Friday Football Fever: London’s Legend: Larry Wagner
On Sept. 19, 1959, North Carolina and Clemson, performed the college football equivalent of the Daytona 500.
The two teams expected to battle for the ACC championship collided on opening day at Kenan Stadium.
North Carolina’s star halfback Wade Smith was from Albemarle, and he was brought down several times by Clemson nose Larry Wagner, who was also playing guard on offense.
“I tackled Wade on the sideline, and when he rolled over, he said, ‘Hey, I know you,’ ” Wagner recalls.Smith and Wagner had played together on the winning North Carolina team in the 1955 Shrine Bowl. After a quick round of how-ya-doings they both went back to work.
Wagner’s toil on that emotional day ó North Carolina’s first outing after head coach Jim Tatum died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever ó included a game-changing sack of UNC quarterback Jack Cummings when debuting Tar Heels coach Jim Hickey went for it on fourth down at the Clemson 9.
Frank Howard’s Clemson Tigers won that game 20-18 ó and went on to take their second straight ACC championship.
Wagner, a fellow they called “Bugs” when he was growing up in Spencer, was the first and last from Spencer High to play in the Shrine Bowl. He graduated in 1956, and Spencer and East Spencer were consolidated to form North Rowan in the fall of 1958.
“We were the Spencer Railroaders, the only school in the state with that nickname, and we were proud of it,” Wagner said. “We were a little school playing bigger schools like Asheboro and Statesville and Lexington, but we pretty much held our own.”
Wagner led Spencer to a respectable 3-4-3 mark as a senior. Losses to China Grove, Children’s Home and Statesville were decided by the Railroaders’ problems with PATs.
As a 5-foot-11, 215-pound tackle, Wagner was a rare All-State pick from Spencer, and he joined Smith, China Grove’s Carl Drye and Boyden’s Tom Page and Ronnie Bostian on the 1955 Shrine Bowl squad that beat South Carolina 19-13.
In the summer of 1956, he helped the West beat the East 26-19 in the annual all-star affair. He’s also the only Railroader to play in that game.
Wagner was such a local phenom that prominent Spencer citizens wanted to see him attend the right school. The “right school” meant Wake Forest.
“Spencer was a Wake Forest town, especially in the days of the railroad,” Wagner said. “It was different back then and you just kind of signed everything that came to you. When I changed my signing to Clemson, some folks were pretty unhappy.”
He competed on strong teams at Clemson with legends such as Harvey White, Bill Mathis, Doug Cline and Lou Cordileone. His most vivid memories are of “Big Thursday” when the state of South Carolina practically shut down for the State Fair and the annual grudge match between Howard’s Tigers and South Carolina’s Gamecocks.
“We always played them in Columbia because of the fair, and I remember we always stayed outside of town in Batesburg,” Wagner said. “That’s because Coach Howard said he wouldn’t even let his watch stop in Columbia.
“We’d come in for the game on a charter bus, and both sides of the street would be yelling at us. We were devils or angels. One side of the street was cheering. The other side of the street was giving us the finger.”
Wagner was an outstanding player. Howard stated in one newspaper story Wagner and Dave Lynn were the best set of guards he’d ever had at Clemson, and Howard had taken the reins of the Tigers in 1940.
The biggest game Wagner played in was the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against undefeated LSU.
LSU coach Paul Dietzel had already been presented the Associated Press’ national-championship trophy the night before the teams met on Jan. 1, 1959. LSU was a two-touchdown favorite over the 11th-ranked ACC champs, but Howard declared it would be his “hungry Tigers” against LSU’s “fat Tigers.”
It was a classic defensive struggle decided by a wayward snap on a punt that handed LSU the ball at the Clemson 12 late in the third quarter with the game still scoreless. On third-and-8 from the 10, LSU put the ball in the hands of Billy Cannon, a 9.4 sprinter who would win the Heisman in 1959.
“That was their base play, the toss sweep to Cannon, and we’d stopped it the whole game,” Wagner said. “But this time, he pulls up and throws a pass.”
Mickey Mangham caught the ball, and LSU won 7-0.
Wagner eventually withdrew from Clemson and headed to Appalachian State. His idea of being an engineer had been replaced by a dream to become a teacher and coach.
Marvin Miles, who had been his basketball coach at Spencer, gave Wagner his first teaching/coaching job at Rohanen High in Rockingham.
In May, 1963, Wagner returned close to home when East Rowan principal Derwood Huneycutt hired him as football line coach, jayvee basketball coach and social studies teacher.
In 1965, Wagner became East’s head football coach, and he was 12-7 in a short but successful, two-season tenure. He led players such as J.C. Bernhardt, Don Yost and Dan Beaver and won five of six county scraps with South, North and West. The lone loss was 14-13 to South in 1966.
“The North games meant a lot because for me that was going home,” Wagner said. “What I remember most though is the year we beat South (19-14 in 1965) because South’s coach Lope Linder was such a class act. His guys played hard and tried to beat your butt, but he was a gentleman.
“The year we beat them, the teams are shaking hands and he walks up and hands me the gameball. He was the veteran coach and I was the young coach, so that meant a lot. I never forgot it.”
Wagner left East to become an assistant principal at Northeast Guilford, but the coaching bug never quite went away. He was hired at West Stanly in 1973 to teach social studies and to assist with the football team, and he found a permanent home at the school in Oakboro.
Thirty-five years later, he’s living in Albemarle and still working with West Stanly linemen. That’s through ups, downs, realignments, coaching changes and even his own official retirement from teaching in 2003.
It’s still special for him to tackle Rowan teams. He remembers the 1995 Yadkin Valley Conference regular-season finale in which West Stanly pushed an undefeated Salisbury powerhouse to the limit before losing 21-14 on a screen pass.
He also got a kick out of taking on the undefeated Hornets this season, although the Colts (3-6) aren’t as strong as usual. His impression of the Hornets: “quick and good.”
He’s stayed in coaching so long because there’s always a chance of seeing a really special one come through, and Wagner had that opportunity when current UNC linebacker Quan Sturdivant wore the green and gold of the Colts a few years ago.
“The best athlete I’ve ever been involved with,” Wagner said.
At West Stanly, they also believe Wagner, the school’s teacher of the year in 1986, is something special.
Monday’s makeup game with South Stanly was Senior Night, and honoring Wagner for decades of service with plaques and pictures was part of the festivities. Now 71, the former Railroader is still going strong.
“Sometimes I see Johnny Brown from my East Rowan days out there officiating, and he always says, ‘Wow, you’re still around?’ ” Wagner said. “I always answer, ‘Yep, still around.’ ”
His coaching commitment is year-to-year now, but he still loves the game and a man who played for Frank Howard has knowledge to offer.
“I like working with the kids, and as long as it’s fun I’ll be out there,” he said. “In football, even the bad seasons are good.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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