London’s Friday Football Legend: Burt Barger
It was the fall of 1947 at Valdese High in Burke County, football practice had begun, and rookie coach Burton Barger didn’t have enough boys to scrimmage.
Suddenly, players heard the clomp of cleats as a hulking figure emerged from the locker room. They smelled distinctive cigarette smoke, and they realized it was Barger wearing full gear.
The Valdese boys were bashful about knocking helmets with their coach until he bellowed, “You’d better hit me because I’m going to hit you!”
“Fellows from Valdese told me that story and it’s quintessential Barger,” North Rowan grad and 1965 Lenoir-Rhyne captain Eddie Grissom said. “I think we all lived in fear of him.”
Everyone who competed for Barger at Valdese, North Rowan or Davie County has a story to tell.
Still an imposing physical presence after celebrating his 89th birthday, the Mocksville resident is a living legend. Former players regularly check in on the Lenoir-Rhyne and Davie County High Hall of Famer from as far away as Alaska.
“He’ll call me and ask if I want to go get ice cream,” Grissom said with a laugh. “Then he’ll order a diet coke. He just wants to talk.”
There’s a lot to talk about.
A terrific football lineman and baseball player at Lenoir-Rhyne in the 1940s, Barger built a dynasty at Valdese, produced North’s first football champion, and was the central figure in the rise of track and field in Rowan County and Davie.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Jimmy Shoaf, who played football and excelled in track for Barger at North. “He was real strict, made us run a lot of laps around that old oak tree, but we were lucky to have him. I wasn’t a great football player, but in track, Coach Barger found something hidden inside me that I could be good at.”
Barger’s story starts as one of seven children growing up in a rock house near Bostian Crossroads. His father was employed by the state ó the prison system.
“The chain gangs,” Barger said. “Daddy kept us all straight.”
Burt and his brother, Frank, one year younger, had their scraps. They made each other tougher.
Burt starred in athletics at China Grove High and wanted to go to Wake Forest.
“But our preacher told me, ‘No, you’re going to Lenoir-Rhyne,’ and that’s where I went,” Barger said.
Barger arrived at L-R in the fall of 1939 and was the only freshman to earn a football letter. Frank followed him to Hickory in 1940.
Barger had finished his third football season when bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. He was shipped out to England a few months later.
In the Air Force, he played on elite baseball teams. After the war, he returned to L-R. He was a 26-year-old football captain in 1946 and made All-State. He was all-conference in baseball in 1947.
After graduation, he was playing minor league baseball for the Hickory Rebels when Valdese offered a job.
At Valdese, he was athletics director while coaching football, baseball, girls and boys basketball and track. His football teams were 80-16-4.
Frank accepted a coaching job at Hickory in 1949 and coached there until 1985. His football record was 273-120-5 and earned him a spot in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Frank, also a Lenoir-Rhyne Hall of Famer, died in 1991.
“Frank never beat me in football,” Barger said. “I remember we played them once for the championship. Doug Cline ran 75 yards for a touchdown for us on the first play, and that was that.”
Cline, who starred at Clemson and played for the Houston Oilers for years was just one of the stars during Valdese’s great run.
“There was a time I had 12 playing college ball, and there were two at Tennessee and one at Clemson,” Barger said. “I brought a team down to China Grove and whipped their butts. Then we whipped Billy Barnes’ Landis team.”
Barger and Valdese parted ways in 1958.
“I’d wore out my welcome,” he said. “The football team made a lot of money, but there was never money for any new equipment.
“I spoke my piece.”
North Rowan opened in the fall of 1958 with Barger as head football coach. The Cavaliers went 0-10.
By 1960, North was 6-2-2. In 1961-62, the Cavaliers won 16 games and two NPC championships.
“If you knew how to block and tackle and could run a little, you could beat anybody,” Barger said. Barger got a track and field program rolling at North that set the bar high for all future champions.
He piloted the first of North’s six consecutive NPC track title teams in 1962 and laid the foundation for teams that kept winning under coach Ralph Shatterly.
North ruled WNCHSAA track in 1965, 1966 and 1967.
“I remember Coach Barger and Coach (Walt) Baker making our first hurdles there in the wood shop at North,” Shoaf said. “We always had the best equipment. I was a pole vaulter and we had fiberglass poles before anyone else.”
Barger’s last year as head football coach at North was 1965. He was ready for a new challenge, and Jack Ward offered a job at Davie County. Barger helped with football two years there before focusing on track.
From 1968-83, he coached Davie to five NPC track championships and won WNCHSAA crowns in 1969, 1974, 1975 and 1977. He threw in a pair of cross country championships.
Davie had no facilities when he arrived. At an awards banquet early in his time there, Barger voiced his complaints at length. The following year, he was instructed to limit his remarks to six words.
“Asphalt track, asphalt track, asphalt track,” Barger growled, before he sat down.
Construction on a new track started almost immediately.
He tutored great track athletes at Davie ó Jingles Ijames, Hubert West, Billy Etchinson, Andy Atwell.
West limped after losing the 100 in a meet with Greensboro Page but got little sympathy from Barger.
“Hubert, you know how you unhurt that leg,” Barger barked. “By whipping that guy’s butt in the 220.”
Even Dwayne Grant, Davie basketball’s all-time scoring leader ran track for Barger.
“Dwayne wanted to play baseball,” Barger said. “But I explained to him they weren’t gonna let him steal first base.”
One of Grissom’s favorite tales dealt with Barger taking out the trash after his wife, Sadye, had prepared a big meal for visitors.
There had been a snowfall, and a loud thud followed by several crashes could be heard inside as Barger descended the steps. He was discovered lying in the snow covered with corn cobs and other spillage.
“Burt, did you fall?” Sadye asked anxiously.
“H—, no,” he answered. “I just decided to lie down and cover myself with garbage.”
Barger had been married to Sadye Hauser 59 years when she died last summer.
Their son, Allen, was a great player at Davie, a Shrine Bowler, and like his father, a captain of the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears.
Barger’s life has been storybook, and he’s still a little intimidating ó even at 89.
“Coach intimidated a lot of people, but if you played for him you got to see the other side,” Shoaf said. “He’s got a legacy.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.