Friday Night Legend: Johnny Miller
Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2011
SALISBURY — The infamous loss South Rowan suffered on Nov. 18, 1977, still lingers like a dull backache, but the sun came up the next morning, like always, and guard Johnny Miller and his teammates moved on.
“I’ve watched that game film a hundred times,” said Miller who played football for the last time in the Raiders’ numbing 8-7 playoff loss at South Caldwell. “What happens never changes.”
The 51-year-old Miller is now operations manager for 12 Food Lion warehouses. After turning down several football offers and a baseball scholarship from Joe Ferebee at Pfeiffer, he joined the work force right out of high school. He started at rock bottom with the grocery giant, but the ethics instilled by South head coach Reid Bradshaw and assistant Larry Deal always served him well.
Miller and Deal go way back. They lived in close proximity behind the Highway Patrol station.
Deal umpired Miller’s Little League games. Miller was a star pitcher — Greg Poole who would grow to be the standout for South’s great 1977 team — was always Miller’s catcher.
When Miller was at China Grove Junior High, Deal, South’s offensive line coach, was a frequent visitor to check on the troops. While Miller was still a ninth-grade Red Devil, Deal told him he’d be counted on to play varsity for South as a sophomore.
Those words put Miller on top of the world, and he worked that much harder.
Bradshaw got South rolling in 1974. South played its first postseason game in 1975 and was stout again in 1976, Miller’s junior year. He was an all-county guard.
Change came in 1977. The era of the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association was over, and South was part of the NCHSAA. South also switched leagues. After four years in the NPC, the Raiders were in a new-look SPC with unfamiliar foes.
The winning continued. South had one of the stingier defenses in school history. The offensive line had beef, with tackle Floyd Hicks weighing 235 and Miller checking in at 227.
A dynamite backfield featured halfbacks Poole, Lonnell Dunn and Rick Richardson, fullback Mike Baucom and quarterback Stan Frye.
There were games in which South never had to throw a pass. Frye was a wishbone wizard. School records were shattered. South scored 28 points per game — unheard of for the conservative Raiders — and the backfield accounted for over 3,000 yards.
“That team executed the wishbone as well as anyone has ever done it,” Miller said. “We were just so well-prepared for every opponent. We had everyone scouted. We knew exactly what we needed to do.”
South lost early 19-14 to 4A A.L. Brown, but the Raiders attracted statewide respect from the media after they hammered Forest Hills, the No. 1 team in 3A, 34-6 on Sept. 30. The Raiders smothered Forest Hills back Jimmy Tyson, who was headed to the Shrine Bowl and the ACC.
South took a 7-0 struggle with Concord the next week to take command of the SPC. By the end of the regular season, the Raiders stood 9-1 and owned an eight-game winning streak.
South was ranked third in 3A when it tangled with No. 5 Lexington in the first round of the playoffs. County player of the year Poole, a future All-ACC cornerback at UNC, demolished the Jackets (25 carries, 171 yards) in a 27-7 victory. Top-ranked Shelby and No. 2 Cummings both lost in the 3A playoffs that same night. When the Greensboro Daily News rankings came out, South was No. 1 — with a clear path to a state championship.
South took its 10-1 record to unranked South Caldwell, a brand-new school in Hudson that had lost its first two before winning nine in a row.
“To understand what happened up there, people have to know the conditions,” Miller said. “There was no grass — it was like playing on a baseball field. The scoreboard clock wasn’t working. That was important. The officials tried to keep communication on the time with the captains throughout the game, but it was a bad situation. Not saying anything dishonest happened up there, but it was tough.”
It was scoreless for three quarters.
Finally, Poole broke a 42-yard run. Then he blasted for 11 yards on a crucial third-and-5. Frye scored on a sneak from the 1. Miller was the kicker. His PAT gave South a 7-0 lead.
South Caldwell answered with a 60-yard, 15-play drive for a touchdown. Halfback Tony Smith got the score. Then he got the ball on South Caldwell’s try for a two-point conversion.
Smith got stopped cold in the cold. He was pushed back 4 yards. Miller, who played defense in goal-line situations, winces at the memory.
“We’ve got him completely stopped — and turned — facing the other way,” Miller said. “I’ll still swear up and down I heard a whistle.”
Officially, there was no whistle. In desperation, Smith flung the ball back to quarterback Donnie Kirkpatrick. He ran the ball in, and South players and coaches were flabbergasted when refs signalled the two points counted.
There was barely a minute left.
Now trailing 8-7, South converted a fourth-and-32 on receiver Alby Stamey’s 36-yard completion to tight end Darren Strickland. Frye fired passes to Dunn and Stamey to move the ball to the SC 28. Officials informed both teams there were eight seconds left.
After an incomplete pass, a South assistant tossed the kicking tee to Miller. Frye would hold. The field goal would be almost 45 yards, on a frosty night, a daunting task for a high school kid, but Miller had the leg for the job.
“I’d have made it,” he said. “I’d done it before. I would have made it.”
He didn’t get to try. There had to be two or three seconds left, but an official was waving his arms, declaring time had expired. Dazed South Rowan players shook hands and walked away in disbelief. Then they had to move on.
Miller has had a great life. His son, Dalton, played center for East Rowan. Dalton ended his career last fall with an emotional win against South Rowan.
“That was so bittersweet,” Johnny said. “I still love South. I’ll always love my coaches and my team.”