Legend: Lester still leans on football lessons

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 20, 2020

By Mike London


EAST SPENCER — Rashaun Lester finished his best college football season in style down at Clark Atlanta, blocking a field goal to save a game for Kentucky State.

When he looked up in the stands, he saw Robert Steele, his defensive coordinator at North Rowan High, holding both hands in the air, smiling broadly and screaming at the top of his lungs.

Lester inspired that sort of loyalty in people. Even when he was injured in college, his family would make the 880-mile round trip to Kentucky just to hug him.

From an early age, Lester relished the cheers. Sports accomplishments brought the loudest roars, so football became his thing.

“My grandparents got me into T-ball, and then I was playing YFL for the North Rowan team,” Lester said. “I could see how my family reacted whenever I did something good. I loved that feeling.”

Lester’s grandparents were huge ACC basketball fans, following Virginia and Duke. Lester made trips to Charlotte for ACC tournaments as a youngster.

“It was a sports family, sports were on TV all the time, and we talked sports when we went out to eat,” Lester said. “I grew up playing in the backyard games with a lot of the older guys. That’s how I knew that I could play.”

His neighbors included Nathanial Hyde, who was about five years older. Hyde, a 225-pound running back, was one of the heroes of the 1992 North Rowan squad that beat A.L. Brown in the playoffs and reached the 3A state championship game.

Lester’s family members included East Rowan’s Charlestons, who had starred in many sports, but especially track and field. Joseph Patterson, East’s standout running back in the early 1990s, was Lester’s first cousin.

“My mother had gone to East, so we would go watch Joseph run the ball somewhere every week,” Lester said. “We would drive all the way to Sun Valley to watch East. I remember that in 1991 East beat North, and that was  cool. That gave me some bragging rights in the neighborhood. I could tell people my cousin beat North Rowan.”

When Lester got to North Rowan Middle, he got sidetracked.

“I started running with the wrong crowd,” Lester said. “We were only a few weeks into the school year when my mother took me out of North and transferred me to Erwin Middle School. I cried and I begged, but she was worried about my grades. She told me I wouldn’t be playing football at Erwin, but the coach knew her and told me that he would take care of it. And he did. Then I was playing alongside the Erwin guys like (quarterback) Josh Brady and (fullback/linebacker) Adam Horton that I had known back in my YFL days.

His first game for Erwin actually was against North Rowan. That one didn’t go well for Lester and his new teammates, but he became friends with many future East Rowan Mustangs, especially Brady.

He would return to North prior to starting high school, and his mother gave her consent for him to play for a stout Cavaliers’ program directed by head coach Roger Secreast and defensive coordinator Steele.

Lester played jayvee ball for the Cavaliers as a freshman.

He made the varsity as a sophomore.

“Everyone wanted the single-digit jerseys because the stars wore the single digits,” Lester said with a laugh. “I’d worn the 7 jersey on the jayvees, but they gave me 44 when I got up to the varsity. I thought 44 was a bad number, but then I found out my grandparents had worn 44. And Nathanial Hyde had worn 44. So the 44 started to grow on me. I would wear that number all the way through college.”

As a junior in the fall of 1997, Lester was starting a defensive end, part of the “Hit Squad” that started the season 2-3, but then reeled off a seven-game winning streak.

“We could’ve done more that year if not for being riddled with injuries,” Lester said. “We had key injuries on defense (including Greg Yeldell and Antonio Etheridge).”

Late in that 1997 season, star receiver J.R. Neely, who had snared five touchdown passes to beat East Rowan, 40-28, broke his arm. Then QB Mario Sturdivant went down.

“When J.R. got hurt, Coach Secreast was like, ‘Lester get in there on offense,'” Lester remembers. “I’d always been all about defense, but once I got my hands on the ball, I kind of liked it.”

In the regular-season finale, Lester carried the ball 15 times in a 15-7 struggle against East Davidson that gave North a share of the Central Carolina Conference title with High Point Central.

Then in the first-round of the state playoffs, with Sturdivant still hobbled, North installed the wishbone offense that he’d run before North turned into ‘The Airport.” Lester had eight carries for 82 yards and a TD in a smash-mouth 14-12 win against Randleman.

Bandys shut down the Cavaliers in the second round, but Lester had shown enough that Secreast was counting on him as a starter at tight end as well as defensive end in the fall of 1998.

By his senior year, Lester was 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, and he could run. He was the prototype high school defensive end. He was the most feared hitter on the “Hit Squad.”

North’s second outing was against East Rowan, always an emotional affair for Lester and his whole family.

“We had a Labor Day cookout and all my cousins could talk about was how great East was going to be,” Lester said. “I just smiled. It was great motivation.”

Lester would be going up against a number of guys who had been his friends at one time, especially Brady.

“Josh Brady was tough as nails, a high school Brett Favre,” Lester said. “We really beat on him that night, but he never got rattled or upset. I’d sack him and I’d trash-talk him and he’d just say, ‘Hey, nice play.’ Lots of respect him. I think he was one of the best quarterbacks I ever saw in the county.”

Brady was good, but Lester was a man on a mission and he may have had his greatest performance against East. He caught a touchdown pass, he returned a fumbled for a defensive touchdown, and he scored on a 2-point conversion. North beat the Mustangs, 27-14, North’s seventh straight victory against the Mustangs.

“I never lost to East or to Salisbury, and those were our two big rivals,” Lester said. “Coach Secreast was usually this easy-going coach, but he didn’t like East Rowan at all, so East Rowan week he was all business. He and Coach Steele always got us prepared for them.”

North was 4-0 and ranked eighth in 2A when A.L. Brown, 3-0 and the defending 3A state champions, arrived in Spencer for a September showdown that had the whole region buzzing.

The entire 1998 season was a victory tour for A.L. Brown running back/rock star Nick Maddox, who was receiving national acclaim. A throng estimated at 6,000 poured into Eagle Stadium to watch Maddox perform his magic.

The Wonders led 21-0 at one point, but North dug in. The Cavaliers made it a game.

“We were getting killed at halftime, but that’s when Coach Steele and Coach (Mike) White had some choice words for us,” Lester said. “We came back strong. One more stop and we get the ball back with a  chance to tie.”

Maddox scored two touchdowns, including the backbreaker that sealed a 28-14 victory. He gained 157 yards, but he needed 27 carries. Lester made a lot of stops.

“Nick had been going crazy on people, but we slowed him down some,” Lester said. “I ran into Nick years later and I thanked him for that game because that game got me to the next level. Nick got me a college scholarship. After that game, I started hearing from ACC and SEC schools, and I was loving it.”

The CCC was tough in 1998/ North suffered a damaging early league loss to Ledford and future NFL fullback Madison Hedgecock, and the Cavaliers knew they were going to have to beat High Point Central to make the playoffs. Lester had a pick-six against the Bison, intercepting a tipped pass that he grabbed inches before it struck the ground, but the Cavaliers lost that critical game, 20-12.

“We played a hell of game that night,” Lester said. “But High Point Central (which won the league) had a great team.”

North’s season ended with a 7-4 record. Lester turned his thoughts to his college destination.

“My heart was set on N.C. State and I was talking to them just about every night,” Lester said.

But Lester was about to learn hard lessons about recruiting, test-taking and qualifying.

“My big mistake was not taking the ACT and SAT until my senior year,” Lester said. “My advice to all the young guys coming along would be to take those tests early and take them as often as you can. I also had some terrible timing on taking the tests, and they only give them a few times. I took one the morning after our homecoming game, and the other was prom week. I know now I wasn’t as focused as I should have been. And after  I didn’t get the test score I needed the second time, N.C. State moved on. They stopped calling. I was young and just didn’t understand the dynamics of it all. It was a big letdown. I was hard on myself.”

The good news was that once the D-I schools were out of the picture, D-II schools “started coming out of the woodwork,” as Lester puts it.

Gardner-Webb was Division II then and appeared likely to be his next home.

It almost was, but there was a day when there was an announcement over the intercom at North for Lester and teammate Rico McCullough to report to Coach Steele’s office.

Waiting for them them there was a coach representing the Kentucky State Thorobreds.

“The biggest man I’d ever seen and wearing the biggest rings I’d ever seen,” Lester said. “I remember is it was ‘Crazy Hat Day’ at North and I had on a big sombrero. They wanted Rico and me to fly to Kentucky State and check out the school. I was 17, and an official visit to a school in Kentucky and a plane flight was a very big deal.”

He was treated like a king on that visit. Head coach George Small, who had played at North Carolina A&T, and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff made strong sales pitches.

“We stayed in the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Frankfort, really first-class type stuff all the way, and when we got to our hotel rooms there were hot pizzas waiting on us,” Lester said.

His tour guide was a star, big Kentucky State defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt,a third-round pick in 1999 by the Green Bay Packers.

All those things made quite an impression. It was a long way from home, but Lester was ready to commit.

“The hardest thing was breaking the news to Gardner-Webb because they had  always treated me so well,” Lester said. “But they hadn’t put me up in a hotel or given me hot pizza. When I visited there, I’d stayed in an apartment with some players.”

Kentucky State’s Thorobreds were an HBCU school competing in the D-II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, but they were isolated geographically from most of the league. Most of their opponents — Morehouse. Tuskegee, Albany State, Miles, Fort Valley State, Clark Atlanta — were road trips of hundreds of miles to the south. Tuskegee, located in Alabama, usually ruled the SIAC in football.

Lester was ineligible to play his first season at Kentucky State, but the coaching staff, especially Donald Wayne Smith, who would follow Small as head coach, stuck by him.

“They preached God, family and football and I was family,” Lester said. ” They honored my scholarship.”

Lester would move from defensive end to outside linebacker to inside linebacker during his college days. Kentucky State always struggled. He got beat up a lot, but he kept plugging.

He turned in a very strong season in 2001 — he made nine tackles against Tuskegee that year and eight against Morehouse. He received an award as the program’s linebacker of the year.

That game at Clark Atlanta where Coach Steele was in the stands provided his fondest memory.

“I remember how cold it was, and I don’t know if they even gave me credit for blocking that field goal because sometimes it’s hard to see who got it,” Lester said. “But I knew I got a piece of it.”

And Steele knew.

Injuries piled up after that. Lester remembers playing about half the 2002 season. He was sidelined in 2003, although his family would still make the trips to support him, his coaches and his teammates.

Lester has experienced some bumps in the road since North Rowan and Kentucky State, but the football lessons he learned have always served him well.

He came back to Rowan County about 10 years ago.  He is raising two daughters and works for Duke Energy.

It’s not easy work, crawling under houses, installing gas lines, but he’s always been able to dig deep, just as he did in the old days.

“There definitely have been tough times in my life when it’s been fourth-and-1 and my back has been up against the wall,” Lester said. “I’ve always persevered.”