Catawba inducts six
By Mike London
Pennsylvania’s Cambria County was rich in athletes, but it was even richer in the coal deposits that fueled the nation’s steel industry.
New Catawba Hall of Famer Joe Popp’s grandfather came from Yugoslavia to the Johnstown area to toil in the mines. Popp’s father was mining coal shortly after he turned 14.
Popp remembers his father getting a promotion to the blast furnace where he sweated gallons and forged steel. He also remembers pitch-black skies in the afternoon from the smoke pouring from the factories.
Popp, one of nine children, was a great athlete, but he may have dug coal or forged steel his whole life if Catawba coach Gordon Kirkland hadn’t offered a football scholarship in 1948.
Popp proved to be a stellar blocking back and safety for the Indians while also helping out the basketball and baseball teams. The education he received led him to the highest level.
Popp coached high school ball at Jonesville, West Forsyth and Mooresville.
He coached the famed 3-D backfield at Mooresville ó Dyson, Doster and Deaton ó and won the NPC championship in 1960 and the WNCHSAA title in 1961. That success was the springboard to assistant posts at North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, and he capped his long career with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
“I got a chance to coach some of the best athletes in the country, but I often wonder what would have happened to me without Gordon Kirkland and Catawba,” Popp said.
The theme of Catawba’s 31st annual Sports Hall of Fame ceremony on Saturday afternoon was opportunity.
Popp’s story was the most dramatic, but Catawba also changed the lives of fellow inductees Herman Helms, Ginger Hamric, Ralph Wager, Charles Little and Tracey Scruggs.
Helms was Catawba’s first sports information director as a student in the 1940s and became a celebrated sportswriter and columnist at the Charlotte Observer and The State in Columbia, S.C. In a 42-year career, he was named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year twice and won a similar award five times in South Carolina.
Helms was a leading boxing writers and a close friend of 1950s heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. Helms, who died last December. was represented by Nancy, his wife of 55 years, and their children.
Hamric, Catawba’s volleyball coach, joins basketball’s Sam Moir and softball’s Nan Whitley as active coaches inducted into Catawba’s Hall of Fame.
“I hope they don’t expect me to retire now,” Hamric joked.
Hamric, who has enjoyed 16 winning seasons and guided Catawba’s first regional qualifier, thanked women’s sports pioneer and 1995 inductee Pat Whitley “for breaking the ceiling” for female coaches. Then she modestly credited her players for all of her 389 wins.
“Like that turtle on a fencepost, somebody helped me get up there,” she said.
Wager, a New Yorker, revived Catawba’s struggling soccer program in the 1980s, quickly turning an 8-42-1 stretch into 91-42-8 and generating feature stories in USA Today and Soccer America.
Catawba scaled unimagined heights in Wager’s tenure, including a win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a victory over Duke’s eventual national champions in 1986.
Wager introduced soccer at Salisbury High, and that led to the county schools establishing programs.
Little, a Pennsylvania native who was a two-way lineman at Catawba in the early 1960s, is well-known as the defensive line guru for head coach Pete Stout. Little molded seven Shrine Bowlers at Boyden and Salisbury, and his pupils included the great Robert Pulliam.
Little was with Stout for a 44-0 run at Burlington Williams and later served under Stout at Catawba.
Little provided stand-up comedy, mostly regarding his wife, Phyllis, who has put up with him since college.
“I am a work in progress,” Little announced, “and progress is slow.”
Little’s tales of using his 50-pound weight advantage to handle his Catawba roommates broke up the room.
Those roommates locked the door to “the study” with him inside and thought it was funny. Little considered breaking down the door with a broad shoulder to escape, but he figured that would require effort. Instead, he used his head and starting taking apart his roomates’ textbooks one piece at a time and pushing the crumpled pages under the door.
“Chapters are going to be coming next,” he cheerfully informed them.
That’s when he heard the door unlocking and heard his roommates scurrying for their lives.
Scruggs, a 6-foot-3 basketball guard who graduated in 1990, enjoyed a career that was proof of Coach Moir’s genius.
Scruggs was a scorer at Mt. Vernon High in Alexandria, Va., and was recruited by Moir, who had gotten solid production from Derrick Tucker, who had also come out of Mount Vernon.
“Coach came up there to watch me play, and he said, ‘Tracey, you can play for us and you might start,’ ” Scruggs recalled.
Scruggs had doubts after he arrived in Salisbury and saw many players who were better shooters.
“We had scorers, but we didn’t have a point guard, so we had to make one,” Moir explained. “Tracey didn’t have great speed or quickness, but he had good size and strength. He turned out to be outstanding.”
Scruggs adapted to Moir yelling at him and was starting at the point by the middle of his freshman year. He stayed there, racking up 1,471 points and a school-record 614 assists.
“All I had to do was throw the ball to somebody,” Scruggs said. “I just thank Coach Moir for finding me and for seeing something in me that no one else had ever seen. He saw something I hadn’t seen myself.”
Moir is in nine Halls of Fame ó North Carolina, NAIA, SAC, Catawba, Salisbury-Rowan, Appalachian State, Oak Ridge, Mount Airy and most recently, Surry County ó so he discovered a lot of players.
It was a special day for Catawba athletics, as legends such as Stout, Moir, Jack Taylor, Joe Ferebee, Vern Benson and Tom Childress, who is in four Halls, gathered for food and fellowship along with outgoing president and former football player Robert Knott.
Childress paid respects to late Hall member James Brown, a basketball great who passed away last fall.
The Post’s Horace Billings was recognized for six decades of coverage, and William J. Rendleman, Class of 1940 and the oldest Hall member present, took a bow.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.