SPORTS IS LIFE: Early family move sent Rudisill in the direction of athletics as a player and a coach
By Richard Walker
Stanley’s John Rudisill says that when he looks back on his life in athletics, he’s pretty convinced a career path was set in motion when he a young child.
“My parents, neither one of them played sports,” said Rudisill, a member of the five-person induction class for the 2023 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame. “Then when I was four years old, we moved from one side of town in Stanley to the other and my neighbors were three Rhyne boys and they all played ball.
“And they introduced me to sports.”
It’s a love affair that has lasted a lifetime for the 74-year-old Rudisill.
Whether it was playing in recreation leagues and high school in his hometown of Stanley, playing baseball at the University of North Carolina and recreation basketball and softball for Gastonia’s old Groves Threads, coaching for Groves Threads and Stanley or just supporting UNC athletics, Rudisill’s love affair with athletics is apparent to anyone who knows him.
Rudisill says his biggest blessing has been the relationships formed from the start of his athletic career.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great coaches at every level of athletics,” Rudisill said. “About every coach I’ve ever had is in a Hall of Fame somewhere.”
That started from the outset as Rudisill’s Little League baseball coach – and eventual Stanley High football and basketball coach – was Dick Thompson (1973 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee). Rudisill’s Gastonia Teener League World Champion baseball coaches were J.V. McGinnis (1976 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee) and Russ Bergmann (1968 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee). His Stanley High and Belmont American Legion American Legion Post 144 coach was Neb Hollis (2008 Mount Holly Sports Hall of Fame inductee). And Rudisill’s UNC baseball coach was Walter Rabb (1991 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inductee).
Rudisill’s first brush with local attention came in back-to-back summers for Gastonia’s VFW Teener League national championship teams in 1963 and 1964.
“And both years we came out of the loser’s bracket to win it,” Rudisill said. “That was the first time anybody had ever come out of the loser’s bracket to win. And we did it back-to-back.”
In high school, Rudisill was a three-sport star for Stanley High while also played three summers for Belmont Post 144. Basketball enjoyed the most success as he helped the Blue Devils to three straight Little Seven 2A Conference title from 1964 to 1966 with him tallying a county-high 624 points in 1966.
Originally headed to Lenoir-Rhyne to play basketball and baseball, Rudisill talked to legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and Rabb before switching to UNC.
“Before I heard from coach Rabb, I heard from coach Smith,” Rudisill said. “He sent me a letter and an application and an invitation to walkon. So I applied and got accepted but I was originially going to go to Lenoir-Rhyne.
“Coach Rabb first called me in June and offered me a scholarship. He said, ‘I’ll send you an application.’ I told him, “i’ve already been accepted’ and I told him the story about talking to coach Smith.”
At UNC, Rudisill shined in intramural sports like basketball and was the school’s most outstanding athlete in the residence hall division for the 1968-69 school year.
That same season he also helped UNC win the ACC baseball title and helped the Tar Heels advance to the district tournament at Gastonia’s Sims Legion Park before UNC was beaten in the championship game by a Mississippi team that had future NFL quarterback Archie Manning as its shortstop.
The summer before, Rudisill was invited to play summertime recreation softball which sent him in a direction that would give him his first Hall of Fame honor.
“There were some summer college baseball leagues in the Valley and a wood bat team in Lenoir and some other places,” Rudisill said. “After my sophomore year, (Charlotte’s) Akers Motor Lines called me and asked me if I wanted to play for them. I had grown up as a kid going to McAdenville watching softball. So I knew softball was really competitive and played at a high level around here.”
Originally, Rabb wasn’t so sure.
“Coach Rabb actually had pulled me into his office, saying, ‘I’ve got you in a wood bat league playing in Lenoir,'” said Rudisill, who was given UNC’s Educational Foundation Baseball Award for Most Outstanding Senior in 1970. “I said, ‘Coach I’m going to play slow pitch softball.’ He didn’t know I was going to play with a bunch of grown men.
“And after playing softball, I went back to Carolina and had the best year I ever had. I came back faster, I came back stronger and I came back quicker. You know, in softball, you have to catch that thing and get rid of it. I’ve always said softball made me a better baseball player.”
It also led to a longtime passion that eventually made Rudisill a N.C. American Softball Association Hall of Fame inductee in 2017 after a career in which he was a 21-time all-tournament selection, 16-time champion, six-time tournament MVP and three-time all-state selection while playing for teams based in Charlotte, Gastonia, Kings Mountain, Belmont, Denver and Shelby.
It also helped Rudisill with his professional career once he decided to work at Gastonia’s Groves Threads and play for the mill’s recreation basketball and softball teams instead of pursuing professional baseball.
“I had an invitation to sign but I had taken that job with Groves Threads to play basketball and softball and be the personnel director in the mill,” Rudisill said. “I had played with so many guys at Carolina that played pro baseball and then came back after a year or two and couldn’t find a job. I thought it was good to have a job. And it was a job to play ball.
“It turned out to be the right decision.”
It also involved coaching youth football, which led to Rudisill’s next Hall of Fame passion as it started a 45-year career coaching youth football including 38 as a head coach.
As a head coach, his in Gastonia and Stanley had a 370-29 overall record with 35 conference or division titles and highlighted by national titles in 1976 for the Gastonia Little Orangmen and 2002, 2009 and 2018 for the Stanley Blue Devils. In 2019, Rudisill was inducted into the American Youth Football Hall of Fame.