Friday Night Legend: Eddie Kesler
SALISBURY — There’s tough, and then there’s Eddie Kesler.
During a routine physical after his playing days, a doctor surprised Kesler with the question, “When did you break your collarbone? No, wait a minute, you broke it twice.”
“First I’ve heard about it, Doc,” Kesler said, and he wasn’t kidding.
Kesler ignored the pain of broken collarbones at UNC. Hurting was just part of the job description when you’re the lead blocker in a power running game.
The 10 broken noses he received during his career, he was aware of. It wasn’t hard to look in a mirror.
That arm he broke, he also knew about.
Kesler, a 1960 Boyden graduate and Rowan Hall of Famer, was one of the top athletes in local history. He held the career hoops scoring record for Boyden and Salisbury for 32 years before Bobby Jackson broke it. He was a superb baseball player, but football is what he was born for.
He came along at a golden time at Boyden, with Bill Ludwig coaching and George Knox, Bobby Crouch and Eddie Julian — all future college players joining him in the backfield. Kesler played tailback on offense in Ludwig’s single-wing and was essentially a cornerback on defense.
“Coach Ludwig was an icon,” Kesler said. “He was a control-type person, demanded respect — and deserved it. He knew football fundamentals, and he was able to teach them. He had the best eye I’ve ever known for seeing everything that was happening on a football field. He had vision second to none. If a play wasn’t working, he’d analyze it and analyze it until it worked.”
Boyden had won a 3A title for Ludwig in 1955. After dropping off to 6-3 in 1956, the Yellow Jackets began slowly in 1957, Kesler’s sophomore year, tying A.L. Brown and losing at Wilmington, which had Roman Gabriel firing passes, to slip to 1-1-1. Kesler picked off one of Gabriel’s passes.
“Knox was sick early that year and that hurt us,” Kesler said. “Gabriel didn’t dominate, but it was hot and muggy and we didn’t score when we needed to. But we did find out we could play with the Gabriels, and we started to come together.”
The Yellow Jackets didn’t have huge numbers for a 3A school, but they were loaded.
“We had talent, and Coach Ludwig was good at managing it,” Kesler said. “He kept everything in a team situation. We had no stars. Someone different stood out every Friday. Everybody had their night, and that worked well for us.”
Boyden slaughtered Charlotte Central right after the Wilmington setback and started to roll. The Jackets took seven straight to win the Western Conference.
They expected a rematch with Wilmington, but Fayetteville emerged as the Eastern champs and traveled to Salisbury to play for the title. Boyden flattened the visitors 21-0 in adverse weather conditions. Crouch, the lightning-fast wingback, broke two long scoring runs on reverses and rushed for 171 yards. Kesler plowed for 67.
“That game was all about the rain and the cold,” Kesler said. “Both teams had offenses that were kind of 3 yards and a cloud of dust, and that night, it was 3 yards and a cloud of mud. The difference was Crouch on those reverses. Knox took the snap, faked it to me, then gave it to Crouch coming around. On that field, once a defender took a step in the wrong direction, it was over.”
Kesler was All-State in 1958 and 1959 and All-America as a senior when he rushed for 912 yards and passed for 762. He set a school career total offense record of 4,199 yards that lasted until John Knox broke it last fall.
He captained the 1959 North Carolina Shrine Bowl team and played both ways.
He captained the West team in the 1960 East-West All-Star Game and was voted MVP. He played only defense the first half.
“Coach (Red) Wilson said there was a guy from Pisgah that Duke was there to scout, and he wanted him to play tailback the first half,” Kesler said. “Duke offered him a scholarship at halftime, so I played both ways in the second half.”
Kesler had pro baseball offers, but his father insisted that he get an education.
He decided on UNC, mostly because it was the state university, and became part of a deep talent pool that included future NFL stars Ken Willard, a running back, and Chris Hanburger, a center and linebacker.
Kesler was a major component in UNC’s magical 1963 season that culminated with a 35-0 rout of Air Force in the Gator Bowl. He scored a TD in that game.
The 215-pound Kesler and the 220-pound Willard both were essentially fullbacks, but coach Jim Hickey played them together, using as his model the lethal Green Bay Packers combination of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. Mostly, the gifted Willard, who also starred for UNC’s baseball team, piled up the yards. Kesler did the blocking.
Kesler was so good at what he did that ACC coaches voted him the The Jacobs Blocking Trophy, symbolic of the league’s best blocker. He was the first back ever to win the award.
Kesler played some on defense for UNC and picked off four passes. He also earned a place in school history in the final game of his career against Duke on Nov. 21, 1964.
“Duke’s defense was very spread out,” Kesler said. “Willard and I lined up as split backs and I carried as much as he did. On that day, we were both running backs.”
The Tar Heels rushed for 315 yards, including an astounding 172 by Kesler, who had 779 for his college career. Willard gained 107, marking the first time the Tar Heels had two 100-yard rushers in the same game. Kesler broke the single-game school rushing record that icon Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice had owned since 1946.
Kesler’s often-damaged nose led to health issues, but the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the 14th round and liked his future as a blocking fullback.
“But I’d finally gotten my nose fixed, and my doctors said I’d be stupid to play with it,” Kesler said. “I left after one game.”
Kesler’s life didn’t slow down much. There was a 6-0 tour as offensive coordinator for UNC’s freshman team, two years in Viet Nam as Lieutenant Kesler and a long career in the building business.
Kesler returned home last Friday, along with many of his 1957 teammates, and was honored at Ludwig Stadium as a champion.
Needless to say, he still looked tough.