lincolnton and Ronnie Hovis of Cherryville.
“He was just a great, great guy and a really good athlete,” Crisson said of Cloninger, a 12-year major league pitcher for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals. “He was only about 6-feet tall but I remember one time in Nixon gym in Cherryville where we would dress for the Legion games. One night after a game, he’s in his sock feet in the gym and he got a basketball and two-handed dunked from a standstill. So that’s an indication of what kind of athlete he was.”
Crisson hit .318 in 1957 and .380 in 1958 for Post 100 while Cloninger hit .333 in 1956 and .346 in 1957.
On the mound, Cloninger went 16-5 in 1956 and 1957 and Crisson was 11-6 in 1957 and 1958.
“We were fortunate to have some really good Legion teams in those days in Cherryville and I certainly enjoyed it,” Crisson said of Post 100 teams that finished as 22-9 and Area IV runner-up in 1957 and 13-10 in 1958. “I still have fond memories of those summers and the connections we made. You know, they didn’t have a bus. We rode in cars with members of the American Legion. I met a lot of really good guys and still remember how supportive they were of us and our teammates.”