High school football started in the area in 1910
By Richard Walker
If there’s ever been a popular local sport that can relate to the disruption that has been caused by the COVID-19 health pandemic, it’s football.
And as the area prepares for its first-ever winter and spring high school football later this month, the roots of the sport show just how far we’ve come.
It’s because the birth of local high school football came with a stop and a restart much like so many longstanding traditions that have been altered by current health concerns.
The year was 1910 and old Gastonia and Shelby high schools fielded the area’s first football teams.
Shelby won both games by the unusual scores of 5-0 and 6-5 that fall and the games were played in Shelby on Nov. 11 and in Gastonia on Nov. 25. Gastonia wouldn’t play again until 1921 while Shelby played infrequently for the next five years then didn’t have a team from 1916 to 1919.
The first head coaches came from rival colleges.
Gastonia’s home-grown Fred Wetzell, a 1906 graduate of the local high school, had attended the University of North Carolina and is shown in that school’s 1907 football team photo though official school records do not list him as a letterwinner for the Tar Heels.
Shelby’s R.T. Howerton was a Durham native who graduated from Duke University in 1908 but attended that school during a time when Duke officials had banned the sport of football; That ban lasted from 1895 to 1919.
With the help of then-Gastonia school superintendent Joe Wray and then-Gastonia principal W.P. Grier – both of whom later had schools named for them – Wetzell rounded up a team of 15 players. The original roster was comprised of Duncan Boyd, Ernest Carson, Ralph Armstrong, Sam Suggs, Roscoe Rhyne, Erskine Boyce, Ernest Herman, James Campbell, Bill McArver, Harry Bradley, Fred Rhyne, Ed McLean, Charles Costner, Fred Pearson and Oscar “Duffy” Jenkins. Wray was listed as Wetzell’s assistant coach.
Howerton was Shelby’s superintendent of schools and he rounded up a team of 12 players – Louis Gardner, Robert Doggett, Hillary Hudson, Ben Roberts, Harry Hudson, Crawley Hughes, Oliver Anthony, Algier Hamrick, George Mason, Frank Shull, D.W. Royster and Buck Archer. Nelson Lattimore was Howerton’s assistant coach.
According to reports of the day, Shelby had funding for its team uniforms. But Gastonia’s players bought their own uniforms, mostly long-sleeved dark shirts with stripes on the arms comparable to what most collegiate teams of the era were wearing.
After a home-and-home matchup between the teams was arranged, there were no reports in the Shelby newspaper. And the reports in the Gastonia Gazette were listed under the newspaper’s “City School Department” section on Page 4 of its Nov. 18, 1910 edition; The newspaper wouldn’t have a devoted sports “section” until 1923.
Of Shelby’s 5-0 victory (touchdowns were worth five points in those days) that was played in Shelby, the Gazette wrote: “Shelby was as manly as boys could be with their victory; Gastonia took their defeat with equanimity.”
The second game, played at Gastonia’s Loray Park on Thanksgiving Day, was a nailbiter won 6-5 by Shelby.
Shelby would continue to play games until 1915 before a four-year stoppage. Shelby officials have documented a state record 809 victories.
By the mid-1920s, both schools and many others had gotten “football fever” and fielded teams and staged events similar to their college counterparts.
Shelby, under Gastonia’s Roy “Casey” Morris, advanced to the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship game in 1924 and Gastonia won the state championship game in 1925 under the direction of future major leaguer Pat Crawford. Morris had played football and baseball and the University of North Carolina and Crawford at Davidson College.
Lincolnton’s first team played in 1921. Mount Holly and Kings Mountain started teams in 1922. Belmont and Dallas began in 1923. Bessemer City and Lattimore started up in 1925, Cherryville and Fallston in 1926, Lowell in 1927 and Cramerton in 1929.
All African-American high schools in Gastonia (Highland) and Shelby (Cleveland Training School) each started their football programs in 1931.