Charlotte’s first pro football star? He was a former Belmont Abbey prep school and University of North Carolina football standout
By Richard Walker
Most local sports fans know the NFL didn’t come to the area until the Carolina Panthers’ first season of 1995.
But pro football actually began in Charlotte in 1932 and featured the area’s first star player.
Johnny Branch was a 5-foot-6, 152-pound quarterback from Salisbury who attended the old Belmont Abbey College prep school in the late 1920s before gaining even greater fame at the University of North Carolina.
He then helped huge crowds to the old Central High field in 1932 and 1933 for the Charlotte Bantams of the old South Atlantic Independent Football League.
Nicknamed “Shorty” at Belmont Abbey while playing Father Leo Cantwell, Branch led the college to a 4-4-1 record in 1927.
Branch’s most impressive efforts for the Abbey came in back-to-back weeks in November when they routed regional power Hickory High School 36-0 in Belmont on Nov. 4, then knocked off Catawba College 12-7 in Charlotte as Branch ran and passed for scores.
At North Carolina, he played for coaches Rex Enright and Chuck Collins and Branch drew the highest of praise from each.
Enright, his freshman coach, was a former Notre Dame star player who spent three years in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers before embarking on a 26-year coaching career that included a 15-year tenure with 64 wins as head coach at the University of South Carolina (1938-42 and 1946-55).
“He’s the greatest prospect I’ve ever seen,” Enright said of Branch during his freshman year of 1928.
Collins, also a former Notre Dame star, was North Carolina’s head football coach from 1926 to 1933 and guided the Tar Heels to 38 victories.
“He’s the greatest punt returner and broken field runner I ever saw,” Collins said of Branch.
On the North Carolina varsity from 1929 to 1931, Branch was in a Tar Heels’ backfield with 1925 Gastonia high school state championship-winner Phil Jackson and helped the Tar Heels to a 18 victories in three seasons. That included a 9-1 record in 1929 highlighted by a 19-7 win over defending national champion Georgia Tech with Branch returning a punt for a touchdown.
Branch would return four punts for touchdowns in his UNC career, a school record that was later shared by Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and stood until Ryan Switzer broke it in 2013.
Another touchdown punt return – a 96-yarder against Maryland that remains the school’s longest in history – helped UNC win 28-21 in 1930 during a 5-3-2 season.
His senior year of 1931 involved controversy as he was suspended four games for breaking team rules by “going out on the town” according to newspaper reports after a scoreless tie with Florida. He was reinstated for the season’s finale on Thanksgiving against Virginia – and Branch shined by returning another punt for touchdown on a 55-yard return and drop-kicking an extra point in a 13-7 Tar Heels’ victory.
Pursued by the New York Giants and Chicago Bears of the National Football League, Branch chose instead to play for the Charlotte Bantams after a Charlotte insurance executive offered him a job.
In Charlotte, Branch was the coach, captain, quarterback and leading scorer for the Bantams both years as they went 11-1-1 in 1932 and 11-3 in 1933.
The Bantams would leave town after a city ordinance changed its blue laws and began limiting Sunday athletic competition.
Branch lived out the rest of his life in the area – in Charlotte, Statesville and his hometown of Salisbury – before he died on March 4, 1978 at 67.
Obituaries of the time compared Branch to Duke All-American Ace Parker of the 1930s and to North Carolina’s Justice of the 1940s.