Friday Night Legend: Connia Watson
Sixty years have passed since J.C. Price, school that served Salisbury’s black students from 1922 until 1969, won its last football state championship in 1952.
But the handful of survivors from that undefeated team are still Price Red Devils at heart – and still proud every time Salisbury High takes the field with red as one of its colors.
One of those survivors is Connia Henry Watson, Jr.
Watson, 76, has lived his post-Price life in Durham. When he entered the Price Hall of Fame this year, it made Price’s 1952 backfield 4-for-4 as far as Hall of Fame membership. Watson was the left halfback. George Alexander was the right half. Ernest “Mr. Touchdown” McCray was the fullback. William Hickman was the quarterback.
“There’s such a rich history from Price over the years,” Watson said. “There’s a great legacy, and you hope the young people will always remember.”
Watson will never forget Price. The teachers and coaches there shaped his life.
He’s been retired many years now from a successful career with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in 1898, N.C. Mutual was one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the U.S. and remains the largest black-managed insurance company in the country.
Watson’s insurance career wouldn’t have happened without an assist from the wife of his high school coach. Watson played for Spencer “Prof” Lancaster at Price, and it was Lancaster’s wife, Abna, who literally drove Watson to a college education.
“For most of our starting 11, there were college scholarship opportunities, even in 1952,” Watson said. “I had agility and speed, but I was a little guy and didn’t really want to play college football. But Abna Lancaster put me in her car and drove me to North Carolina College at Durham (now known as N.C. Central). I filled out the applications and received a scholarship. I owe a lot to both Lancasters.”
Watson majored in math and chemistry in college. He still ended up in insurance, following in his father’s footsteps, but he never regretted it.
While Mrs. Lancaster, who was Watson’s English teacher at Price, was responsible for him going to the college, it was the legendary “Prof” Lancaster, who molded him into a young gentleman, scholar and athlete.
“Prof” taught science in his classroom. On the field, he taught life as well as football. He was quiet, he was strict, and he was serious.
Price won 80 percent of its games from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s under Lancaster. That was not necessarily because Price had superior athletes, but because it was better prepared and more disciplined than the opposition.
“Even 60 years later, playing for him is still memorable,” Watson said. “We were strong and we were disciplined. Everyone knew all their blocking and defensive assignments firmly, and “Prof” was a master tactician. It was always about the team, never about the individual, and the team was successful.”
Price used the T-formation offensively, with Hickman under center. They ran the power sweep with precision and power.
Those same dynamic athletes that started on offense also played defense. Watson was a cornerback.
Price enjoyed its last great run from 1950-52. The Red Devils went undefeated in 1950 and were the Western N.C. champs, but they fell to Raleigh Washington in the 3A North Carolina High School Athletic Conference championship game.
Price went 6-0-2 in 1951. That’s the year McCray earned his “Mr. Touchdown” nickname by scoring nine TDs in a three-week span against Kings Mountain Lincoln, Statesville Morningside and Mt. Airy Jones. Price crushed Jones 70-0.
Price and Hickory Ridgeview were co-champs in Western North Carolina in 1951, but commissioner W.T. Armstrong ruled to send Ridgeview to the 2A state championship game. Lancaster didn’t whine about it, as several Red Devils were injured in scoreless battles with Lexington Dunbar and West Charlotte. But the Red Devils always will believe they would’ve won that state championship. Ridgeview dropped a close one to Nash Training School.
Lancaster scheduled Ridgeview for a regular-season game in 1952. Both teams entered it 4-0, but Price destroyed Ridgeview 48-0, with lineman … yes lineman, Jesse Ormond sprinting 75 yards on a punt return for the final touchdown.
“As I recall, we had a tremendous defense that year,” Watson said.
That recollection is accurate. Price was scored on just twice in nine games. The first was in an 18-6 battle with Lexington Dunbar. The second time would be in the frigid, late-November 2A state championship game against Tarboro Pattillo that should never be forgotten. Price won 13-7.
“We played most of our games at Livingstone,” Watson said. “But if it was a really special game we’d play it at Boyden’s field. That one was at Boyden.”
That field is the one the Salisbury Hornets still play on, and Price had every excuse to falter in the title game because it lost its great quarterback, Hickman, in the first half. He was ejected for unnecessary roughness for a hit he made on defense.
When Hickman’s backup couldn’t move the team, Lancaster tapped a freezing youngster named Jimmy Holmes on the shoulder, and the kid who had never played in a varsity game directed Price on the game-winning drive. It was Hollywood stuff.
Mr. Touchdown made a dazzling run to move the ball to the Pattillo 1. Alexander scored the winning touchdown from there, and the Red Devils had another state title to go with the one they won in 1940.
“That kid Holmes came in and gave us our momentum back,” Watson said. “I will never forget that game. I remember how cold it was. I remember how hard we played. It was a fantastic experience.”