Ron Raper was in an airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when a fellow recognized him and introduced himself as a high school official.
That’s when Raper realized that there weren’t many places he could go where someone wouldn’t know him.
Raper’s five-decade athletic journey through Rowan County was a trek not unlike Forrest Gump’s wild ride through the 1960s.
Gump bumped into Bear Bryant, Elvis and President John F. Kennedy, among others.
Raper played for Pete Stout, roomed in college with Leland Peacock, assisted W.A. Cline and Roger Secreast, coached Scott Young, was West’s head coach for an epic game against Central Cabarrus superstar Natrone Means, and capped his career by getting Carson athletics get off the ground.
Raper was a high school head coach in football, baseball and track and a program-starting head coach in swimming, and that’s touching almost all the bases.
He was employed by Salisbury, East, West, North and Carson, which probably sets a county record. He missed out on South somehow, but South did make an offer.
“Your life takes different turns based on one phone call,” Raper said. “There was a time I was offered jobs at Salisbury, South and Lexington. I chose Salisbury. It would’ve been different if I hadn’t.”
Raper was born in Elizabeth City, but starting with fifth grade, he considered himself a Salisburian. He got his start playing football in the local youth league for St. Paul’s Episcopal.
At 205 pounds, he was one of the biggest kids at Salisbury’s Boyden High and was a two-way lineman. Boyden, playing in a city league with the Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point schools, had a need for 200-pounders.
“When I was a sophomore I was called up to the varsity because one of the captains, Jim Killian, had a heat stroke,” Raper said. “But then my junior year I needed knee surgery after just a few games.”
Raper was chosen captain prior to his senior season in 1966. He’d already been elected for that role when Stout was named the new football coach and arrived at Boyden after his great run at Western Alamance High.
“Pete didn’t know whether to accept me or fire me,” Raper said with a laugh. “He accepted me. Mike Carter was his last captain at Western Alamance. I was his first one at Boyden. It’s not like I was a great football player, just a pretty good one.”
Boyden did the unthinkable in 1966, going 6-3-2 in Stout’s first year and ending a nine-year playoff drought.
“We were heroes all over town,” Raper said.
Raper threw a pass on a trick play in the first round of the playoffs against Garinger. It was incomplete.
“My story is the receiver dropped it,” Raper said. “There are some others who say my pass went 5 yards.”
Raper had a strong senior year and was named to play in the North-South All-Star Game at East Carolina’s stadium.
“That all-star game was my first time away from home and my roommate walks in and unpacks his cigarettes,” Raper said. “There were some new experiences. I ate a big meal before I went down there and then they fed us another big meal. We went back to our rooms a little bit, and then they said it was time for practice. That was the sickest I’ve been in my life.”
He took recruiting trips with Boyden back Kyle Black.
“I remember us visiting Wake Forest and we walked in and saw this huge guy who went on to play in the NFL,” Raper said. “Kyle and I just looked at each other. We knew we didn’t belong there.”
Raper’s playing career at Elon, where he roomed with Peacock, the captain for Boyden’s rival North Rowan, lasted just eight practices.
He hurt his knee again, and when doctors started talking about removing his kneecap, he knew that was it as far as his playing career.
“I quit school,” Raper said. “There was a girl (Janice) I’d been sweethearts with since eighth grade that I wanted to marry, and I went to work for Piedmont Natural Gas, and I was fine with that. I’d always wanted to be a coach, but I figured that wasn’t going to happen because I didn’t play in college. I thought you had to be a college player to coach.”
It was Stout who changed Raper’s thinking.
“Pete asked me if I’d do some scouting for him, and that’s what got me back into football,” Raper said.
Raper returned to school, and he would earn his degree at Catawba. The 1973 season marked his coaching debut. He was a student assistant for the Indians.
Boyden had become Salisbury High in 1971, and Raper joined Stout’s staff in 1974. They would make plenty of history together.
See next Friday’s edition for the conclusion of the Ron Raper story.
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