Friday Night Legend: Ron Raper Part II
Ron Raper’s amazing journey through Rowan athletics required two parts. This is only the second time in 11 years it’s happened. The first two-part Legend was China Grove and UNC’s Clint Eudy several years ago.
Summarizing Part I, Raper’s college playing career ended as an Elon freshman with a knee injury in preseason practice. His dream was coaching, but he gave it up, thinking you couldn’t coach if you hadn’t been a college player. Pete Stout, Raper’s high school coach, got him back into football as a scout, Raper finished school at Catawba, and after a year as graduate assistant at Catawba, he joined Stout’s Salisbury staff in 1974.
“Charlie Hellard was wanting to give up baseball and Bobby Pharr was wanting to get out of football, so they offered me a position coaching the baseball team and as a football assistant coaching linebackers and defensive ends,” Raper said. “We were pretty blessed. I coached James Wright, Tony Leach, David Gibson and Erwin Solomon. All four were all-conference. All I had to do was not mess them up.”
Stout and Raper spent many planning periods polishing footballs, and that Salisbury team went 11-2. The Hornets beat Thomasville, Mooresville and Shelby to win the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association championship.
Stout’s brilliant 10-year run with Boyden and Salisbury teams (83-20-10) ended after the 1975-76 school year.
Stout’s next challenge would be as head coach at Burlington’s Walter Williams High, and loyal staffers, including Charlie Little and Raper, made the move with him.
“People said Williams didn’t have the athletes to win,” Raper said. “But what we found at Williams were smart kids and great kids. Not a lot of college players, but good high school players. We’re playing Lexington one game and Joe McIntosh (who would star at N.C. State), and McIntosh is so tough that after the first four plays our best linebacker walks over to the sideline and his helmet is turned sideways on his head. I’m thinking it’s going to be a long night, but our kids hung in there and we beat McIntosh.”
Basically, they beat everybody. There was a stretch from 1979-82 in which Williams won 43 straight games. There were 3A state titles in 1980 and 1981.
Raper also coached baseball at Williams and learned a valuable lesson.
“My first year we had two good senior pitchers, we went 17-4, and I was coach of the year,” Raper said. “The pitchers graduated, and we went 4-17. I got the lesson early on that it’s players that make you a good coach.”
Stout’s overwhelming success in Burlington made people back in Salisbury certain he was the guy who could rescue Catawba football. So Stout and his staff took charge at Catawba. It didn’t work out. There was progress, but four years netted only 13 wins.
“That first year (1983) at Catawba we were 0-9-1, and that’s a big pill to swallow after winning 43 straight,” Raper said.
In 1987, Stout headed to Morganton for more high-school coaching glory at Freedom. Raper stayed in Salisbury, working as the AD at Knox Middle School.
In 1988, Raper returned to the high school ranks at East Rowan, assisting W.A. Cline, the architect of the Mustangs’ legendary 13-0 1969 season. That was a 2-8 team, but one of the ‘88 Mustangs who impressed Raper with his intelligence and work ethic was Scott Young, who would become a major figure in county sports history.
“You could tell even then that Scott was going to be a coach — and a good one,” Raper said.
Raper’s own football head-coaching opportunity finally came in 1989 when he was hired to lead West Rowan.
“It was different,” Raper said with a laugh. “When I got to West we had two footballs — and one was flat. “But there were some good football players in that part of the county. There was a night against Central Cabarrus we held Natrone Means (who starred at UNC and in the NFL) to under 100 yards, and I don’t believe anyone else did it that year. The assistant coaches at West were great. They never asked when they had to go to work. They just wanted to know what needed to be done.”
Raper coached a back named Lamont Smith, who he believes is one of the more underrated players in county history.
“He could fly,” Raper said. “I coached track also, and I remember a meet where Lamont, North’s Benny Geter and Concord’s Jay Graham all ran 10.6 in the 100.”
He would lead the Falcons seven seasons. His best year produced a school-record nine wins in 1994. That mark included an epic 34-30 second-round playoff loss against North Rowan, the school where Raper’s daughter, Kristina, was a cheerleader.
Raper’s daughters Kristina and Kelly were growing up at North, and there came a point where Raper decided to put family ahead of football.
“I enjoyed my time at West immensely,” Raper said. “But I just felt like I was missing a lot of family things with (wife) Janice and the girls.”
In 1996, Raper joined Roger Secreast’s staff at North. He helped the Cavaliers win a lot of football games.
“I had a chance to work with outstanding coaches,” Raper said. “Roger was a great innovator, and W.A. was a great motivator. Pete was unbelievably well-organized. He knew where everything in his program was, down to the last shoestring.”
Raper was much more than a football coach. Besides baseball and track, he’s the one who got North’s swimming program into the water. One of his swimmers was Sallie Hundley. She’s gone on to coach a lot of sports, including swimming, at North.
Just when Raper thought he’d done everything, he became Carson’s first athletics director. It was Raper who tabbed Mark Woody to be the Cougars’ first football coach.
“When I was at Catawba, I went to Durham to recruit Mark, and they told me he was in the woods with a compass with his outdoors class, and they weren’t sure when, or if, he’d be back,” Raper said with a laugh.
Woody returned. Raper successfully recruited him.
Years later, Raper went after Woody again, and Woody coached Carson football for its first seven seasons.
“I wish they’d had more success, but Mark was the right coach to start that program,” Raper said. “To be able to lose as much as they did early — and for him to still not lose it — that took a special kind of patience. I thought he did a great job.”
Raper spends a lot of time baby-sitting grandchildren now. His cheerleaders have grown up with families of their own.
Raper also serves as a member of the Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame committtee. He’s worked at five of the county’s six high schools, so there’s no one better qualified to select Hall of Famers. And when you stop and think about it, Raper has had a Hall of Fame career of his own.
“Wherever I go, someone says, ‘Hey, Coach, how are you doing?’” Raper said. “And that always makes you feel pretty good.”