Karl Lankford: Super fan, super friend

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
It’s pretty easy to be a fan of a football team that has won 46 games in a row, but Karl Lankford has been a West Rowan High fan for richer or poorer, since he played tight end on the football team there more than 30 years ago.
“I wish we’d have been that good back when I played,” Karl says.
If you’ve been to many Falcon games, you’re bound to have seen Karl.
“Karl Lankford does not miss a football game, at least not as long as I can remember,” says West Rowan coach Scott Young. “Karl’s a great guy and a big supporter.”
His mother, Norma Lankford, agrees.
“He is just eat up with football,” Norma says. “He does not miss a ball game. He’s a West Rowan boy, from heart to toe.”
He drives to the games if they’re close. If they’re not, he won’t rest until he finds a ride.
Tim Wilhelm went to high school with Karl’s older brother and has also known Karl for many years.
“He’s the biggest football fan West Rowan has ever had,” Tim says. “There’s nobody who comes to a West Rowan football game who doesn’t know Karl. He’s sort of an icon for West Rowan football.”
He’s the guy in the stands who’s greeting everyone with a big smile, clasping hands or hugging. He’s the one who is always glad to see you, who always has a kind word, who always makes eye contact, who’s probably going to extend his knuckles for you to bump.
But he’s going to have to be careful with those bumps now, otherwise he could do some serious damage.
That’s because his fist is considerably heavier now, weighted down by a championship ring with his name inscribed on it.
Last Saturday night, as West Rowan team members and coaches were presented their rings by head coach Scott Young, Karl’s name was also called. As he made his way slowly to the front— he has some mobility issues from a life-altering car accident many years ago — he received a standing ovation.
The evening’s speaker, Catawba College football coach Chip Hester, could have been speaking of Karl when he voiced his desire that the players would act like champions off the field as well as on.
“My hope is that you’ll make a difference, that you’ll be a championship friend,” he said. “Life is about relationships; it’s about friendship.”
And that’s a lesson that Karl, with his enormous collection of friends, both at West Rowan and at the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA, has already learned.
After the presentation, one of those congratulating Karl was Jim Haire, who is on the board of directors of the West Rowan Booster Club.
Jim has known Karl since he was just a boy.
“We think the world of him,” Jim says. “I love him like a brother.”
Pat Phifer attended West Rowan and remembers playing football in middle school with Karl.
Karl played football at West Rowan High School from 1978-1980, his first three years of high school. A part-time job prevented him from playing his senior year.
“He was so funny and outgoing, one of the most fun people to be around and just a genuine good person,” Pat says.
The summer after Karl graduated in 1981, his life changed dramatically.
Karl’s mother explains. After picking up his tuxedo for his older brother Kenneth’s wedding, Karl went to the home of his girlfriend, who was giving a birthday party for a friend. Karl was driving a Camaro that his older brother had fixed up for him, and he and a friend left the party to go check out the friend’s car.
On the way back, they had an accident, and both of them were thrown out of the car.
Karl sustained a severe brain injury as well as other injuries and spent the next four months in the hospital.
As a result of his injuries, her son has faced many challenges, Norma says.
“But I thank the Lord every day for Karl,” she says. “He has really been through the rough. But you can’t dwell on it.”
Karl has dealt with the hardships very well, she says.
Despite what he went through, Karl’s essential nature was unchanged after the accident.
“He’s still one of the most loving, best-natured people I know,” Pat says. “He’d do anything for anybody, still.
“If we had more people like Karl Lankford, the world would be a much better place.”
Karl, Pat says, never once complained about the accident or how it changed the course of his life.
After Karl returned home, his father, M.L. Lankford, who was a nurse at the V.A. hospital, would take Karl to the pool at the old Salisbury Y for therapy. Eventually, Karl was offered a job there.
That was back around 1982, and Karl has been a fixture at the Y ever since. He works in the maintenance department and swims there almost every day. He started the Y’s recycling program and is passionate about keeping things out of the landfill.
He’s known for driving a red truck, which he uses to pick up some members of the Y who can’t drive, including 87-year-old Joe Riley, one of his best friends. Karl and Joe eat together four days a week.
“He talks to everybody,” says Ester Marsh, who has worked with Karl at the Y for many years.
Karl does a rather astounding job of recalling people’s names, and he also has a knack for remembering their birthdays.
When it’s Karl’s birthday, Ester says, someone will tell him there’s a mess in the kitchen that needs to be addressed; when he arrives to clean it up, they surprise him with a party.
“He’s very special,” Ester says. “The Y would not be the same without him.”
Sandy Flowers, the Y’s executive director, agrees. She’s been working with Karl for almost 30 years and says he’s an ambassador for the Y.
“Everybody knows Karl, and everybody loves Karl,” Sandy says. “He helps build relationships, and that’s what the Y is all about.
Karl tends to keep the same routine. Before he leaves the Y every day, he calls his mother at home to ask if she needs anything. Sandy says that Karl never fails to tell her he loves her before leaving for home.
“The Y is his family,” Norma says.
“It’s been good for me,” said Karl Wednesday as he made his maintenance rounds at the Y, emptying trash cans, picking up bits of paper and, of course, greeting members and co-workers.
“It’s changed my life.”
Whether he’s at the Y or at a football game, Karl makes his presence known by making others feel special.
“Everyone who meets him ends up loving him,” says Debbie Blume, who lives just down the road from Karl and Norma.
Norma would agree that Karl collects friends easily.
“I tell people he knows everybody in Rowan and surrounding counties,” she says.
At the games, “he knows everybody a-comin’ and a-goin’, and if he don’t, he don’t mind asking.”
Karl like to talk about the Falcons’ winning streak, but Norma warns him: “You better brace yourself for when they lose.”
“That’s gonna be a sad time,” he tells her.
Whether or not West Rowan wins or loses, Karl will still have his friendships, which mean the world to him.
“People are really important to him,” Norma says.
And when it comes to the importance of human relationships, “Karl understands more than most people.”