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Takedown: Boyden wrestlers recall 66-match winning streak

By Mike London

Salisbury Post

Boyden High wrestler Bill Troxler’s brain realized he was beaten, but his body refused to admit it.

It was Jan. 21, 1965, and Troxler, trailing by two points with four seconds remaining in his 165-pound match with Burlington’s “Dummy” Sykes, was too exhausted, too battered to scramble to his feet.

There was only one chance.

Troxler, who had spent half the third period with his shoulders inches from the mat, crawled on hands and knees in dogged pursuit of an opponent preparing to celebrate.

“I grabbed him around the back of the ankles,” Troxler said, “and he fell.”

The unorthodox tackle counted as a takedown, good for two points. Troxler had managed a draw against a dominating wrestler, and a rowdy gym exploded.

“Everyone was jumping up and down, but I couldn’t hear a thing,” Troxler said. “It was like watching a movie with the sound turned off. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

Four decades later, Troxler can still visualize that moment. His divine-intervention draw was the turning point in Boyden’s 24-20 victory over unbeaten Burlington.

It was also Boyden’s 24th straight victory in a staggering streak that reached 66 matches before the Yellow Jackets were finally subdued by North Rowan on Jan. 4, 1968.

The streak began quietly on Jan. 2, 1964, with a much easier win over Burlington and was kept alive, match after match and year after year, by dozens of determined Yellow Jackets.

It was the consummate team streak. During a run that claimed four consecutive championship banners in the 4A Central Conference, Boyden produced state runners-up, but no individual state champions.

Boyden won team sectional titles in 1965 and 1966, but the highest it placed in a state tournament was a tie for seventh.

In 1967-68, Boyden left the state association for the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association. The long streak ended on that team’s watch, but it still finished third in the WNCHSAA behind champion North Rowan and Statesville.

Boyden’s streak came out of nowhere because the school’s wrestling program didn’t always attract the school’s top athletes. Many wrestlers — like Troxler — were kids cut from basketball tryouts.

“I was a very casual athlete. I had to balance wrestling with smoking,” Troxler said with a laugh. “I hated the grind of practice and trying to make the weight.”

Other Boyden wrestlers were football players trying to stay in shape. Or they were diminutive kids like Bruce Rufty, who had grown up idolizing Boyden champion Freddy Lee.

“I weighed 85 pounds as a freshman and coulda put bricks in my pants and still wrestled at 98,” said Rufty, a 1966 sectional champion. “Other than wrestling, how was someone my size going to get a varsity letter?”

The head coach throughout the streak was the late Jack Turney, a baseball All-American at N.C. State and the winner of the 1960 Western Carolina League batting title.

Turney’s assistant early in the streak was Joe Lukazewski, a student teacher who had wrestled at Appalachian and whose knowledge gave Boyden an edge.

As the streak rolled on, assistants Larry Beightol, now offensive line coach for the Detroit Lions, and Charles Little made their own contributions.

What Turney knew about the finer points of wrestling probably could have been written on one of those yellow legal pads he carried around, but it didn’t matter.

He was born to coach.

As Tom Gillis put it, “even the trees listened” when Turney had something to say.

“Coach Turney’s love was baseball, and he more or less got drafted to be the wrestling coach,” Gillis said. “Coach never knew that much about wrestling, but he was a great coach as far as motivating and discipline. He was one of those people who could convince you that you could do anything.

“There were no individuals, no prima donnas around Coach Turney — he just wouldn’t have it. He didn’t care if you were the state champ the year before. That didn’t mean you’d be wrestling that night if you didn’t do things right.”

Turney regarded the local pool hall run by Rufty’s uncle as out of bounds for athletes. Four of Boyden’s regulars — Rufty, Gillis, Richard Johnson and the wonderfully named Jack Frost — were enjoying a game one afternoon and were stunned to see Turney walking briskly in their direction.

“We had a match that night, so there was no practice and we were fooling around,” Gillis recalled. “Then here comes Coach. Bruce Rufty dove under a pool table. I ran into the bathroom and climbed up on the commode. We all hid, and Bruce’s uncle tried to cover for us, but we were caught.

“It was an important match that night, but none of us were allowed to wrestle.”

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Boyden hadn’t won a wrestling state title since 1942 so no one was thinking about streaks when the 1963-64 season started. Boyden had produced a 7-6-1 record the previous season.

“We were just fumbling and flopping and trying to get each other in headlocks,” Troxler said.

The season began with a win over East Rowan, a 28-27 loss to Goldsboro and a draw with Central Conference opponent R.J. Reynolds.

No one could have dreamed it, but Boyden wouldn’t lose or tie again for a very long time.

Rufty claimed a forfeit to get things started against Burlington in the first match of the new year. Johnson, John Carlton, Pritchard Carlton, Wayne Wood and Jay Hardister won bouts, and the streak was under way.

Down-to-the-wire struggles with High Point Central and Greensboro Grimsley raised the winning streak to five. Then road wins started piling up, as proud parents car-pooled the Yellow Jackets to away matches.

When Boyden rallied from a 6-0 deficit to nip Grimsley 22-20, the streak stood at a dozen matches and Boyden had clinched its first conference title in any sport since the football team won the 1957 state championship.

The 1963-64 team finished with a 14-1-1 record and 13 straight wins and took the crown in the inaugural Rowan County tournament.

Don Weinhold was a state runner-up. Boyden placed 14th in the state tournament.

After that success, even Boyden’s casual wrestlers got serious and traded in cheesburgers and fries for orange slices and boiled eggs.

“I remember Rick Reynolds went to a wrestling camp in Pennsylvania, and he came back and showed us what he learned,” Troxler said. “We started teaching each other, and then the ones that came after us. Then the streak just sort of took off on its own.”

By 1964-65, the intra-squad challenge bouts for the right to wrestle had become as intense as the Tuesday and Thursday league matches. Wrestlers that got bumped dropped weight and tried to find someone else they could beat to fight their way back into the lineup.

Winning so many close matches led to confidence and a refusal to let teammates and coaches down even when things looked hopeless.

“We had some pretty good athletes, but the biggest thing was we were at our very best when it came time to perform,” Troxler said. “Take Tom Gillis. When he first came out for wrestling, he was just pathetic, and I could’ve tied him in knots. But he had the most determination of anyone I’d ever seen, and he became a very good wrestler.”

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Boyden’s 1964-65 team had few close calls outside of Troxler’s shining moment against Burlington.

The streak grew. So did the attendance. The cheerleaders started showing up to fire up huge crowds.

“When the streak started, it was just our parents, maybe 30 people watching,” said Rufty, legendary for his ability to chew gum and spit away a pound on the way to a match. “But the match with Burlington, they counted something like 800 people.”

Gillis, a fine football player, believes wrestling crowds were probably bigger than football crowds during that rocky time for Boyden’s gridiron program.

Boyden finished 18-0 in 1964-65, and the streak stood at 31 matches. Boyce Stephens had a sensational season. Reynolds and Frost won sectional championships and led Boyden to the team title.

The Yellow Jackets tied for seventh in the state tournament.

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Matches always proceeded from the smallest class to the largest, and Boyden broke in several newcomers at the lighter weights in 1965-66. That led to some early deficits as those wrestlers gained experience, but the Yellow Jackets always came back.

They rallied from 16-6 against Lexington for their 36th straight win. Trailing 15-3, they overcame West Forsyth for No. 37.

Boyden flattened unbeaten Greensboro Smith in a showdown for No. 38.

The streak appeared over when Boyden, seeking to make it 40 in a row, fell behind R.J. Reynolds 21-9. But the Yellow Jackets won 28-21 after John Kesler and Mark Hart closed the match with heart-stopping pins.

No. 43 was draining. It came down to the final match against Greensboro Smith, and Boyden needed not just a win from the hefty Hart, but a pin. Hart had his opponent’s shoulders on the mat by the end of the first period, and Boyden fans celebrated a dramatic 25-24 victory.

Boyden finished 17-0 with a third consecutive conference title and a second straight sectional championship. The streak was at 46.

Rufty, Butch Brown, and David Troxler, Bill’s brother, won sectional titles. Reynolds, who had brought those holds back from Pennsylvania, was state runner-up.

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Boyden wasn’t quite as strong in 1966-67 — second in the sectional, 25th in the state tournament — but the team won 17 straight matches under Turney and Little.

Charlie Leonard remembers Boyden’s 1967 yearbook was dedicated to Turney and his wrestling program.

“I thought I was a basketball player,” said Leonard, a nephew of North Carolina football legend Johnny Branch. “But I was the smallest guy in the school, so they recruited me for wrestling. I was so small, I wouldn’t even go in the wrestling room until the coaches got there because I knew I’d get picked on.”

But Leonard was good. He helped Boyden continue its streak through 1965-66 and 1966-67.

“Coach Turney and Coach Little worked us hard,” Leonard said. “I dreaded all the running. You didn’t lift weights then, but we did calisthenics and lots of pushups. I thought Coach Turney was a heck of a coach. He kept everybody in line. There wasn’t much baloney.”

The streak reached 50 against North Forsyth. No. 60 came against West Forsyth.

Boyden finished the season with 63 straight wins, but the biggest story was the near-tragedy on a Saturday morning in February when Turney’s car skidded off an icy highway as he was hauling two wrestlers and two managers to the sectional tournament in Winston-Salem.

Turney’s car plunged down a 30-foot embankment and rolled several times. When the motion stopped, Turney called out the names of his passengers one by one and was relieved to get an answer from each of them.

The wrestlers in Turney’s vehicle — Tim Smith and Karey Clark — were rescued by another car in the convoy and made it to their matches.

Turney, who suffered rib and stomach injuries, missed the sectional, but he lived to see the streak stretch a little more.

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Leonard knew the 1967-68 season would be challenging.

“We’d lost a whole lot of people,” he said.

Boyden rallied behind Clark, Summie Carter and Frank Miller to beat East 28-24 opening night.

The Yellow Jackets beat East again for No. 65 but needed a pin from Rick Ridenhour in the final match.

No. 66 was easy, a romp over Hickory, but the first match after the calendar turned to 1968 brought an end to the streak. Boyden lost at home to North Rowan 35-13.

“All I remember is it wasn’t close and North had a very strong team,” Leonard said. “It was pretty rough.”

North coach Ralph Shatterly’s team would go on to post an undefeated season and would win the WNCHSAA championship.

The wrestlers who began the 66-match streak were in college, Vietnam or the work force by the time it ended.

Gillis, who went to Gardner-Webb on a football scholarship, has fond memories of the streak and fonder ones of the coach who engineered it.

“In college, I never had two nickels to rub together for spending money,” he said. “But whenever there was a book I had to buy, there would be a $10 bill folded up in an envelope in my mailbox. There was never a name, but I knew where that money came from.

“Coach Turney was a special man.”

Turney joined Boyden’s staff in 1959, served as Rowan County American Legion coach for five seasons and became Boyden’s athletic director in 1968. He continued in that capacity after Boyden made the transition to Salisbury High.

Turney died of a heart attack in 1980 when he was 46, but the 66-match streak lives on in the memory of every wrestler who sweated for him.

“We just knew we were gonna win every match,” Bill Troxler said wistfully. “It was a magic-carpet ride.”

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Contact Mike London at mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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