Mike London’s Friday Night Legend – Spencer Railroaders of 1924
Octavius Coke Godfrey Jr. passed away 25 years ago, but O.C. and his teammates on the 1924 Spencer High Railroaders remain a part of Rowan County’s football heritage and an integral piece of Duke’s gridiron history.
Salisbury’s biggest Duke fan, Dr. Clyde Young, reminded us that Duke is now celebrating the 80th anniversary of the opening of a facility we now know as Wallace Wade Stadium.
Two Railroaders were in the backfield for the 1929 Blue Devils. Halfback Robert “Flop” Beaver, best known for his punting, scored Duke’s first TD in the stadium, while fullback O.C. “Ock” Godfrey spearheaded Duke’s first win.
Seven Railroaders made All-Western or All-State in 1924. The 8-2 squad set two marks that still stand ó one for most nicknames, another for most blocked kicks.
Left tackle Paul “Tanker” Dorsett blocked nine punts that season, including four against Gastonia. Dorsett’s record is safe for all-time.
Ralph “Buttercup” Barker was the Railroaders’ marquee offensive threat.
The Burdette brothers, quarterback Roy and end Boyd, answered to “Big Tube” and “Little Tube” for reasons we may never know. There was “Buss” Albright, Ed “Flossy” Deadmond and Charles “Babe” Ellis. Lloyd “Skinner” Pierce was the state’s top defensive end.
Somehow Robert Bickett avoided a nickname, but it didn’t prevent him from making All-Western North Carolina.
The Burdette brothers were typical Railroaders. Their father, T.R., was raised on a South Carolina farm but headed for Spencer with the idea of being a railroad man. He lived his dream as an engineer with his hand on the throttle. His duties in four decades spent with Southern Railway included transporting presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
Quite a time was had by sports fans in 1924. Electric starters and electric lights had elevated the automobile into general use. Fans had money and another way to travel to games. In baseball, there was Babe Ruth and Negro League phenom Nip Winters. In golf, there was Bobby Jones. There was Jack Dempsey in boxing, Johnny Weissmuller in swimming and Bill Tilden in tennis. In college football, the man was Illinois back Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost.” They don’t make nicknames like they used to.
Locally, Spencer’s football team was the rage, even though only 16 Railroaders were in uniform. Fortunately, there were always men working at the Spencer shops. Able bodies could be found to raise the numbers to the necessary 22 for a vigorous scrimmage.
The 1924 Railroaders were 5-1 in the regular season,with four shutouts, including a 62-0 romp against Mount Airy.
Schools of all sizes competed for the state title. When the playoffs began, Spencer roughed up Concord in the first round. That set the stage for Spencer’s huge game with rival Salisbury Boyden in the second round.
The schools had started playing each other in 1922. Boyden won the first one. Spencer won in 1923.
Both schools wanted home-field advantage for the playoffs. Neither would consent to play on the road.
Finally, they settled on Lexington as a neutral site, and 3,500 fans made the trip across the river. They saw “Buttercup” Barker take over, dashing 95 and 80 yards for touchdowns in a 13-0 victory, the biggest in Spencer history.
Spencer advanced to the third round and a rematch with High Point, the only school that beat the Railroaders during the regular season. This time it was no contest. Spencer won 40-0.
Spencer traveled to Charlotte and lost the Western final to Shelby. Shelby, in turn, lost the state title game to Rockingham 7-0, but the Railroaders could claim they were one of the state’s top four teams.
They went their separate ways after that. At least three Railroaders ó “Big Tube” Burdette, Bickett and Ellis played at N.C. State.
Godfrey and Beaver became roommates at Duke. Duke was affordable then. Tuition was $150.
College football was booming as a spectator attraction in the South. After Duke officials had to turn away fans who couldn’t get seats for the 1927 Duke-N.C. State game, plans to build a larger stadium moved to the top of the priority list.
The football facility was constructed in a year’s time. When it opened, at a cost of $330,266, it was the showplace of the South.
Godfrey had earned a starting job in 1928 until he busted a knee in an auto accident. He was healthy for the 1929 season. Duke opened on the road at Mercer, and Godfrey ran for a TD in a 20-6 win.
The new stadium was dedicated on Oct. 5, 1929. Duke’s game with national power Pittsburgh, accompanied by parades and bands, drew 20,000 on a drizzly day.
Most agree that’s the event in which Duke’s “Blue Devil” mascot made his debut, complete with pitchfork, horns and tail.
Duke coach Jimmy DeHart’s team was overmatched despite having famous folks in its backfield, including future Duke coach Bill Murray and QB Kidd Brewer. Brewer went on to coach at Appalachian State. The stadium in Boone is named for him.
Duke trailed Pitt 52-0 when Spencer’s Beaver pulled in a 55-yard pass from Sam Buie for the Blue Devils’ first score in their brand new stadium.
The Pitt loss launched a four-game skid, but Godfrey ended it when Duke played its second home game Nov. 9. It was Duke’s Southern Conference debut against LSU. Godfrey scored three TDs, including Duke’s first one, in a 32-6 romp.
Godfrey received All-State accolades in 1929.
Duke’s stadium became a historic venue. The 1938 Iron Dukes didn’t allow a single point in the regular season.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Rose Bowl, set for Jan. 1, 1942, shifted coasts to Durham. Dr. Young was a Duke freshman then and still remembers details of a painful 20-16 loss to Oregon State. Young also remembers the visits made by UNC and Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice that generated the largest crowds ever at Duke in 1947 and 1949.
Growing up in Spencer, Young watched the Spencer-Boyden games, usually attending with his father and Godfrey, his father’s cousin. But Spencer never beat Boyden after that epic 1924 matchup.
Godfrey served in Europe as an Army Air Corps officer in World War II. “Little Tube” Burdette was in the U.S. Navy and gave his life in the Pacific.
The 1924 Railroaders left behind a thousand stories.
Here’s one more. The 1927 Wake Forest-UNC football game was decided by a Railroader. Wake won 9-8 because “Tanker” Dorsett stormed through to smother an extra-point try by the Tar Heels. Apparently, he never got tired of blocking kicks.