GCSHOF 2022: Gastonia’s Claude Saunders excelled as athlete, administrator and official

By Richard Walker

When the late Claude “Doc” Saunders grew up in Gastonia in the 1940s and 1950s, segregation was the law and common practice of the land in the region.

Claude Saunders

Saunders, a star basketball and baseball player at Gastonia’s all African-American Highland High School, used athletics as a way to survive and thrive in multiple endeavors while also becoming a pioneer in integrated society.

His positive attitude and enjoyment of life regardless of obstacles is perhaps best exhibited by his comments about one of his greatest accomplishments.

In 1979, when Claude Saunders was selected to become the first African-American official to work the prestigious Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas high school football All-Star game when it was played at Charlotte Memorial Stadium, he had this to say to The Charlotte Observer the week of the game:

“I’m not political. Black folks have always had this philosophy – Integration is going to come sometime – so you get all the degrees you can and when the opportunity comes….”

Claude Saunders was more than ready for his chances as he broke all sorts of color barriers in the field of officiating years after his playing career was over.

“Everywhere I ever went and everybody that knew Claude always talked positively about him,” said Don Buckner, an official who moved to the Charlotte area in 1985 and regularly travelled with Claude Saunders to work Southern Conference football games. “And I never heard him say anything bad about anybody. That was Claude’s personality. He was just such a quality guy and person.”

Claude Saunders’ athletic success started as a member of one of Gastonia’s greatest high school basketball teams.

In the 1949-50 and 1950-51 seasons of his junior and senior years at Highland, he was a driving force for teams that went 48-9, won the school’s first two Piedmont Conference basketball titles and advanced to the state semifinals of the old N.C. High School Athletic Conference (for African-American student-athletes) before losing to eventual champion Laurinburg Institute.

The Highland Rams of that era were coached by 1978 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee Eugene L. Dunn and led by Claude Saunders’ eventual Johnson C. Smith teammates Douglas Miller and 2011 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee William Partlow.

In 1950, they won the Piedmont title with a 48-39 victory over host Second Ward of Charlotte, then they won the 1951 title by defeating West Charlotte 63-50 at Highland’s home gymnasium that was later home to Gastonia’s Moloch Elks Lodge in the Oakland Park neighborhood; West Charlotte’s team featured future high school basketball coaching Charles McCullough who would eventually become a longtime friend of Claude Saunders.

In the 1951 state tournament, the Laurinburg Institute team that ended Highland’s state title pursuit featured future NBA great and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Sam Jones.

Claude Saunders told The Gaston Gazette in a March 12, 1995 story about Highland’s 1950s basketball teams that Dunn was influenced by the fast-breaking offenses that were employed at the time by college coaches like North Carolina Central’s John McClendon and N.C. State’s Everett Case, both of whom would be eventual Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductees.

“We had a fast-breaking team when few teams knew much about that,” Claude Saunders said. “There was no TV then so everything we learned was pretty much what coach Dunn taught us. It was a very special time for all of us.”

Claude Saunders during his Johnson C. Smith basketball career

After high school, Claude Saunders went on to become the first All-CIAA basketball selection in Johnson C. Smith history and had an immediate impact on a program where he was coached as a freshman by N.C. Sports Hall of Famer Cal Irvin and during his last three years for the coach for whom the school’s gymnasium is named, Jack Brayboy. He also set a school single-game scoring record with a 45-point game during his career.

As a freshman in the 1951-52 season, Claude Saunders set a school freshman scoring record with 226 points and helped the Golden Bulls’ advance to the CIAA tournament championship game before losing 83-81 to Virginia Union.

The next season, Johnson C. Smith was a No. 8 seed but finished fourth in the event as Claude Saunders made the all-tournament team for a second straight season.

The Golden Bulls lost in the quarterfinals of the 1954 tournament and failed to qualify for the 1955 CIAA tournament even as Claude Saunders made school history was the first All-CIAA selection.

In seven CIAA tournament games, Claude Saunders averaged 18.5 points per game highlighted by a 32-point effort in a 1953 opening round victory over Virginia State.

After college, those basketball talents were key to his two-year tour of military duty in Germany.

“When he left Smith, he went into the Army,” Claude Saunders’ son Shawn Saunders said. “He was such a good basketball player that they put him on the Army basketball team and instead of having to do a lot of regular soldier duties, his job was to be the driver for the general.
“So his duties were practicing basketball and cleaning up the jeep that he used to drove the general around.”

Upon returning home, Claude Saunders embarked on a 31-year as a teacher and administrator while also starting what would become a 50-year career as a football referee, observer and clock operator.

He taught and coached at Belmont’s old Reid High, at Highland and at Charlotte’s old York Road High School before later becoming Mecklenburg County’s transportation specialist.

He started officiating in 1958 and would eventually work in the CIAA, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as well as becoming the first African-American football referee in the Southern Conference. Inducted into the CIAA officials Hall of Fame in 2000, Claude Saunders was approached orginally by longtime NFL official Johnny Grier in the 1980s about joining that league’s officiating crew.

“They told him he passed all the criteria but he was older than they wanted for a rookie official,” Shawn Saunders said of his father’s NFL prospects. “He was in his early to mid 40s when that happened. But it created another opportunity for him when the (Carolina) Panthers came about.”

Sure enough, Grier (a Charlotte native himself), pushed for the NFL to hire Claude Saunders as the Panthers first clock operator; Claude Saunders held that position from 1995 until until his death on July 1, 2008.

Claude Saunders also worked NFL playoff games in that role, working one of the most famous Pittsburgh Steelers’ upset victories of all-time on Jan. 15, 2006; The sixth-seeded Steelers knocked off the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts 21-18 on their way to a Super Bowl championship.

Finally, Claude Saunders had one more passion in his life that he shared with his son.

Buckner calls Claude Saunders “an exceptional golfer” and recalls playing golf several times at courses throughout the region when they refereed college football games together.

Shawn Saunders, a 1986 North Mecklenburg High School graduate, says his father helped coach him up enough to help him earn team MVP honors in high school and a college scholarship to play the sport at Livingstone College and Prairie View A&M.

“His favorite sport growing up was basketball,” Shawn Saunders said of his father Claude Saunders, who in high school also was a state championship-winning second baseman in baseball. “But late in life his favorite thing was golf – and he attacked that with the same passion he did with everything else in his life.”