Friday Night Legend: Ricky Childers
Ricky Childers played cornerback, safety, linebacker, quarterback, running back and wideout at South Rowan.
Still, football was only the third-best thing he did.
“I say third-best because Ricky was a better student than he was a football player and a better person than he was a student,” said Rick Vanhoy, who coached Childers at South.
Childers, 25, died Oct. 22 in a drowning accident in the Dominican Republic. He was visiting his older brother, Darryl, a health volunteer with the Peace Corps.
Darryl and Ricky were separated by only two years and were best friends. They were teammates at South and Davidson College.
Darryl was strong and solid, bulking up to 225 pounds at Davidson. He set sack records and earned All-America honors. Ricky, blessed with the speed in the family, was an All-Pioneer League defensive back in 2005.
Bad news travels fast, even across international borders. Within 24 hours of Childers’ death, his ex-teammates and coaches knew. The unwelcome information struck hard.
“Ricky touched my life, touched a whole lot of lives,” said current South coach Jason Rollins, an assistant when Childers played for the Raiders. “This school and this team were floored. Ricky was one of the best student-athletes we’ve ever had.”
Rollins bumped into Childers’ father, Chris, a few weeks ago at Wal-Mart.
Chris, who played guard for Pete Stout’s Salisbury teams in 1972-73, was bursting with pride. His three children had made the right choices and earned college degrees. His two sons had smoothly juggled the heavy demands of Davidson academics while serving as football captains.
Darryl had joined the Peace Corps. Ricky was a Wells Fargo project manager with a brilliant future.
“When I ran into their dad, he was smiling ear to ear, talking about those kids,” Rollins said. “That’s a great family, very strong folks. Your heart just goes out to them now.”
When Darryl arrived on South’s varsity, Vanhoy’s football program was struggling.
There was a bad stretch in which the Raiders lost 25 of 30 games, but the Childers brothers helped produce a turnaround. South beat West Forsyth, R.J. Reynolds and Mount Tabor on consecutive weeks to close the 1999 season and make the playoffs.
Ricky was a sophomore that year. He picked off five passes, two against Davie. Both brothers made all-county. It was Darryl’s second selection and the first of three all-county honors for Ricky.
“Which brother was better? It’s hard to say,” Vanhoy said. “All I know is we got on a pretty good run there, and they were two of the best we had.”
In 2000, Ricky’s junior season, South was 8-3 and shared the CPC championship. The Raiders beat West Rowan in an epic, two-overtime game, as Ricky threw two TD passes. South hasn’t beaten West since.
Ricky, quiet and unassuming by nature, was still a leader of the student body. He ran track, played basketball, excelled in the classroom.
“He was a role model, someone who made our school better,” said Dr. Alan King, principal at South when Childers was a student. “I recall I was counseling several kids in the hallway about some inappropriate behavior. They told me, ‘Ah, Dr. King, everyone is doing it.’ Then Ricky walks by. I said, ‘Well, Ricky Childers isn’t doing it.’ There was a long pause, and then one of those boys said to me, ‘Well, Ricky’s different.’ ”
He was different. He had 4.5 speed combined with a 4.0 GPA. Tennessee, North Carolina and Clemson showed serious interest as he headed into his senior season. He was on Stanford’s recruiting list ó and pretty high on it.
Had one or two elite corners not said yes to Stanford, he may have ended up in California. Instead, he followed his big brother to Davidson.
His senior year at South, Childers picked off four passes for a team that went 8-5 and shared the CPC title.
“It was amazing to watch Ricky,” Vanhoy said. “He had that great disposition and that easy smile during the week, but when Friday came he would just rip it up. You could put him at a corner and he’d hold it down. You didn’t have to worry about his side.”
Childers had an 81-yard fumble return for a TD against North Rowan and scored an offensive touchdown in a playoff victory against McDowell.
“Ricky was All-CPC twice, and the most disappointed I’ve ever been over an all-conference meeting was when he didn’t make it his senior year,” Vanhoy said. “You go into those things with a couple of guys you’re sure of and a couple more you hope make it. Ricky was one I was sure of.”
As a freshman at Davidson, Ricky returned his two picks for 82 yards and made 23 tackles.
He suffered a serious knee injury his sophomore year. All he could do then was cheer for his brother. Darryl played for both of them, producing 11 sacks. He still shares the school record.
Healthy again as a junior, Ricky returned to the secondary and made 72 tackles.
Tripp Merritt, introduced as Davidson’s new coach in June of 2005, was delighted to have Ricky for his senior year. Merritt already knew the Childers family well. As defensive coordinator, he had recruited Darryl for Davidson in 1999.
Ricky produced a strong senior season for the Wildcats ó 52 tackles, two picks and all-league honors. His final game, he led a win against Georgetown, forcing a fumble and making five stops. Then he entered the banking industry, but his free time was poured into helping others.
“Ricky grew up in a small community in China Grove and saw some tough situations first-hand,” his father said. “He was a religion major and could hold you for hours in conversations on religion or philosophy. He was very passionate about the plight of the homeless. He volunteered with many organizations.”
Ricky offered a hand to Big Brother, Men’s Shelters and the Citizen School Program.
Right now, his family is huddled together, determined to push forward.
“It is a very tough thing to have to bury your child,” Chris Childers said. “But in time, we hope we can cope with this tragic accident.”
There’s been an outpouring of support from South and Davidson. Merritt learned about Childers’ death last Friday, a day before the Wildcats played host to Drake.
“We lost a man who epitomized student-athlete,” Merritt said. “Ricky was hard-nosed, he loved football and he loved to study that game tape. He was a student of the game. His contagious smile, the way he drew people to him, his great passion for life will always be remembered.”
There was a moment of silence for Childers prior to the Davidson-Drake game. The Wildcats took the field wearing “RC” decals on the back of their helmets.
In his pregame address to his team, Merritt spoke about Childers and talked about losing a member of the family. Only a dozen or so Wildcat coaches and players knew Childers personally, but everyone in the room was moved.
Finally, Merritt pointed at No. 3, Brandon Sykes, a cornerback from Georgia who wears Childers’ old jersey number.
“I told Brandon to go out and represent that number,” Merritt said. “And he did. We played very hard. We came up a little short, but Davidson played in a manner Ricky would’ve been proud of.”
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