Friday Night Legends: Snapping back with Stanback
by Mike London
As West Rowan phenom K.P. Parks rolled at South Rowan last Friday, comparisons began with Nick Maddox, who terrorized A.L. Brown opponents a decade ago.Talk of Maddox led to memories of Haskel Stanback, who frequently put the Wonders on his shoulders from 1967-69. Old warriors who tangled with Stanback nominated him as the best in Brown’s history. That’s saying something, because the Wonders also produced Pro Bowler Ethan Horton. Stanback, now a citizen of Roanoke, Va., and a prosperous 56-year-old executive with Norfolk Southern, modestly remarked such praise from former opponents “makes an old man feel pretty good.”
Stanback starred in the 1969 Shrine Bowl and was Tennessee’s Outstanding Player in the 1973 Gator Bowl. He scored 26 TDs for the Atlanta Falcons and rushed for 2,662 yards in six NFL seasons.
He grew up in the Bethel area of Kannapolis at a time when segregation was losing its grip on the South.
His earliest football efforts were in his grandmother’s backlot. He started organized ball at Carver, Kannapolis’ black school, and he entered A.L. Brown as a sophomore in 1967.
“Coming over to Brown took some adjustments,” Stanback said. “We had coaches (notably Benjamin Dupree) who came over with us from Carver, but there were a lot of kids who had played at Carver that didn’t want to play at Brown.”Stanback played ó and starred. He was about 180 pounds when he debuted, but still growing. He ran with gliding grace and power, and he was physical. His hero was Jack Tatum, Ohio State’s rugged defensive back, and Stanback preferred defense to offense.
During his time at Brown, the Wonders were pretty good (18-10-2), and he was special. He posted four-TD games in the rugged SPC and made 21 trips to the end zone his senior year.
Surprisingly, Stanback remembers the struggles with Lexington more than those with Concord.
“There was a heated rivalry with Logan (Concord’s black school) when I was at Carver because the towns were so close together, and that naturally carried over to Brown and Concord,” Stanback said. “But I knew of the Concord players more than I actually knew them. They kind of didn’t come our way and we didn’t go down there.”
Lexington was WNCHSAA champ in 1967. Its lone loss was to Brown. In 1968, with Lexington bent on revenge, the Wonders tied the Jackets 14-14 thanks to an 85-yard run by Stanback.
Stanback’s senior year, the Wonders knocked off the Jackets again.
“We kept coming back in the fourth quarter and I was scoring touchdowns,” Stanback said. “The thing I really remember is my uncles bickering back and forth in the stands with the Lexington fans. Just the ebb and flow of it all. The family thing added a little flavor.”
By November of 1969, a genuine recruiting war had broken out for Stanback’s signature. His timing was good. Even the traditionally all-white Southern schools had begun to recruit exceptional black athletes. Georgia Tech and Tennessee joined Ohio State as finalists in the competition.
Ohio State coach Woody Hayes wined and dined Stanback and his mother. The Buckeyes were Tatum’s school, so they were the clear frontrunner.
Stanback’s dream was to follow Tatum in the Ohio State secondary, but his official visit changed his mind.
“It was the first time I’d been on a plane, and when I flew out of Charlotte it was 60 degrees,” Stanback said. “I got to Columbus, we’re about to land, and I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s that white stuff all over the ground?’ ”
It was a brutally cold with snow flurries. Stanback crossed Ohio State off his list.
Georgia Tech was warmer, but the engineering school had a tiny percentage of females. That was not good news for Stanback, who figured he’d meet the future Mrs. Stanback in college.
“Bobby Dodd was the athletic director,” Stanback said. “I asked him where the girls were. He told me to pick out a few and he’d recruit them too.”
Tennessee coach Bill Battle won the Stanback sweepstakes in part because of the efforts of Volunteer boosters from Concord and Kannapolis.
“They called me out of class one day to come to the guidance office,” Stanback said. “I’m wondering, ‘Uh, oh, what did I do now?’ ”
He was greeted by two busloads of cheering Volunteer fans.
“They had these mason jars full of ketchup,” Stanback said. “They said they’d give up blood if I’d come to Tennessee. It was corny, but it worked.”
He never got to play defense, but in 1972 and 1973, he was Tennessee’s main ballcarrier. He rushed for 1,572 yards and scored 20 TDs those two seasons.
Besides his heroics in the Gator Bowl, games with Alabama and Penn State stand out in his memory.
He rushed for 133 yards against the Crimson Tide, but mostly he remembers the battle his teammate, Salisbury’s Robert Pulliam, had against Alabama All-American John Hannah.
“It was a hot day, and Robert had them icing Big John down at halftime,” Stanback said. “He wore him out.”
In 1971, Tennessee handed Penn State, which had Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell, its only loss in a December game in Knoxville.
The teams were contractually obligated to meet again in Knoxville in September, 1972, but Penn State coach Joe Paterno said his team would not play that game in the Tennessee heat.
That statement led to the installation of lights at Neyland Stadium, and Stanback rolled in Tennessee’s historic first night game against the Nittany Lions.
“They came down with John Cappelletti, and we thumped them again,” Stanback said with satisfaction.
On perhaps his most memorable college play, Stanback stabbed a dangerous pitch from QB Condredge Holloway with his left hand on second-and-goal at the Penn State 9 and ran over tacklers to the 2. He scored the clinching TD on the next snap.
The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Stanback on the fifth round in 1974. He’d have gone higher, but he was in the hospital with the second broken wrist of his career.
“I didn’t have an agent,” he said. “San Diego tried to call me during the third round, but they couldn’t find me.”
Cincinnati played Atlanta in an exhibition game, and the Falcons saw enough that they worked out a deal with Paul Brown for him.
He stuck with the Falcons from 1974-79. His best season was 1977 when he rushed for 873 yards and added 261 receiving yards.
He remembers the bitter rivalry games with New Orleans and cherishes his games against the Washington Redskins because he’s been a Redskins fan all his life.
He also remembers the individuals.
“We’re playing the L.A. Rams and Hacksaw Reynolds ó he’s a Tennessee guy ó is digging in my ribs after a tackle,” Stanback said. “The whole time he’s yelling, ‘Yeah, Big Orange.’ ”
After the NFL, Stanback spent three years in sales before his Transportation and Logistics degree from Tennessee led to working for Norfolk Southern. He’s steadily advanced up the ranks.
He met his wife while at Tennessee when he was sitting in a lounge nursing his injured wrist.
“I told her she didn’t know it yet, but it was her lucky day,” Stanback said.
Somehow that line worked, and the Stanbacks produced two daughters.
Both are both UT graduates.
“I just feel very blessed that I had the ability to go out and compete with the very best,” Stanback said. “Playing in the NFL was one heck of a feeling.”