West's Sloop one of the good guys
MOUNT ULLA — Labe Sloop sounds like one of the black-hatted outlaws Marshal Matt Dillon used to out-draw and fill full of lead on the streets of Dodge City, but Sloop is one of the good guys.
A veterinarian who works in Mooresville, Sloop was an integral part of West Rowan’s first good football team. Coach Bruce Morton’s 1967 Falcons (8-1-1) were the first winners at a school that opened in 1959.
Sloop started both ways as a halfback and DB in 1966 when the Falcons traveled to Reidsville. West returns there tonight for the first time in 45 years.
West won just 19 games in its first seven seasons, and 1966 didn’t look all that promising, either. West was opening at South Rowan. Not only had the Falcons never beaten coach Lope Linder’s Rebels, South had shut them out five straight times.
“It was quiet on the bus ride to South,” Sloop said. “I heard one of the assistants whisper to Coach Morton, ‘Lope won’t embarrass us, will he?’ ”
West’s 20-0 win caught everyone off-guard.
“We had farm kids and teachers’ kids,” Sloop said. “Coach Morton was no-nonsense, not real fiery, at least not until the straw broke the camel’s back. He was very meticulous. He was great at planning and preparing. We just had to execute.”
Reidsville was next.
Reidsville, like the rest of the South’s towns in 1966, still had an all-black school and a white school where integration was still on hold or had begun as a trickle.
On Sept. 9, 1966, as West’s bus made the ride north to play Reidsville’s white school — the Golden Lions — the bus carrying Reidsville’s black team must have passed the Falcons, while headed in the opposite direction.
Reidsville Booker T. Washington — the Bulldogs — played that night in Salisbury against coach Fred Ponder’s J.C. Price Red Devils. Price won 30-20, with Donald Graham and Lonnie Childers scoring two TDs apiece.
In 1966, Sloop knew little of Reidsville’s tradition.
“All I remember is our old bus would only do about 35 miles an hour, and it was a long way to go,” Sloop said.
Once West got there, it fumbled the opening kickoff and was lucky to get back to the 5. But the Falcons drove 95 yards. Sloop had a 36-yard run, and Randy Keeler’s pass to Roger McSwain finished the scoring drive.
“Roger was the go-to guy,” Sloop said. “If we needed a first down or a touchdown, we looked for him. He was West’s first Division I athlete (N.C. State).”
It was a defensive struggle from there. Lots of three-and-outs. The Falcons’ defense held. West won 12-0, with its other TD coming on a pick-6 by Butch Young.
The star was a West sophomore lineman named Kenny Lowrance. Reidsville had the ball two-thirds of the time, but when West coaches watched film, they realized Lowrance made 16 tackles.
Sadly, West missed a PAT and lost 7-6 to its biggest rival Mooresville to open NPC play the next week. It went downhill from there.
But 1967 was different.
“There were just 22 of us,” Sloop said. “When we got off a bus somewhere we looked more like a big family than a football team. But we had some size, averaged about 200 pounds on the line, and a lot us experience.”
The season started sourly when quarterback Bobby Sherrill blew out a knee in the final intrasquad game.
But David Morgan stepped in at quarterback and directed a super season. Sloop and Young piled up rushing yards. McSwain caught passes. West scored an unheard of 104 points in its first two games.
“It was exciting for the community,” Sloop said. “It was kinda like Star Trek. We were going where the school had never gone before.”
The only blemishes were a tie with North Davidson and a loss to North Rowan. The Falcons finished with five straight wins but that 20-7 loss to the Cavaliers cost West its first conference championship and a WNCHSAA playoff berth. West was 6-1-1 in the NPC, but North Davidson was 6-0-2.
“We just went to sleep that night against North Rowan,” Sloop said. “And only the league champions went to the playoffs then.”
West would have to wait 33 years for that elusive conference championship.
Team captain and student body president, Sloop had a fine senior season. He was All-NPC and all-county as a defensive back, but the 1968 Falcons lost five of their first six in Morton’s final season.
“If we scored a touchdown, there was a penalty,” Sloop said. “We had talent. It was always the little things.”
A 7-2 early loss to East Rowan knocked the wind from West’s sails. Leading 2-0, West had first-and-goal in the fourth quarter, but a flag pushed the Falcons back. C.M. Yates and Johnny Yarbrough pulled it out for East, which would win its first NPC crown.
West won its last four, but 5-5 is never a goal.
Football was over for Sloop. He finished school in Georgia, came back home and started a family. His daughter, Jenny, played basketball and softball for the Falcons a decade ago. His son, Phillip, played on Scott Young’s first West team.
“The 3-8 team,” Labe says with a laugh.
West football wins often now and it remains a factor in Sloop’s life.
“We’re not going to Reidsville because I won’t be able to get away from work in time, but my wife and I don’t normally miss West games except for weddings and funerals,” he said. “We’ve seen all three state-championship games.”
And the best moment?
“What tickled me was that first conference championship in 2000 — even more than the state titles,” he said. “I was just so happy for (former principal) Henry Kluttz. I know how much he wanted a championship. I’m glad those kids gave it to him.”