London's Friday NIght Legend: Mike Steele
As is usually the case with high school heroes, Mike Steele’s mother kept a scrapbook.
The yellow clippings and blurry black-and-white photos are a source of both amusement and inspiration for Steele’s grandchildren.
“They really get a kick out of it,” Steele said.
His grandchildren live in a world of DVDs and YouTube, so it’s like “Paw Paw” played a thousand years ago.
“Granddaddy, did you have a leather helmet?” they ask. “Did you wear a face mask? Granddaddy, were you any good?”
The correct answers are yes, yes and yes.
When Steele feels nostalgic, he pulls out the three game tapes he had converted from the 16-millimeter reels his high school coach Burt Barger once dropped off at his parents’ home in Spencer. The films reveal a 185-pound bull with some speed.
A 1963 graduate of North Rowan who was as big as most linemen in his era, Steele was the hard-charging fullback for Barger’s first powerhouse in 1961 and the school’s first championship squad in 1962.
Open the North record book and Steele’s name is still there. In a game against Central Davidson, he scored five rushing TDs, a feat never duplicated by a Cavalier.
“Finding that out after all these years is a lot bigger thrill than it was the night it happened,” Steele said. “In high school, I always looked at the Greensboro paper’s state checklist because I’d been in there a few times, and it seemed like guys were always scoring four or five touchdowns. So I had no idea five was such a big deal.”
In the 48 years that have passed since Steele’s career night on Oct. 13, 1961, only two Cavaliers have matched his TD total, and neither did it exclusively on the ground.
J.R. Neely caught five scoring passes in a shootout loss against West Rowan in 1997. Mark Sturgis had four rushing TDs, plus a punt return for a score, in a rout of South Iredell in 2003.
Steele grew up with a passel of athletes in Spencer. They stayed together from first grade through 12th.
Barger had already been a coaching legend at Valdese when he returned to his native Rowan to coach North’s first team in 1958.
Barger’s debut was 0-10. His second year, he won twice. His 1960 team had a winning record. By 1961, the boys in Steele’s class were juniors, monster lineman Robert “Hoss” Myers was a senior and the Cavaliers were ready to make noise.
“Coach Barger believed in the single-wing and blood-and-guts football,” Steele said. “My grandkids tell me now they’re just worn out after a game. They have a hard time believing that we never came off the field.”
Besides playing fullback, Steele usually played cornerback on defense. He punted. He kicked PATs. He returned kicks.
Steele calls Barger one of the great, positive influences on his life, but he was a tough disciplinarian.
“I remember practices, him running us around this old oak tree,” Steele said. “It was about a quarter-mile up and back, and anyone who played for him will remember that oak. You didn’t have to finish the run first, but you’d better not be last.”
Then there was the time Barger, wearing no pads, got down in a stance on the line and started glaring.
“One of our bigger guys asked him, ‘Coach, are we really going full-speed here?’ Burt assured him we were. Then Burt knocked him on his rear.”
Steele won 10 letters at North: three in football, three in basketball, three in track and one in baseball.
“I played a year of baseball, but they made a rule you could only play one sport each season,” Steele said. “I loved baseball, but Burt was the track coach. He said, ‘I got news for ya. You’re running track.’ ”
School flew by. Each athletic season was a bridge to the sport that followed.
“Every day you either had a game or a practice,” he said. “Kids didn’t have time to get into trouble then, and if you spend that much time with someone like Burt Barger, there’s a chance you’ll turn out OK.”
Fueled by their coach’s intensity, North went 9-1 in 1961, with the lone loss a setback to Mooresville.
The game that followed Mooresville was Central Davidson, and the Cavs were in bad mood. They scored seven TDs in the first half and won 59-6. That’s still the most points North has ever scored in a game.
Four of Steele’s TDs came before halftime on runs of 20, 45, 24 and 6 yards. In the fourth quarter, he took his fifth one in from the 25.
“I remember on one TD I just got behind Myers and walked in,” Steele said. “He was so big, I don’t think they ever saw me.”
The Cavs hung out at Wink’s that night, as always, and Steele slept over as planned at a friend’s house.
“There were whispers at Wink’s that I’d scored five touchdowns and some people congratulated me,” Steele said. “But no one made a fuss. I just ate my hot dog.”
Steele recalls all the details of North’s 6-0 win against Davie late that season because it enabled the Cavs to share their first league championship.
“It’s still 0-0 in the last minute, but Davie didn’t want a tie and was throwing,” Steele said. “They threw an interception right in my hands with 30 seconds left, and I returned it about 20 yards. Last play of the game, Mike Lester throws a TD pass to Don Grubb and we win. I can still see Grubb running by their deep man. It was like he never saw him, and Lester threw a perfect pass.”
North was 7-3-1 in 1962, but all the losses were to SPC teams. North finally beat Mooresville and edged Davie 7-6 with Steele scoring North’s TD. The program made its first trip to the WNCHSAA playoffs.
Steele scored three TDs several times, including back-to-back weeks against East Rowan and Winston-Salem’s Children’s Home, and was the Salisbury Post’s Back of the Year while Barger was Coach of the Year.
Steele got a scholarship to N.C. State and planned to follow Barger as a teacher and coach.
He roomed with Jim Donnan, who took the coaching trail, but Steele received an offer from Food Lion and spent his working life opening stores in new frontiers for the chain. One of those stores was in Kingsport, Tenn., and that eventually became his adopted home.
He has three daughters in three states, including one in Salisbury. The grandchildren are growing now, and Steele hopes they’ll love football the way he did.
A knee injury ended Steele’s playing career, but not before he enjoyed one moment of glory with the Wolfpack’s freshman team.
“The first play I was on the field I scored a touchdown,” he said with a laugh. “I wonder if that’s another record.”