One of the many things on which the Queen Of My Castle has been coaching me is being friendlier to strangers.
Friendlier on the trails. Friendlier at church. Friendlier while out and about here in the hometown.
So it wasn’t long afterward when I found myself in church and noticing an unfamiliar face behind me. So with the Queen’s coaching echoing in back of my head I paused my attention to the sermon just long enough to make a mental note to introduce myself afterward.
And when the opportune time came I reached over the pew, introduced myself to the visitor and asked my new friend’s name.
“James Barnes,” he said.
Something flashed across my brain from its deep recesses. It carried me way back to my high school days.
“THE James Barnes? The football player?” I asked.
James Barnes is the first star of East Wilkes High School football. I had not thought about those times for decades.
I was on hand when the Cardinals began their football program. As I prepared to enter high school, in 1969, they said the school was starting a team, much later than at some other schools like Elkin High.
With the tail end of summer making classroom concentration difficult, one afternoon I gazed out a window to notice that they had just put up goalposts on the East High baseball field. No lines, no bleachers and no lights. Just the goalposts. There was no football field yet. Humble beginnings. I thought it odd to see goalposts on the baseball field.
They eased into football that first fall by fielding a jayvee team only. I had some senior-class friends who went to the first practice and begged to play. They were turned away. Seniors were not allowed.
I felt bad for them, excluded from some good football times due to the accident of age.
They played that first season on Thursday afternoons after school because of no lights. If anyone came to watch, likely they’d have to stand along the sidelines.
But East and North Wilkes arranged to play their season finale at the Elkin High field, odd as that sounds, now as well as then. But it offered the first chance for many folks, including me, to see the guys under the lights, in prime time.
And come they did. The Elkin Tribune at the time called it the “largest crowd of the season.” I was impressed.
So standing in church next to James Barnes I wheeled around. I wanted to shout out: “Hey, everybody. It’s James Barnes. You remember him, don’t you?”
Well, no. It was a long time ago, and East High football then was hardly legend.
But I found a schoolmate who remembered, and he remembered another schoolmate who had actually played.
So we called over to Walter Mastin in a corner, and after a respectful moment or two I left the two old football warriors alone to do whatever old football players do when left to themselves.
East won that first prime-time game, 16-14. In the second quarter a young Walter Mastin stopped a two-point conversion try by the Vikings, holding the deficit to 14-8 going into halftime.
Then in the fourth quarter the Cards marched downfield for a tying touchdown. The winning two-point conversion (we didn’t have anybody who could kick extra points then) was scored on a run up the middle (“blasted over center,” as The Tribune described it) … by a young James Barnes.
As I exited the church I took one last look back over my shoulder at Walter and James, onetime teammates, the first a defensive back, the other a running back, reunited nearly 40 years after being stars of the first big, prime-time game. You’ll have to ask them what they said.
The scene will remain burned in my mind.
All of the glory of East High football earned so far, and all of the glory to come, rests on the foundation laid by Walter and James and their teammates. The Tribune at the time offered “highest praise for instilling the winning spirit in the Birds’ Jayvee grid program.” It’s still there.
East Wilkes football is not legendary. Yet.
But they’re fielding good teams, enjoying the fruits of a good youth program, making playoff runs and marching forward while supported by a Cardinal-red grid heritage that fellow alums and fans admire.
For me, it’s all symbolized by the touching sight of two of the originals, two old warriors standing at a church pew.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.