CHINA GROVE — Ernest Wiggins II is not one of those leather-helmeted fellows you usually read about in the “Friday Night Legends” column.
A 2000 South Rowan graduate, Wiggins is hardly grizzled at age 31. Still he’s enough of a legend that he’ll be inducted into the Appalachian State Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday for his impact on the world of track and field.
I always wanted to be legendary, but not legendary for my victories.” Wiggins said. “I wanted to be legendary for my work ethic.”
Wiggins is a product of Neely Town, a black community in China Grove. It’s a neighborhood of tight-knit families — Neelys, Ramseurs, Connors, Hardins, Brawleys and Robinsons. Wiggins is too young to have seen him, but he’s heard the tales about a back named Michael Ramseur who came out of Neely Town in the early 1980s. Ramseur was as talented as any football player South Rowan has ever had and was ACC Rookie of the Year at Wake Forest.
Wiggins’ father died when he was 4, but his mother, “Frosty” Bost, raised him well with the help of family members.
“My mother was mother and father to me,” Wiggins said.
Neely Town has contributed more than its share of athletes to South, and Wiggins’ cousins Ramsey Connor and Andre Neely were standout receivers/DBs for South in the 1990s. Wiggins was a few years behind his idols.
“I was just this little tiny guy then, ‘Little Ernie,’ people called me,” Wiggins said. “Ramsey took me under his wing.”
In high school, “Little Ernie” suddenly was on his way to being “Big Ernie.” He went from 5-3 to 5-9 in a blink.
“I came back to school from summer vacation and people didn’t recognize me,” Wiggins said with a laugh.
He also was getting faster. In a track meet in the spring of 1999, Wiggins lined up next to A.L. Brown’s Nick Maddox, a two-time state football player of the year.
“Nick barely beat me in the 100, and that made me realize that I had talent,” Wiggins said. “I remember telling (South’s principal) Dr. Alan King that I could beat anyone. He said to me, ‘Well, all right, Big E, if you really believe that, prove it.’ ”
South was 4A then, but Wiggins qualified for the state meet in the 200 meters.
In the fall of 1999, Wiggins was a senior, and South football coach Rick Vanhoy was thinking he’d be a difference-maker. Wiggins scored two touchdowns against Salisbury and one each against A.L. Brown and West Rowan. He’d rushed 40 times for 283 yards in five games, but then he hurt his forearm.
“A blessing in disguise,” Wiggins said. “That allowed me to concentrate on track.”
Wiggins trained on the hill and fields of Neely Town, and track turned out to be his sport. His progress jumped after he started working with muscleman John Davis.
“Coach Davis introduced me to the weight room,” Wiggins said. “He taught me the squat press. He showed how Roman dead lifts could help my stride. By then, I was running with hunger. Football had been frustrating, so I had fuel. I was running angry.”
He was unbeatable in the spring of 200. He took the 100 and the 200 in the 4A Midwest Regional and was third in the 100 in the 4A state meet.
A break also had come Wiggins’ way. Wiggins’ football teammate Brian Billings, a burly lineman, was being recruited by Appalachian State, and when the Billings family went to Boone for a football game, Ken Billings, Brian’s father, saw an official-looking ASU guy helping fans find their seats.
“I asked him who he was,” Billings said. “He introduced himself as Robert Johnson, an assistant track coach. I told him there was a China Grove kid he needed to see.”
Johnson laughed and said he’d like to have a dollar for every time he’d heard that one, but after Billings explained that Wiggins was the fastest man in a 4A league that included the Winston-Salem schools, Johnson promised to investigate — and he did.
“I didn’t help that much,” Billings shrugged. “Ernest earned everything he ever got. Appalachian gave him an opportunity, and he ran with it.”
Wiggins still recalls the day ASU called his house and told him he’d get some scholarship money and a chance.
“I promised them they’d never regret that,” Wiggins said. “Then I went out the door and tied my shoes. I looked at the dirt road and took off running. I must have run five miles before I stopped, and that night I was so excited, I didn’t sleep at all.”
The first year was rough. It was a shocker running at elevation. It also was a long walk to practice in the snow. But he’d made a promise to himself and his neighborhood to do great things.
“My first meet at Appalachian was indoors, the 60 meters, and I broke records,” Wiggins said. “After that, every time I stepped on a track, I tried to break records.”
He broke them at ASU for head coach John Weaver. He’s still the Southern Conference record-holder in the 60, and he was three-times conference champ in the 60 and 200 indoors and the 100 outdoors. He still holds the ASU records for the 55, 60 and 100-meter dashes. Twice, he was an All-American.
“I was a country boy from a small town, but I was determined to outwork everybody,” Wiggins said. “Running for Appalachian against USC, UCLA, Florida and Ohio State was no different than running for South Rowan against the Winston and Charlotte schools. I loved representing the little guys.”
Wiggins competed in the 2004 Olympic Trials and was an alternate for Team USA’s 4×100 team. He ran a bazing 10.08 100 meters, and he competed for Team USA in Japan and England.
“Putting on that Team USA jersey is a rush,” Wiggins said. “It’s rush that says you are rare, almost superhuman.”
Wiggins had a successful pro career, competing in 32 different countries against the best — Usain Bolt, Maurice Greene, Tyson Gay, all of them.
Today, Wiggins operates Atlas Speed Training in Orlando, Fla. “Atlas,” a powerful figure in Greek mythology, was the nickname given to Wiggins by Brooks Johnson, the famed track coach.
“He said that when I ran all he could see was muscles and feet,” Wiggins explained with a laugh.
Wiggins trains 382 athletes, ranging from Orlando school teams to German soccer players. He makes them stronger, tougher and faster.
Wiggins flew in from Florida Monday to spend time with his family prior to heading to Boone for induction ceremonies.
His diet is salmon, fruit and his grandma’s vegetables, but he took a break and devoured a barbecue sandwich at Gary’s. He also stopped at South Rowan, hugged Davis and coaches Angie Chrismon and Jan Dowling, and then walked a slow lap around the South track with tears rolling out of his eyes.
“I had so many dreams when I ran on that track,” Wiggins said. “I was just a kid from China Grove, but those dreams came true.”