Trevathan’s Cyclones still relevant today

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The name inspired both awe and dread in me as an eighth-grader playing tackle football for the first time at Charles L. Coon Middle School in the fall of 1979.

Sure, I had heard about Fike High winning three straight state championships a little more than a decade earlier when I was a toddler, but the only name I really knew was the Cyclones’ star running back Carlester Crumpler. After all, who in Wilson hadn’t heard of the great Carlester?

But I didn’t know much about Henry Trevathan, the Fike coach who built that dynasty. The very name, “Trevathan,” sounded to me as though it should have “General” in front of it — and I had little idea how right I was.

When I made the team at Coon under first-year head coach Gee Sauls, I had a lot to learn about football. My previous experience was playing flag football at Wilson Parks and Recreation Department and that was hardly enough to prepare me for the real thing. Admittedly, Coach Sauls, who was a tennis and basketball standout at Fike, had a lot to learn about football, too. But he was smart enough to surround him with coaches who did know plenty. One of these volunteer assistant coaches in 1979 was Willard Brewer, the father of my classmate Will.

Coach Brewer gave me and my Bucks teammates a crash course in experiencing a bit of what it was like to have played for Coach Trevathan. Coach Brewer had coached one of the teams at Coon when it was a junior high back in the 1960s. He was fully immersed in the program that Trevathan built and was eager to come out of retirement, so to speak, and show a new generation of Wilson players how to be winners.

Coach Brewer didn’t think anything of grabbing one of us by our face mask and forcibly placing us where we needed to be as we practiced. At the time, I thought his technique was a little heavy-handed but I certainly didn’t complain.

He also made sure we all understood that none of us had what it what it took to be Fike Cyclones on Henry Trevathan’s teams. It was a challenge that, as best I can remember, was accepted, albeit with some grumbling.

Some of the plays we ran at Coon, I learned years later, were straight from Trevathan’s playbook.

Fast forward a year later to Hunt High, where I, a year older and more experienced, was a starting guard on the Warriors ninth-grade team that was coached by Clay Johnson and Allen Dilda. One of the volunteer assistant coaches was Allen’s older brother, Ronnie, a member of two of those Fike championship teams.

Ronnie Dilda was, as I recall, a good teacher of technique, both offensive and defensive. He was also good natured, unlike Coach Brewer, who aways seemed to be angry at us on the Coon team. However, Ronnie Dilda seemed to take delight in reminding the Hunt ninth-grade team in 1980, as we began practice with 100 up-downs, that none of us would have lasted through one of Coach Trevathan’s practices.

By the time the season was over, I can tell you that I, and probably most of my teammates, were sick and tired of hearing about the Fike Cyclones and Coach Trevathan. I can also tell you that Coon team in 1979 went 6-0 and the Hunt freshman team in 1980 went 5-2.

Despite earning a starting job at right guard at Hunt, I stopped playing football after ninth grade. I loved baseball and never was there a day I didn’t look forward to practicing or playing baseball. I couldn’t say the same about football, at least the practices, and just stopped playing. I definitely have regretted that decision over the years.

But my teammates at Hunt went on to play for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A Eastern title when we were seniors. Along the way, that group of Warriors beat a very good Fike team that was coached by Trevathan’s former assistant Gus Andrews and a pretty good Beddingfield team. In fact, Hunt’s midseason win over Fike came when both were ranked in the top 10. Many of the players on all three county teams had played at Coon under Gee Sauls and Willard Brewer.

Years later, I finally had the chance to meet Henry Trevathan. He didn’t look at all as though I had imagined, either then or in the photos from the 1960s that appeared in Russell Rawlings’ seminal book about the championship era, “Cyclone Country.” Trevathan bore more than a slight resemblance to Hollywood actor Luke Perry and was not physically imposing.

Even as a grown man, I carried a little trepidation as I introduced myself and shook his hand. It didn’t take long to understand why Trevathan is as revered as he is and why he was able to inspire those Fike players, assistant coaches, administrators and fans to believe in his message. He speaks directly, succinctly and passionately and with a penchant for building a story toward an inspirational conclusion.

When I finally revealed to him that I had played at Coon and Hunt and that Willard Brewer and Ronnie Dilda were among those who were my coaches, Trevathan was delighted. He was also delighted to know that I had been a pulling guard for the freshman Warriors since that position was a staple of the Fike offense in his tenure.

“You’re one of us!” he exclaimed.

Well, not quite, Coach, but I appreciate that you were kind enough to tell me so. However, in reflecting on my own experiences and that of the championship Cyclones, I realized that was the special allure of those teams. The players and coaches led the way, but everyone in Wilson then and for a long time thereafter shared in their journey.

When Times publisher Morgan Dickerman suggested that we celebrate in print the 50th anniversary of Fike’s first championship team in 1967, his excitement was the same as when he was a middle schooler in Wilson during that era. It was clear how precious those memories were to him and many others who were there. For those like me, who don’t remember, but have had connections to the Fike dynasty, it’s still a point of pride as residents of Wilson.

There’s a thin line between wallowing in nostalgia and understanding history. The merger of county and city school systems in 1978 that led to the creation of Hunt and Beddingfield undermined a lot of the sense of community Wilson had over its high school teams in 1967.

As Trevathan told me, “It wasn’t school against school; it was town against town.”

There’s still a lot to take from that era and how it still connects everyone who follows high school football in Wilson today. I have no doubt that 1967 Henry Trevathan would manage to keep his job today, given his approach. Heck, he had enough trouble back then, but I also believe that his approach to coaching is still practiced by successful coaches today. Start with fundamentals, blocking and tackling, and focus on the individuals as more than just players. Build successful young men and successful teams will be the product.

It’s also a lesson for players and coaches in Wilson today. There hasn’t been a state championship football team in Wilson since 1969, although Fike and Hunt have certainly been close a few times. The Fike Cyclones didn’t resemble a state championship program when Trevathan arrived in Wilson in 1964, but the magic happened through an age-old formula of hard work, dedication and belief that the impossible was not impossible. That’s the lesson that resonates today and what makes this look back at that era not just an exercise in nostalgia.