Early UNC-State rivalry featured the first Shelby High football star and a man who went on to far greater fame
By Richard Walker
On Saturday at noon at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, when the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University will meet on a football field for the 110th time, one of the most intrigued observers will be watching from the afterlife.
Shelby native O. Max Gardner, who would eventually become the governor of North Carolina, played football and was captain at both schools.
Orphaned at a young age and raised largely by his older sisters, O. Max Gardner earned a scholarship to N.C. State (then named N.C. A&M) and attended law school at North Carolina. He played football – at N.C. State from 1902 to 1904 and North Carolina in 1905 – and is the only person to serve as football captain at both schools.
In doing so, the 6-foot-1, 212-pound O. Max Gardner became Shelby High’s first football star years before the school began fielding teams and racking up the 809 victories that make it winningest program in North Carolina prep history.
A chemical engineering major at N.C. State after graduating from Shelby High in 1899, he was an accomplished enough two-way tackle to be chosen to the All-Southern football team by the legendary John Heisman in 1903. Heisman, then the coach at Clemson, would go on to national championship-winning fame as head coach at Georgia Tech and has gained even great fame as being the namesake for the award given to the top college player each year.
After finishing his studies at Chapel Hill, O. Max Gardner would begin a law practice in Shelby in 1907 before founding Shelby Cloth Mill (later renamed Cleveland Cloth Mill) and becoming one of the state’s most prestigious politicians.
Elected as North Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 1917 to 1921 and North Carolina governor from 1929 to 1933, O. Max Gardner eventually served under presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman before dying of coronary thrombosis at 64 on Feb. 6, 1947 at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Locally, he’s considered a financial savior for the college that bears his name and that of his Faye Webb Gardner, also of Shelby. The former Boiling Springs College was renamed Gardner-Webb College in 1942 after O. Max Gardner and his wife devoted their energy, time and wealth into the school’s $300,000 campaign designed to keep the school financially viable following the Great Depression of the 1930s. (In September 2009, O. Max Gardner was a part of even more history when he became the first player whose college football alma mater, N.C. State, played against a school for whom he was named; Led by current Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson, the Wolfpack beat Gardner-Webb 45-14.)
“He was from a poor family,” Shelby attorney O. Max Gardner III said of his grandfather O. Max Gardner. “He was the youngest of 12 children. His mother, who was his father’s second wife, died when he was 5 years old. And his father died when he was 10.”
O. Max Gardner’s personal financial struggles are revealed in how he even got to Raleigh to attend college.
“When he got the scholarship offer from A&M, he did not have enough money to pay the bus fare from Shelby to Raleigh,” said O. Max Gardner III, a 1964 Shelby High graduate. “So his sisters did a bake sale over the course of three weeks to pay for his bus fare and have enough money to pay for food when he got to Raleigh.
“He played on the football team at State, was elected captain of the football team at State and elected student body president at State. And when he graduated, he actually taught chemistry for over a year at State to pay for some of his college money he still owed.”
Because of his loyalty to his alma mater, he wouldn’t accept the opportunity to play at UNC while attending law school there unless his new teammates made some concessions for him.
“He accepted a scholarship to play football at North Carolina on the condition that he would not play in the Carolina-State football game,” O. Max Gardner III said. “They finally accepted that condition and he was named captain of the football team at Carolina. I don’t think anybody else in history would have that opportunity again. The NCAA rules in effect today were obviously not in effect then.”
For the record, O. Max Gardner’s North Carolina-N.C. State matchups never had a winner. When he was at N.C. State in games in 1902 and 1904, the teams played a scoreless tie and a 6-all tie, respectively. And in the 1905 game in which he declined to participate, the teams played another scoreless tie.
But O. Max Gardner’s legacy has lived on in the rivalry since so many Cleveland County products have played in the game in the years since.
In Saturday’s matchup, North Carolina has 2020 Shelby High graduate Spencer Triplett on its roster and N.C. State has 2019 Shelby High graduate Jaylon Scott on its roster. Triplett is a freshman long snapper and Scott a sophomore linebacker who made his first career interception in last week’s 31-20 Wolfpack win over Duke.
Other previous Cleveland County products to suit up for the Tar Heels football team include: Bob Reynolds (Shelby 1945 graduate), Joe Craver (Shelby 1959), Neil Robinson (Shelby 1976), Bryan Ferree (Shelby 1977), Alan Burrus (Shelby 1978), Clint Gwaltney (Shelby 1988), David Secrest (Shelby 1993), Chesley Borders (Crest 1998), Bryant Malloy (Crest 1998), Riko Feemster (Kings Mountain 1999), Jermaine Strong (Crest 2004), Tavorris Jolly (Shelby 2006) and Reggie Wilkins (Crest 2010).
Other previous Cleveland County products to suit up for the Wolfpack football team include: Oliver Anthony (Shelby 1911), Andrew “A.W.” McMurry (Shelby 1914), Jim Gibson (Kings Mountain 1941), George Allen (Kings Mountain 1941), Charlie Noggle (Shelby 1962), David Roberts (Shelby 1972), Tommy London (Shelby 1973), Larry Eberheart (Shelby 1974), Markus Hager (Kings Mountain 1980), Rayfield Smith (Crest 1982), Jeff Hojackni (Shelby 1984), Kevin Champion (Kings Mountain 1987), Brent Bagwell (Kings Mountain 1988), Therome George (Shelby 1988), Ryan Hamrick (Crest 1995), Tim Ramseur (Crest 1995), Chris Coleman (Crest 1995), Tony Scott (Burns 1995), Josh Brown (Crest 2001), Andy Barbee (Crest 2005), Ulysses Tuft Jr. (Burns 2006), Dwayne Maddox (Crest 2008), Quinton Patterson (Crest 2013) and Kollin Byers (Crest 2016).