North Carolina to the NFL Part 1: The first NFL player came in 1921 and he came from the state’s winningest high school program

North Carolina to the NFL

(This is the first in a series on the North Carolina products who went on to play in the NFL. Here are the upcoming stories:)

Part 2: Record-setting Olympic star Jim Thorpe is not a N.C. native but he spent an infamous summer in the state and later recruited some N.C. natives for play for his NFL team

Part 3: What do the numbers say about North Carolina high school products in the NFL? How many have there been? And who played the longest in the NFL?

Part 4: What North Carolina high schools and counties have produced the most eventual NFL players?

Part 5: Which colleges have benefitted the most from North Carolina high school products who eventually played in the NFL?

Part 6: How many NFL first round picks have been produced by North Carolina high schools?

Part 7: How did eventual NFL players do when they played for North Carolina high schools?

Part 8: North Carolina has a handful of natives who didn’t attend high school in the state before making it to the NFL. Here’s a look at some of them.


By Richard Walker

When John Randolph “Johnnie” Hudson played in the NFL, he had no idea he was paving the way for 627 more North Carolina high school school products to play at the highest level of football.

In truth, the NFL was so new it wasn’t even the NFL yet.

Shelby’s Johnnie Hudson is one of the backs shown here for N.C. State in its 1917 game against Wake Forest. [NCSU athletics photo]
It was actually in its second and final year being called the American Professional Football Conference.

The name “National Football League” wasn’t officially adopted until June 24, 1922.

Hudson had good pedigree as the high school he attended, Shelby, has become the state’s winningest program; The Golden Lions have 815 documented victories entering the fall 2021 season.

By the time Hudson left Shelby to attend N.C. State – then called North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering – he had done little to indicate the future that lay ahead of him.

Certainly newspaper reports on sporting events were sketchy in that era, but there’s no mention of Hudson is any of the games Shelby played in during his final three seasons of 1913, 1914 and 1915.

But Hudson showed enough promise to get the opportunity to play football at N.C. State in the fall of 1917.

He would start in six of N.C. State’s nine games that season; The team most frequently called “Techs” in newspaper stories of the era would go 6-2-1 that season under head coach Harry Hartsell.

A left halfback in three games and right halfback in the other three, Hudson made a name for himself with long runs. A Nov. 11, 1917 report in The News and Observer of Raleigh said “Hudson made spectacular runs that netted almost 40 years on each trip across midfield” in a 17-0 victory in Richmond, Va., over VMI.

The star of the N.C. State team that season was freshman quarterback Richard Nestus “Dick” Gurley of Goldsboro.

Gurley scored 82 of the team’s 112 points that season, including all of its points in four of the nine games. Gurley would go on to become a Shelby’s coach from 1921 to 1923 before leaving to coach football, basketball and baseball at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory for eight years and eventually becoming football coach, principal and, finally, superintendent for Newton-Conover Schools in 1932. Newton-Conover High’s Gurley Stadium is named in his honor.

Hudson never played college football again.

In 1918 as World War I was winding to a close, Hudson was among 23 N.C. State students commissioned to the Plattsburg, N.Y., barracks according to an Oct. 4, 1918 report in newspapers.

Later, The News and Observer reported, Hudson had returned to school as a Lieutenant.

Three years later, Hudson had a successful tryout for coach Jack Hegarty’s Washington Senators of the second-year APFA.

Hegarty arranged for three non-league games in the fall of 1921 before the team’s brief league schedule – three games (all at home at the Washington Senators baseball stadium) – began on Nov. 27.

An advertisement in The Washington Post for one of the first professional football games of Johnnie Hudson’s career in 1921

Hudson started one of three games at left halfback for the Senators and helped the team to a 1-2 record while scoring one of the its three touchdowns that season. Hudson scored a pass reception from Benny Boynton in the second quarter of a 28-14 loss to the Canton Bulldogs in the Dec. 18 season finale.

However, in an indication of the low prominence pro football had in those days is that The Washington Post didn’t list the length of the touchdown pass in its reports on the contest that was attended by 6,000.

The Senators lone win came one week earlier in front of 5,000 fans when they beat Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe and the Cleveland Indians 7-0.

The team left the league before it was renamed NFL and only three of its 1921 players would play more games in the NFL – Boynton among them – as the franchise played one more season of semipro football in 1922.

Hudson, who died at 47 in Brevard, N.C., on Oct. 1, 1946, never again played pro football.

In fact, the next N.C. high school product to play in the NFL didn’t come until 1933 when Spencer’s Gil Robinson played for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But Hudson did return to his hometown to play semipro baseball for the local team.

With a new Shelby stadium built by Ella Mill in 1921 off Grover Street, Shelby had a team for two years in the Western Carolina League in 1922 and 1923 with Hudson on its roster.

Hudson played outfield each season and was joined by Gurley and two other N.C. State standouts – George “Buck” Redfern and Charlie Parks – as well as Charlotte’s Red Johnson (a former University of North Carolina standout).

Gurley was the team captain and Redfern was later signed by the Chicago White Sox and played in the major leagues in 1928 and 1929 for that franchise.

After the 1922 season, a team banquet was held at the Cleveland Springs Hotel with local celebrity O. Max Gardner as the toastmaster.

Gardner, who had just completed his term as N.C. Lieutenant Governor (1917-21), would go on to become N.C. Governor from 1929 to 1933 and worked in the federal government for presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman until his death in 1947. In 1942, Gardner became immortalized when Boiling Springs College changed its named to Gardner-Webb in honor of Gardner and his wife Faye Webb for their fundraising efforts that helped keep the college financially solvent during the Depression of the 1930s.