By Mike London
MAXTON— It was Oct. 21, 1961, and it had been a rough football season for Catawba College.
But this was the homecoming game, and senior captain Ray Oxendine, the left end, had made up his mind that Catawba would not lose on homecoming
Catawba didn’t lose. The Indians beat Elon. They took their second victory of the season.
What that game had in common with Catawba’s first win of 1961 — over Western Carolina — was Oxendine anchoring the defense. A tireless warrior and an imposing figure at 6-foot-3, he often played both ways, every snap.
Still a bigger than life legend at Catawba, Oxendine was a man who went the distance in life as well as on football fields.
He died on June 7 at 85. Services will be held today in Maxton and Pembroke.
A Lumbee Indian, Oxendine was born in 1937. He grew up in Robeson County as one of eight children on a 75-acre farm. The Oxendines farmed tobacco and cotton. It was back-breaking, character-building work.
Oxendine’s father taught at the school we now know as UNC Pembroke.
After high school graduation, military service made Oxendine, a tough man, even tougher. He was a U.S. Army paratrooper stationed in Germany with the 11th Airborne and 82nd Airborne.
He had followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Joseph, in coming to Catawba. By the time he arrived, Oxendine wasn’t a typical, fuzzy-cheeked freshman. He was a full-grown man, and he impacted Catawba socially, academically and athletically.
He’d never played in an organized football game before he got to Catawba.
When he was introduced to shoulder pads for the first time, he put them on backwards. But he learned quickly. He was so strong and so aggressive that he quickly became one of Catawba’s standouts. The same held true for baseball, where he was a clean-up hitting slugger, a rugged catcher and team captain. He powered a home run against Lenoir-Rhyne in May 1961, in his final game at Newman Park. He competed in track and field. He even played a year of basketball for the Indians. Oxendine won the Aycock Medal that was awarded to the school’s best all-round athlete. He overcame early academic struggles in Spanish and English and served as Senior Class President for the Class of 1961.The week after his heroic homecoming performance against Elon, Oxendine suffered a knee injury against Presbyterian that helped wreck the rest of Catawba’s season.He graduated after the fall semester in the 1961-62 school year and headed into the real worl. He coached at Mount Airy High for a year, and then at Grimsley High in Greensboro, where he coached track and field and wrestling and was an assistant football coach.
In May 1964, Oxendine returned to Catawba as an assistant football coach under Harvey Stratton. Oxendine became head baseball coach of the Indians in 1965 and coached through the 1974 season. There were some good years, especially 1970 when the Indians went 18-7. He received awards in 1969, 1970 and 1974.
Bill Hall has dozens of stories regarding Oxendine. They made recruiting trips to Florida together, with the 5-foot-7 Hall piloting a Toyoto Corrola and the 6-foot-3 Oxendine squeezing into the passenger’s seat.
Together, they toured the east coast of the Sunshine State. They’d stop at a high school. Oxendine would locate the baseball coach and find out if he had anyone who could play. Hall, who worked in admissions at Catawba, would find the guidance counselor and determine if the player could get into Catawba.
The story goes that the duo was on a recruiting mission in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel, during the fateful second week of January 1969. Asked if they liked football and might be interested in some rather pricey tickets — they were $20 each — for the AFL-NFL Championship game being played in the Orange Bowl, Hall and Oxendine signed up. A bus laden with New York Jets fans picked them up at their hotel, and they were on their way to the stadium. The big fellow across the aisle from Oxendine turned out to be Lou “The Toe” Groza, retired tackle and kicker for the Cleveland Browns. Oxendine never met a stranger, and he and “The Toe” were chatting like old war buddies in no time.
That championship game they saw is the one we now refer to as Super Bowl III, a landmark game in football history. Joe Namath led the upstart Jets of the American Football League to victory against the pride of the NFL, the Baltimore Colts, and changed the landscape of pro football forever.
“Every year for 50 years when the Super Bowl came around I’d get a call from Ox,” Hall said with a smile. “He’d always say the same thing, ‘Hey, Bill, we saw the big one. Remember that, Bill, we saw the big one.’”
Hall recalls a trip from the east coast of Florida to the west coast that included passage through The Everglades.
“Barren except for alligators, and Ox leans back in his seat and says, ‘Give me a rope and a knife and I could live out here,’” recalls Hall.
Anyone else and Hall would’ve been certain they’d gone mad. But Oxendine? Not crazy. It’s the alligators who probably would’ve been in for a rough time.
Hall first encountered Oxendine when he was the equipment manager of the football team and Oxendine was an assistant football coach. Oxendine and his wife were living in the dorm, as sort of dorm parents for 180 guys.
Oxendine could have been content coaching his whole life, but his experiences on the recruiting trail, visiting high schools, got him thinking that he could do more good in the high schools than as a college coach. And he had mentors, such as Catawba men’s basketball coach Sam Moir tell him the same thing.
Moir steered him toward a masters degree in public school administration from Appalachian State, rather than a masters in physical education
In 1974, Oxendine made the leap of faith from Catawba to the public school system. He accepted the position of assistant principal and guidance counselor at Hallsboro Senior High near Whiteville.
That’s when his true life’s work began. There were a lot of different high schools along the way — Acme-Delco near Whiteville, East Montgomery, West Montgomery, Purnell Swett, South Robeson, Scotland and East Laurinburg Academy. At every stop, Oxendine made a difference, bringing hiscombination of integrity, discipline, charisma and leadership. He helped a lot of students and saved a lot of students.
He was Principal of the Year for the Montgomery County Schools in 1985. He was named Principal of the Year in 1992-1993 by the North Carolina High School Association of Administrators for his work at Scotland.
In 2005, he was one of four individuals selected by Catawba’s Alumni Association Board of Directors to receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award.
His football career led to four knee operations, but he was a mountain of a man well into his 70s.
He ran his share of marathons, competed in triathlons. They tell the story of the day he swam four hours across Lake Waccamaw.
Oxendine combined his strong upbringing with the skills he learned at Catawba.
Someone asked him in the 1980s if he was proud to be an Indian. His response was that he was proud to be Ray Oxendine, who happened to be an Indian. His reasoning was that he hadn’t had any choice about being born a Lumbee, but he had made the right life choices that made him Ray Oxendine.
He was a respected baseball umpire and worked state championships.
Long after his retirement from the school system. Oxendine kept giving. He worked with the American Red Cross in several disaster events after hurricanes, including deployment to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.
He is in the halls of fame not only for Catawba, but for the NCHSAA, for Robeson County and for North Carolina American Legion.
“I would like for people to know this great man wasn’t super-serious all the time,” Hall said. “He was a fun-loving guy. Back in the day, we had a relief pitcher on the Catawba baseball team named Dewey Oakes, and Ox would call him up out of the blue every few years and ask him, “Hey, Oakes, can you give me two innings today? Can you give me two?”
Hall held on to that Super Bowl III program for 50 years before he gave it to his son. Those $1 programs sell for about $300 now.
He’ll miss Oxendine’s annual call reminding him that they once were in the right place at the right time and g0t to see “the big one.”
Catawba and especially Newman Park remained important to Oxendine no matter where his administrative career took him.
His children have requested that anyone wishing to honor the life of Oxendine do so by making a donation to Catawba for the Oxendine Family area at Newman Park.
Donations may be made at catawba.edu/rayoxendine or by check to Catawba College, 2300 W Innes Street Salisbury, NC 28144 with “Ray Oxendine” written in the memo line.