By Russell Rawlings
In a previous life, it was my good fortune to write a book about my childhood heroes, the Fike High School Cyclones of Wilson, state 4-A football champions of 1967, 1968 and 1969.
Little did I know, while working on “Cyclone Country: The Time, The Town, The Team,” that three of those players – Bill Farris, Steve Coggins and Chip Gibbons – would take on larger meaning in my career as members of the North Carolina Bar Association.
Their names are familiar to many within the legal profession.
Farris practiced with Farris & Farris (now Farris & Thomas) in Wilson for 23 years before becoming a District Court judge.
Coggins spent 25 years practicing in Raleigh, including the last 13 of those years as a partner with Parker Poe. He has been a partner with Rountree Losee in Wilmington since 2002.
Gibbons practiced in Wilson for one year with his father before joining Poyner Spruill in Raleigh, where he is a partner and highly regarded tax attorney.
In their previous lives of some 50 years ago, they were part of “the greatest high school football story ever told.” Individually their names will not likely be found in the record books, roles reserved for their head coach, Henry Trevathan, and their superstar running back, Carlester Crumpler, both of whom are members of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
But collectively, in their youth as in their adult lives, all three have embodied what is meant when it is said that the sum is greater than its parts.
“Our coaches pushed us further than we thought we could go,” Farris recalled. “That has made it easier to face challenges later in life. We were successful against more talented teams only because every player – star or not – blocked for others on offense and covered for each other on defense.
“Unlike most teams today, we huddled every play and communicated a plan. Thus, we learned at an early age that seeking the common good benefits us as well as others.”
Farris also learned at an early age a valuable lesson about community service and paying it forward, which he has done throughout his career.
“Having celebrated orthopedic surgeon Tyson Jennette on our sideline every game gave us an example of service to youth,” Farris said. “The only way to repay Dr. Jennette has been to teach, coach and otherwise volunteer to serve our youth.
“People in the community whom I did not know greeted us on the street with encouraging words. Some wrote us letters. Many contributed financially for equipment, uniforms, etc. They certainly made me realize we can make an impact on a child’s life by encouraging and showing interest in their endeavors.
“I hope I’ve followed their examples over the last 50 years.”
“I was basically an insecure kid,” Coggins recalled during his interview for the book. “I wouldn’t go through adolescence again for all the money in the world. When I first came to Wilson from Elm City in the seventh grade, I had slicked-back hair and stood out like a sore thumb.
“Football helped in a lot of ways, primarily because whatever my limits were, I was able to over come those obstacles and make the most of what I had.”
Coggins was the NCBA’s Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 2000. Since moving to Wilmington, he and his wife, Louise, have devoted a great deal of their energy to combatting human trafficking.
“Coaches Trevathan and (assistant coach) Gus Andrews had a profound effect on my upbringing,” Coggins said. “They helped form my physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development, shaped my work ethic, helped me discover my competitiveness, unleashed my need to be the best I could be, engendered my hunger for teamwork, and cultivated a resilience to come back from adversity.
“The dynamic of working on a partially integrated team put me on the path of the search for racial justice that continues to this day.”
Humble to a fault, Gibbons was not unlike dozens of young men who comprised the championship rosters. His name was rarely in the newspaper and scarcely mentioned in the scouting report, yet he was there every afternoon for practice and every Friday night for games, ready, willing and able if ever called upon to step up.
Such a moment arose in the first round of the state playoffs in 1969 when Fike traveled to Fayetteville to play E.E. Smith High School, which had a superstar of its own in quarterback Charlie Baggett. It was Gibbons, however, who was the hero of the game, catching a pass which led to the winning touchdown and intercepting a pass which sealed the victory.
“I liked what that game said about high school football,” Trevathan recalled, “because both teams had their stars and their headliners, and a guy by the name of Chip Gibbons won that football game for us.
“I always admired the kids who stuck with the program until they got to be seniors and their bodies had developed to the point where they could compete. Chip was just one of several guys who did that in our program and he had a great season for us, but nothing was ever any bigger that what he did that night in Fayetteville.”
Ernie Murray is an attorney with Etheridge Hamlett & Murray in Nashville and practiced for many years in Rocky Mount, where he attended Rocky Mount Senior High and competed against the championship teams from 18 miles down the road.
“I got to know Steve Coggins at Carolina,” Murray said. “We played club football together our freshman year. He asked me if I played football for Rocky Mount and I told him that I did. I told him that I hated his guts. Not only did they beat us, but he took our head cheerleader, who became his wife!
“Chip and I practiced together at Poyner Spruill for several years, and of course I know Billy from being on the bench. I don’t do much District Court practice, so I don’t deal with him in court, but I have run into him on occasion and we always talk about the old days when we do. My office is a block from the courthouse in Nashville.”
From his unique perspective, Murray witnessed Fike High School’s rise to greatness in much the same way that Rocky Mount had experienced championship success in the first half of the decade.
“The mixture was the same for the great Rocky Mount teams,” Murray said. “You might have a guy whose daddy owned the warehouse playing alongside a guy whose daddy moved crates in the warehouse. Or their fathers might have worked in the mill or been with the railroad; it was a mixture of everybody.
“I remember seeing Carlester Crumpler for the first time in the ninth grade. Wilson had two teams at the junior high and we had already beaten one of them, so we were cool. Then we went over the Fleming Stadium and he ran roughshod over us.”
Murray is not the least bit surprised to learn that his fellow NCBA members are neither boastful nor vocal about the remarkable accomplishments of their younger years.
“All three would say that they were very fortunate to have good coaches,” Murray said. “All three of them are class acts, and anything that they told you about their experience was understated.
“But Fike was a force to be reckoned with during those years.”
The preceding article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine.DECEMBER 30, 2019/