Super Bowl: Javon Hargrave the latest in Rowan’s long connection to Eagles

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 12, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Billy Ray Barnes was born May 14, 1935, so he’s 87 now.

He still plays plenty of golf, but it’s going to be a chilly Super Bowl Sunday, so he’ll probably stay inside and get prepared for the big game.

He’ll be cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Back in the 1950s when Barnes came roaring out of Landis High and then Wake Forest — he was the ACC’s first 1,000-yard rusher — he turned a lot of Rowan County football fans into Philadelphia Eagles fans.

Barnes preferred baseball — by a lot — to football and played third base for Wake Forest’s 1955 national champions, but his vision wasn’t the best. That flaw steered him toward pro football.

The Eagles picked Barnes in the second round in the 1957 draft, and he was quite a player for a while. He was the Eagles’ leading rusher his first three years in the NFL and was named to three Pro Bowls back when it was an Eastern Division versus Western Division game.

In 1960, as a 25-year-old, Barnes played in one of the most important contests the Eagles ever had. Barnes made runs and catches and blocks on the game-winning drive, as the Eagles beat the Green Bay Packers 17-13 in the NFL championship game.

It’s still a notable game in NFL history as the only playoff loss coach Vince Lombardi ever suffered as a head coach. Green Bay had Paul Hornung, Bart Starr and Jim Taylor, a host of future Hall of Famers, but in 1960, the Packers weren’t quite the dynasty that they would become, and the Eagles won. The game was played at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field on Dec. 26,  a Monday, because the league didn’t want it on Christmas Day. It was played in the afternoon because Franklin Field had no lights. Prime tickets for that game cost $10.

It would be the Eagles’ last “world championship” before their drought finally ended in 2017.

Barnes got banged up as running backs tend to do in the NFL. He was finished as a player in 1966, but not before he rushed for 3,421 yards and caught 153 passes for 1,786 yards. He had 29 rushing touchdowns and nine receiving touchdowns in the highest league in the world and he even threw four touchdown passes. That’s a fine playing career, and he also served as an assistant coach in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.

Plenty of changes

Much has changed since 1960. Barnes’ buddy, the late Chuck Bednarik, played every snap on offense and defense for the Eagles in the 1960 championship game. No one has done that sort of thing lately.

Players get paid millions of dollars now, not thousands. Average ticket prices for the NFL’s big game now — they call it the Super Bowl — are more than $8,000. The season stretches into February, and tonight’s Super Bowl game pitting the Eagles against the Kansas City Chiefs  — the Chiefs were still the Dallas Texans of the American Football League in 1960 — will be played in 75-degree temperatures in Arizona.

When Barnes played halfback for the Eagles, he was considered a power back at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, but players of today are considerably larger. The average NFL running back now is 218 pounds.  The average NFL quarterback stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 223.

Rowan County’s latest contribution to the Eagles — 2011 North Rowan High graduate Javon Hargrave — is a 6-foot-2, 305-pound defensive tackle.

As Barnes did in his day, Hargrave has made a lot of Rowan County football fans Philadelphia Eagles fans.

There are a lot of legendary stories about Hargrave. Most are true.

As a burly freshman in August 2007, Hargrave was a Michael Jordan fan who was confident his best sport was basketball. He had failed to wow North Rowan’s football coaches in preseason practices and actually began the season on the jayvee team.

But when the lights came on during a Thursday night game against Carson, North coaches were astounded by the sudden change in Hargrave. He was crashing through the Carson line like a truck. Coaches hadn’t seen that sort of fire from the mellow kid before — but they were smart enough to know it would be his last jayvee game.

Some bad nights

There would be some long nights during his high school career. Opening night of Hargrave’s sophomore season, the Cavaliers lost to West Rowan 60-0. North would go 1-10. The “win” would be a forfeit of a game that was lost 52-8 on the field.

For Hargrave’s last two high school football seasons, North moved down from 2A to 1A and had far more success. North made the playoffs in 2009 and won a conference championship in 2010. Hargrave would set a county record with 18 career fumble recoveries.

On the basketball court, Hargrave shined as a power forward on a 20-6 team in 2009-10 and a 27-5 state championship team in 2010-11. In North’s double-overtime win against talented Winston-Salem Prep in the regional final, Hargrave delivered one of the best games of his career with 19 points. He scored 903 points for the Cavaliers.

Hargrave starred in the East-West All-Star Game in the summer of 2011, playing for a football team coached by Salisbury coach Joe Pinyan. Hargrave made plays, racked up sacks, ran away with Defensive MVP honors.

After the euphoria of that July all-star game, Hargrave’s life hit its lowest point. He was a victim of testing anxiety and repeatedly came up just short of a qualifying score on the ACT.  He made 17s when he needed 18s. College coaches wanted him badly, but he hadn’t qualified, so no one was offering. As his friends headed off to school or to work that fall, Hargrave remained holed up in his bedroom, feeling blue.

It was almost Christmas when he got the word that he’d qualified for college. Most schools had moved on, but not South Carolina State, which called and let him know they had a scholarship for him, with classes starting in January 2012.

He hadn’t been working out and was out of shape, so he got kicked around during winter conditioning workouts, but by the spring, South Carolina State knew its patience would be rewarded. It had something very special in Hargrave.

On his first official sack, he knocked a quarterback into the next time zone. They had called him “Grave” up to then, a shortened version of his last name. After that sack, he was christened “Gravedigger.”  Hargrave liked it. The name stuck.

He was stellar his freshman season, then took a small step back as a sophomore.

When he was only second team preseason all-conference heading into his junior year, that humbled him. He knew he had to work harder.

It was a game during his junior year at South Carolina State that changed his life. It was a strange day — Oct. 25, 2014, He was questionable with a knee issue, but he played.  Everything fell into place. He tied or broke multiple records with a six-sack rivalry game against 13th-ranked Bethune-Cookman.

After that, everyone knew who Hargrave was. The NFL scouts started coming to watch him. He had 16 sacks that season. He had 24 tackles for loss. He was conference defensive player of the Year and HBCU Defensive Player of the Year.

Inspired, he didn’t rest, working out feverishly even during his Christmas break.

Shining as a senior

As a senior, even with everyone game-planning to try to deal with him, he repeated all those accolades.

And he earned a degree.

He played in postseason all-star games against the guys from the big schools and more than held his own. The defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers came to the South Carolina State campus in Orangeburg to work out Hargrave personally and left impressed with his talent and his personality.

Hargrave still thought it would be Washington that drafted him, but it was Pittsburgh. Third round. He was the 87th pick.

He was very good for four years with the Steelers and established himself as a solid NFL player.

Free agency was next, and the Eagles signed him to one of the biggest contracts ($39 million) ever for an interior defensive lineman.

He’s lived up to the hype. He’s been impactful, a Pro Bowl pick in the 2021 and part of one of the all-time best pass rushes in 2022.

Putting on pressure

He’s not one of the glory guys who come off the edge for sacks. He’s in the middle, fighting double teams, always pushing, always pressuring, wrecking the pocket.

He’s accomplished a lot. He’s sacked Tom Brady. He’s scored an NFL touchdown.

They keep track of pressures, and Hargrave is one of the league’s best. He’s been credited with 150 QB pressures in three seasons with the Eagles.

He had eight sacks in 2021 and 11 more during the 2022 regular season. He got another in the NFC championship game against San Francisco two weeks ago.

Hargrave is a seven-year NFL veteran now. He already is a member of the South Carolina State and Salisbury-Rowan halls of fame.

As he prepared for the biggest game of his life, he celebrated his 30th birthday  on Feb. 7.

Extended career

Barnes’ NFL days were winding down at 30, but players are paid well enough now that they can train in the off-season instead of working. That extends careers.

At 30, Hargrave has at least one more monster contract in front of him this off-season. The Super Bowl may well be his last game with the Eagles. ESPN ranks him No. 3 in the entire league as far as the players who are about to become free agents.

But, for now, his focus is on one more awesome day for the Eagles.

The Eagles are an old school team that likes to run the ball, but they also are a modern team with a quarterback (Jalen Hurts) who can run it.

The Kansas City Chiefs are similar. Elusive Patrick Mahomes, NFL MVP, is the guy Hargrave will be trying to pressure.

Children in Rowan County look up to Hargrave. Maybe they say prayers for him to stay healthy.

He’s bought bikes for a lot of them. He has funded athletic and academic programs for a lot more.

Hargrave is a good guy. People are proud to say that they’re from the same place.

Rowan homeowners display Philly flags. They plant “Fly, Eagles, Fly” signs in their yards.

Even the tower in Bell Tower Park will light up in the familiar Philadelphia Eagles green tonight.

And Billy Ray Barnes will be smiling, watching big No. 97 going to work one last time for his favorite team.