Friday Night Legend: East's Dennis Sellers

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:42 p.m.

He was an offensive lineman who became a scoring phenom, and he's the answer to a pretty good trivia question - namely, who led Rowan County football in scoring in back-to-back seasons while playing for two different schools?
The correct answer is Dennis Sellers, and, yes, it's a trick question. Sellers starred as a junior for the Granite Quarry Dragons in their final football season of 1958, and he also shined for the East Rowan Mustangs in their 1959 debut, after school consolidation brought the Granite Dragons together under one roof with their fiercest foe - the Rockwell Rockets.
"It was weird because Rockwell was our rival," said the 70-year-old Sellers. "It was a lot like China Grove and Landis combining into South Rowan a few years later."
Sellers played center for Granite Quarry in 1957, while his older brother, Dick, starred as Granite's fullback and competed for the coveted Rowan County scoring title.
"We graduated a lot of players off that team, so our coach, Hal Quinn, had to move people around for 1958," Sellers explained. "He made me the fullback."
Granite was 8-2 in 1958, losing only to Mount Pleasant in the regular season and sharing the Granite Belt Conference championship with Hartsell and Mount Pleasant. The Dragons' other loss was in the playoffs against Bessemer City.
Sellers scored 104 points to lead the county. Boyden's Ken Owen had paced the entire state in scoring in 1952 with an unheard of 144 points, but, for the most part, 100-point seasons were quite rare.
North Rowan had opened in 1958, and East Rowan and West Rowan both got started in 1959. Quinn was East's first coach, and he started adding players from an 0-9-1 Rockwell squad to the stout athletes that had played for Granite Quarry.
The schedule the Mustangs played in 1959 was one of the strangest hodge-podges in history, not unlike the odd schedule Carson had to play when it opened in 2006.
East played North Surry for the only time ever in 1959 and it also took on many small schools, such as Greensboro's Rankin High.
"We killed those teams and had some outlandish scores," said Sellers, who played linebacker on defense. "We just had bigger, tougher guys than they did, and we were well-coached. Quinn was from Catawba and he brought over Catawba players to help him out. We got a lot of free coaching."
East beat Troy 67-13, Norwood 62-7 and Haw River 62-6. That rout of Troy remains East's single-game scoring record.
North Rowan, West Rowan and Mount Pleasant were able to compete in reasonable losses to East, but no one ever solved the Mustangs' 5-4-2 "Oklahoma" defense.
"You really didn't have to worry about teams passing much," Sellers said. "And we had nine guys to stop the run."
East lost its opener 13-0 to Winston-Salem Children's Home.
"We won by a lot in the stats and should've won the game," Sellers said. "Just one of those nights."
That was East's only setback. The Mustangs finished 9-1. The '59 Mustangs scored 394 points while allowing 82 and they are still the highest-scoring team in East history. Sellers scored 103 of those points, nosing out several teammates for his second straight county scoring title.
Quarterback Gary Kepley, halfback Gilbert Bernhardt, tackles Coy Fink and Garland Gudger and center Lavon Page joined Sellers on the all-county team.
There was only one thing wrong with that season.
"They'd forgot to put us in a conference," Sellers said. "So we didn't get to go to the playoffs."
Sellers, Kepley and Gudger were all courted by North Carolina.
"We'd get free tickets to all the Carolina games," Sellers said. "We were fat cats, living the life."
Kepley was a junior in 1959, and he would transfer to Salisbury Boyden for his last high school season before heading to Clemson.
College coaches told Sellers and Gudger they needed to see them play more games against quality competition. Both opted for prep school at Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee.
Army coaches saw Sellers play for Castle Heights and told him that if he could get an appointment, he would be welcomed on the football team at West Point.
Coach Paul Dietzel, who had won the national championship at LSU in 1959, had accepted the challenge of restoring Army's program to the national prominence it had enjoyed in the 1940s under coach Red Blaik.
A knee injury limited Sellers' college career, but he worked his way on to Army's travel squad and contributed as a backup linebacker.
There were back-to-back incredible Army-Navy games in 1963-64, and Sellers had the privilege of playing in the 1963 game.
"That one ended with Navy guys laying on the ball at the 2-yard line, and we couldn't stop the clock," Sellers said.
Those years featured matchups of Navy's Heisman-winning QB Roger Stauback against Army's less celebrated but equally great QB Rollie Stichweh. Navy, which was competing for national titles, barely prevailed in that 1963 game played in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. That was the first college game to feature instant replay. Army would stun the Midshipmen in 1964 behind the heroics of Stichweh.
Sellers was in the locker room in May, 1962, when players were ordered take off their pads and report to the mess hall to hear a talk by a fan who had come to see Army's spring football game.
That fan was General Douglas MacArthur, and the talk he presented without notes was his famous farewell speech.
Two years later, when the general died, Sellers' unit marched in services held for him in Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, Va.Sellers wanted to fly after his four years at West Point, but his eyes let him down.
"My eyesight had deteriorated from all those nights under the blankets, studying with pinlights," Sellers said.
He spent his military service working on weapons systems, met his wife in California, and went to work for Bank of America.
Banking led to a transfer to Charlotte years ago, and that gave him a chance to resettle in Rowan County.
Sellers is pleased that East is having a successful season.
He was surprised to learn that he's still remembered after five decades, but back-to-back scoring champions should never be forgotten.

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