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The alliterative rhythm of the name lends to the overall legend of its owner, who now in his late 60s possesses the same athletic grace he did some 50 years ago as perhaps the best high school athlete in the state of North Carolina.
For anyone familiar with the story of Fike High’s three straight North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A football championships in the late 1960s, the name “Carlester Crumpler” has near mythic meaning. While there are many components to the Cyclones’ storybook run of greatness — from the coaching staff led by Henry Trevathan to the community support to the ever-changing but never-diminished cast of players — Crumpler and classmate Dan Killebrew were the only two players on all three title teams. While Killebrew’s place in Fike history is secure as one of its best all-around players evers, Crumpler remains as the central figure on the field for those great Cyclones teams. One of the biggest players on the team, Crumpler, listed as 6-foot-3, 197 pounds as a senior, was also Fike’s only African-American player for the better part of his first two seasons at the varsity level. But the sight of his No. 32 jersey, blasting through opposing defenses, became an iconic image for Fike’s championship era.
Crumpler, a basketball and track star at Fike as well, went on to have a hall-of-fame football career at East Carolina University and a brief stint with the Buffalo Bills of the NFL. However, his legend was secure at Fike and in Wilson, where the quiet, unassuming teenager electrified fans for three years.
“I think you learn to appreciate it more — the relationships, the teams, some of the things that were done to bring all the excitement that it brought and what we were able to accomplish during that period of time,” Crumpler, who has five children and six grandchildren, said in a recent telephone. “I guess as you get older you learn to appreciate that more and when you understand how rare an event it was for that period of time, I guess it makes you appreciate it even more.”
Crumpler recently found himself at Fike to watch his daughter, A’riana, play basketball for D.H. Conley High against the Lady Demons. He wandered out to the hallway to inspect the trophy cabinets and was startled to realize the 1967 championship team had less than 30 players on the roster.
“I had no idea we were that small, I mean as far as the numbers,” he said. “I don’t know ig that was from lack of interest in the program at the time because of where it was and players just didn’t have an interest in playing or what, but I think that to be as small as we were in number to accomplish what we did even in 1967 was quite a feat. And so with small numbers, of course, you have to play both ways to keep yourself going offensively and defensively. I think it boiled down to — you know, they say players make coaches but I think it just really boiled down to outstanding coaching and the way they took us through the regimen to be the best we could be where we were at that time. And I think that was the difference throughout all three years.”
He didn’t start in the Fike backfield until halfway through his sophomore season but immediately displayed a flair for big games. Crump, as he is still known to this day, announced himself as a figure with which to be reckoned Oct. 6, 1967, when he ran for both touchdowns and 212 yards in the Cyclones’ win over archrival Rocky Mount. Crumpler capped Fike’s season by scoring four touchdowns, all in the second half, as the Cyclones rallied to beat South Mecklenburg 28-14 in the state 4-A championship game in Charlotte.
After an injury-plagued junior season in which he helped Fike win another state title, Crumpler emerged as one of the top running backs in the country as a senior. He ran for 2,148 yards (averaging more than 10 yards per carry) and 28 TDs as the Cyclones went 12-0 in winning their third straight crown. Crumpler finished his Fike career with 4,170 yards and 49 TDs.
His excellence wasn’t limited to the football field as Crumpler led the Fike varsity boys basketball team in scoring each of his last two years. He never lost a 120-yard high hurdles race and won two state championships in the event, setting a state record his senior year, and the 120 low hurdles state title once. For good measure, Crumpler was part of the Cyclones mile-relay quartet that set a school record as Fike won the 4-A East Regional meet in the spring of 1970.
Quite simply, Crumpler is on a very short list as the all-time greatest prep athlete in Wilson history. Yet, don’t expect him to agree with that assessment. Now, as he was as a teenager, Crumpler still prefers to talk about his teammates and coaches rather than himself.
“Whatever I would have accomplished or was accomplishing would have been done by those individuals that were surrounding me, certainly not me,” he assured. “Because I think humility is just something I was blessed with. I never thought anything otherwise, never thought of myself as being the so-called superstar. It just never, ever, was a part of me not even to this very, very day.
“I think when people look back on my career — and I can walk up almost daily to anyone that they recognize me or they recognize my name and they start talking about me — I feel I am as humbled as any person can possibly be, and it’s probably more by nature than anything else. It’s something I don’t have to force. It is just there. My kids are around me when it happens and you would think I was a shy 10-year-old being praised for something and it’s nice, so humbling, you don’t feel like you can take credit for it, but I just thank God for that. What he’s given me from that standpoint that I never, ever looked at myself outside the box as being someone who is truly special, no matter what I accomplished, or whatever I was able to obtain along the way.”
For that matter, Crumpler said he wasn’t even sure that his Fike teams were always the most talented on the field, but the Cyclones had something that few other squads possessed.
“All I know is, we were coached well, we practiced hard, we were tough,” he said. “We were just built for the moment to go out and compete and that’s what we did and again I think it was. I don’t know that we were actually that much more talented. There were some tremendous teams we played that had, I thought, a lot of talent. And I’m not so sure we had as much talent as they did, but we just had so much heart, and we were coached to play so hard that we were able to overcome any of the shortcomings that we may have had.”
Crumpler noted the offensive line that opened holes for him always did its job. His classmates in the backfield, tailback Phil Lamm and quarterback George Wilkerson, earned praise, especially Lamm, whose senior season ended four games in due to injury.
“Honestly, I thought Phil was more my equal — and I look back and I just hate so much that Phil could not play his senior year because of injury because I just thought the tandem of Phil and myself in the backfield,” Crumpler said, “and you had George Wilkerson at the quarterback position and who was very, very much in command of the offense. You had the offensive line, Aubrey Moore and Jimmy Elliott and some of the other guys.”
And with the preparation that Trevathan and his staff insisted upon, Fike was seldom at a disadvantage mentally, especially in close games. During Crumpler’s three varsity seasons, the Cyclones were 19-3 in games decided by two TDs or less.
“We didn’t go into any game thinking of losing,” he said. “It was just a matter of we’re just going to go out and do what we were coached do and, if we do that, we’re going to be OK whether the game was going to be a runaway or whether it’s going to be tight. I think the thing about any of the games that were close is, we weren’t going to panic. It was just keep grinding away, keep grinding away until we can get the job done.”
That Crumpler even became a star at Fike is a story unto itself. Growing up during the civil rights era in the South, Crumpler was faced with a decision that would shape his future while just a 12-year-old. Prior to full integration in schools becoming the law of the land, African-American students were free to choose if they would attend integrated schools or remain at an all-black school. For Crumpler, it was a heavy decision that he was facing alone as a seventh grader in 1964-65.
His mother, Jean, a single parent, had moved to New York for better employment opportunities, leaving Crumpler and his younger brother, Johnny (known to all as Skip), in the care of their maternal grandmother, Mary Henry Crumpler.
“I look back, honestly, and I don’t know why — being who I am and knowing who I am — what encouraged me to make that decision is beyond me because I didn’t have any input from anyone,” Crumpler recalled. “No one in our community, none of my friends. My mother lived in New York. My father, whom I never knew obviously, my grandma — I didn’t get any input from anyone about making that decision, why I made that decision. But, I did. And in doing so, it was in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me at that point in time.”
Keep in mind that Crumpler was not well known for his athletic achievements at that time. He said that he asked his friends, Brooksie Jenkins and Sam Lathan, both of whom would later be his basketball teammates at Fike — to make the move with him from Samuel Vick Elementary to the integrated Charles L. Coon Junior High.
“No one told me what to expect, or anything, I just went in and I just tried to be who the heck I was, not make any noise, not create any issues — what issues that would be, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t go in expecting not to be accepted. I don’t know, I just went in blindly with the intent that whatever I had to do, I was just going to do it. And if I didn’t like it, I would, more than likely, walk away, and that would be it.”
It wasn’t easy at first for the young Crumpler, who admitted that he wrote a letter and forged his mother’s signature, stating that he was going to leave Coon. But he never was able to bring himself to give the letter to Coon principal Roscoe Eller and, shortly thereafter, found himself acclimating to his new educational environment.
He credited Sandy Ruffin, who was a cheerleader at Coon and then Fike, for immediately befriending him and paving the way for his acceptance during what was a racially tumultuous time for not only Wilson but the nation. Crumpler said there were only a couple of incidents in which he encountered racism directed at him during his two years at Coon. Of course, his growing stature as a star athlete had some effect on how he was treated.
“It wasn’t easy growing up, you know that when you went to the bus station or the train station, you had to go to a different side than anyone else,” he said. “Or you had to drink from a different water fountain. You couldn’t go into a restaurant. I mean you either settle in and say, ‘Hey, that’s just the way it is,’ or you’d be bitter or whatever. You know a lot of people thought those things. And it doesn’t mean that I would have but I think under the circumstances I came in, as an individual that people saw was very, very different than what they were told a person like me would be like in the classroom, on the athletic field. And that was basically it. I just think I was a culture shock for many individuals and anything else, with the way I carried myself and I’m very thankful for that. Because that’s truly who I am.”
Crumpler’s football ability really took off when his coaches at Coon moved him from tight end, a position he had played during his Midget Football days at Reid Street Community Center under the guidance of Gene Cox, to running back at the end of his eighth-grade season at Coon. He and Lamm formed a formidable backfield duo for head coach Willard Brewer’s Blue Chargers as ninth graders in the fall of 1966. By the time he got to Fike as a sophomore the following year, Crumpler was ready to play at the varsity level.
‘A HOUSEHOLD NAME’
By the time his senior season ended, Crumpler was, as the headline of a Wilson Daily Times feature story on him proclaimed, “a household name.” His fame extended far beyond Wilson and even North Carolina as the gifted athlete started to stack up offers to play college football from such programs as Oklahoma, Michigan State and Florida State, as well as North Carolina and N.C. State. However, an ambitious new coach just 35 miles down the road in Greenville was working hard to land what would be one of the biggest recruits to ever sign with the East Carolina football program. Elizabeth City native and former Duke star Mike McGee and his top assistant, Sonny Randle, recruited Crumpler. They were helped by Trevathan’s decision to leave the high school ranks and join their staff at ECU.
But Crumpler insists he never was recruited by Trevathan to play for the Pirates. He was, however, under constant advisement from Wilson businessman Al Wheeler to sign with Wheeler’s alma mater, ECU.
“Al was an East Carolina graduate,” Crumpler said. “I spent a lot of time at his home, borrowed his car whenever I needed it for something, whatever that would be, and things like that. He fed me and that type of thing so he became more what I called my adoptive guardian. I called him my self-appointed guardian.And when I signed my scholarship to come to East Carolina it was signed at his home.”
It was quite an event as Crumpler’s grandmother was joined by McGee, Randle, ECU chancellor Leo Jenkins and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones in witnessing the star player sign with the Pirates.
For Crumpler, the decision to stay close to home was made, in part, for just that reason.
“The only thing I knew was with my grandmother,” he said. “She was the only support I had as far as family goes. She wasn’t in the best of health. Imagine that being the closest person to you as far as a family member, what do you do? And part of that incentive was being close to her.”
The other reason was that Crumpler wanted to be part of something that wasn’t already established.
“(I thought) maybe I can make a difference in this particular program,” he said. “You’re not going to an Oklahoma, you got Heisman Trophy winner after Heisman Trophy winner or Nebraska or whatever. Here it was in Greenville, North Carolina, and the attraction was you know maybe I can do something special here.”
It was the right move for Crumpler, who continues to work as an academic coordinator at ECU. He’s spent virtually his entire adult life in Greenville, where he raised his three sons — Carlester Jr., Alge and Bryan — and currently lives in the area with his current wife, Danita, and their two children, Ar’iana and Isaiah. Both Carlester Jr. and Alge were football stars in their own right at ECU and UNC, respectively, before playing in the NFL. However, Crumpler warns that 14-year-old Isaiah might be on track to surpass both of them and himself on the football field.
“He’s an extremely hard worker,” Crumpler said of Isaiah. “He has a motor like you’ve never seen. His energy level is extremely high. And he is extremely driven, and he will tell you that his goal, he will tell his friends that his goal is to supersede anything his brothers have already done.”
But for Carlester Crumpler, the legacy he hopes all of his children will continue is that of humility.
“It was something ingrained in me that I tried to instill into my own sons and daughter that no matter how big you are, no matter what you accomplish there’s always someone out there that can be better,” he said. “But whatever you got, just make sure you keep it all under control. Be humble and be thankful that you’re able to do these things, but you don’t have to brag about it because if you’re good enough, people want to do it for you.”