Sports obituary: East’s McKenzie was a track phenom

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2024

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — Former East Rowan coach W.A. Cline guided hundreds of athletes during two tours of duty at East Rowan, but 50 years later, he still remembers Kevin McKenzie.

“You never forget the Kevin McKenzies that play for you,” Cline said. “As a person, there weren’t any finer boys than Kevin and he was a special athlete. I coached a lot of track athletes, and I think Kevin was one of the two athletes I coached in my career who could have excelled in the decathlon. I don’t think there’s any track and field event that he would not have been good in.”

McKenzie, a fixture in East Rowan athletics in the mid-1970s, passed away last week at 67.

He contributed to some of the finest basketball teams in East history because he was a rangy 6-foot-3 and he could jump. He was very helpful as a blocker and pass-catcher in football as an All-Rowan County end.

But it was in track and field that he really stood out.

Hall of Famer Cline is remembered fondly as East’s football coach — the leader of East’s first conference champs in 1968 and the undefeated Western North Carolina High School Activities champs in 1969. What people may not remember is that East continued to have strong football teams, continued to win banners for several more years after the magic of 1969. East won at least a division championship in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974.

“We had really good athletes at East who competed in multiple sports and they were good people,” Cline said. “I always say I never worked a day in my life because to me teaching and coaching was never anything but fun.”

When McKenzie was a senior football player for Cline in the fall of 1974, the Mustangs ran the ball 476 times and threw it only 87 times on the way to a 7-3-1 record and a conference championship.

McKenzie had seven catches that entire season, but he turned them into 241 yards — 34 yards per catch — and four touchdowns. Baseball and basketball star Stan Honeycutt made the throws.

McKenzie was East’s punter, but he made all-county mostly for his blocking for fullback Randy Fowler, who was the Post’s Rowan County Offensive Player of the Year after posting a 1,000-yard rushing season. East could run the ball. Rick Vanhoy and Kizer Sifford combined for another 1,500 ground yards that season.

In basketball, McKenzie didn’t score often, but as a senior in the 1974-75 season he helped the Mustangs, coached by Gilbert Sprinkle, go 23-5. East finished runner-up in the WNCHSAA, losing a close final to North Davidson.

Coached by Cline and Oron Earnhardt, the Mustangs had a dominant track team in the spring of 1975.

“We could put three great athletes in a lot of events,” Cline said. “We took those boys to a lot of invitationals all over the state. We beat a lot of Charlotte boys when we went over to Myers Park. We did well in the Lincolnton Relays. They had some different events like hurdling relays, and that was right up our alley.”

The Rowan County Track and Field Championships of 1975 were no contest. With a 6-4-3-2-1 scoring system, East put up 117.5 points at the North Rowan track. Salisbury was second with 71. North had 42.5.

McKenzie was one of the key athletes for East. You’re allowed to compete in four events, and he was second in the triple jump, second in the high jump and sixth in the discus.

You don’t often see a triple jumper throw the discus.

“He was running all over the place with all those field events and then the hurdles was the first running event,” Cline said.

McKenzie’s best event was the 120-yard high hurdles, comparable to the 110-meter hurdles that athletes run today. Running 120 yards is the equivalent of 109.728 meters. McKenzie was clocked in 14.7 seconds. That broke the school record for the event and was recognized as the standard at East until 2009.

Cline still remembers that 14.7 because it was electric. It tied the county record set by the great Roger Jackson for Boyden four years earlier.

East dominated the Bi-Conference Championships that brought the North Piedmont and South Piedmont Conference teams together at one site. Davie County finished second, well behind the Mustangs.

Cline is confident East would have breezed in the 1975 WNCHSAA meet, but the Mustangs didn’t have their full squad.

“There was an incident at school prior to the meet, and some of our guys weren’t allowed to compete in the WNCHSAA,” Cline said. “Davie won the meet, so there’s no doubt in my mind that would have been our championship.”

East did have two individual champions in that meet. Darrell Misenheimer’s heave of 57 feet, 1 inch broke the shot put record for the WNCHSAA Championships.

The other East champion was McKenzie. On his final day of athletic competition for the Mustangs, he high-jumped 6 feet, 7 inches to win the meet and break the WNCHSAA record. That leap stood as the record at East for 16 years until Brian Perry topped it in 1991.

“I remember Kevin making a transition from the Western Roll, straddling the bar, to the ‘Fosbury Flop’ and going over the bar backwards,” Cline said.

The WNCHSAA records set by Misenheimer and McKenzie will stand for all-time, as the organization closed up shop two years later, with all of the schools being absorbed by the NCHSAA.

McKenzie was active in clubs and served on the newspaper staff at East. He was named to Who’s Who Among American High School Students, which was a major thing in the 1970s.

He went to work for a while and didn’t go off to college right away.

McKenzie graduated in 1981 from UNC Charlotte with degrees in business administration and psychology.

He was married in 1983 to Denise Helms.

Kevin McKenzie joined his uncle Larry McKenzie at McKenzie Taxidermy Supply Company. That company came to be known as McKenzie Sports Products and was so successful it became one of Rowan County’s biggest employers.