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Hall of Fame: 18th Salisbury-Rowan class inducted

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — It was brisk, like Cal Hayes Jr. running back a punt for a touchdown or racing from first to third on a single to left.

The 18th Salisbury-Rowan class was inducted in a 45-minute ceremony on Sunday at the Civic Center, the quickest on record. There have been several multiple-hour marathons in the past, a lot of life stories told, but this one was short and sweet. Inductees thanked God, their coaches and their families, and then spent more time reminiscing and picture-taking than talking.

Inductees take the podium in alphabetical order. Fred Cooke got things started smoothly, and Chris Sifford finished things off with a flourish. In between, Dawn Gibson, niece of the late Darryl Gibson, provided much of the emotion for the day. Every one of the 18 induction ceremonies have brought tears of joy or sadness or both, and this one was no exception.

As Hall of Fame classes go, this one was a beast, a mind-boggling class, really, when you consider it’s the 18th. It includes four marvelous, multi-sport athletes (Hayes, Sifford, Cooke and Mitch Ellis), one of the great coaches of all-time (Jim Gantt), one of the best basketball players ever to be produced by the county (Carlos Dixon), and Gibson, who was not only an outstanding basketball player, but a pioneering black athlete every place he went, from South Rowan High to Lees-McRae Junior College to Appalachian State University.

The seven newcomers brought the total Hall of Fame membership to 115, a tally that includes winners of the Fred M. Evans Community Service Award and the Horace Billings Lifetime Achievement Award.

There was a photo on the wall of all 115 inductees, and as master of ceremonies Kent Bernhardt stated, “Behind every one of those people on the wall, there’s an amazing story.”

Gantt and Hayes are the 18th and 19th members to be elected primarily for baseball accomplishments. Sifford, Cooke and Ellis make it 38 inductees who performed their finest feats on the gridiron. Dixon and Gibson are the 29th and 30th to be elected for basketball heroics.

That’s 87 inductees from the three traditional “major” sports. Track and field is reasonably well-represented in the Salisbury-Rowan Hall, with eight inductees, including some notable coaches, but there are sports that remain dramatically under-represented such as wrestling (4), tennis (2) and golf (2). There have been no inductees yet from the worlds of soccer, softball, volleyball, swimming or cross country, but progress is sure to be made in the years ahead.

Dennis Davidson, the Post sports editor, chaired the event for the first time. Wilson Cherry carried the torch as chairman for the Hall of Fame’s first 17 years. He was saluted by yesterday’s crowd with warm applause for his efforts.

Steve Clark, recreation coordinator with Salisbury Parks and Recreation, supervises the Hall of Fame committee. Clark missed yesterday’s event due to a family wedding in Virginia, the first time he’s been absent from an induction ceremony.

Jason Parks put together a video presentation that introduced the new Hall of Famers.

Gantt has coached national runner-up teams for Rowan County American Legion as well as Catawba College, and he’s always done it the right way.

His Catawba record is 787-408, a .659 winning percentage, while his Legion record is 534-193, a .735 winning percentage. Living legend Joe Ferebee, a member of the first class of the Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame, had a .675 winning percentage with Salisbury and Rowan Legion teams, which gives you an idea of just how overwhelming Gantt’s success has been.

Gantt, who was a very good third baseman in his playing days for Catawba, joked that he was the worst athlete in this Hall of Fame class, but Sifford had a good response.

“Coach Gantt has an athletic mind,” Sifford said. “One of the best ever.”

Cooke isn’t a household name to  younger Rowan sports fans because his career at Salisbury’s Boyden High and Wake Forest took place in the 1960s. But at 6-foot-5, he was a monster, three-sport athlete and won the William Ludwig Award as the the most outstanding athlete at Boyden in 1966.

He’s entering the Hall mostly because he started at three different positions for Wake Forest football (freshman team quarterback, varsity linebacker and tight end), but he also was a good enough basketball player to top 800 points in high school when Boyden was playing in a league with the state’s biggest schools. He started in the 1966 East-West All-Star basketball game alongside future Catawba superstar Garland Davis and excelled for Wake’s freshman team.

In baseball, he was a standout on the mound for Rowan Legion teams.

The 6-foot-7 Gibson played ball for Aggrey Memorial, the school for black students in Landis, before integrating South Rowan’s basketball program in 1966. He helped that 19-4 team, which also included Denny Hogan and Ben Basinger, share the South Piedmont Conference championship with a 10-2 record.

Gibson played at Lees-McRae junior college for coach Jack Lytton. Lytton passed up a day on the golf course to honor Gibson at Sunday’s ceremonies.

“Darryl Gibson was a walking encyclopedia, had a vocabulary with a lot of words that a simple basketball coach like me couldn’t understand,” Lytton said. “He was a unique individual, a real leader and our student body president. On the basketball court, he was a great rebounder. He wasn’t a great scorer when he came to us, but he worked hard at it, became very good around the basket and got a scholarship to go on to Appalachian State.”

Even after he moved on to Appalachian State, he’d come back to Lees-McRae to speak and to fire up the basketball team.

Gibson did more of the same at Appalachian State, earning respect, serving as team captain, piling up rebounds.

Gibson died in 2014. His niece, Dawn Gibson, accepted his Hall of Fame plaque and spoke eloquently about what her uncle had meant to her family. To honor her uncle, she wore Darryl’s black leather coat. It was one of the best moments of the day.

After graduating from ASU, Darryl went on to a career in education and communications in North Carolina and Minnesota.

Dixon’s high school glory days also took place at South Rowan, although they were three decades after Gibson had first shown the way for black athletes.

Dixon is not South’s all-time leading scorer (Larry Lentz holds that honor), but Dixon scored 938 points for second place on South’s all-time list in just two seasons. He scored 610 his senior year in 1999, averaging 24.4 points per game when South was taking on the Winston-Salem schools in the 4A Central Piedmont Conference. He scored 34 against Mooresville, 31 against Davie County, 30 against South Stokes, and 31 against Mount Tabor in his final high school game.

That’s still the greatest scoring season in South history, and he was honored as an East-West All-Star.

Dixon’s career at Virginia Tech could land him in the Hall of Fame in Blacksburg, eventually. He was team MVP twice and scored 1,348 points.

He averaged double figures four straight seasons, including his senior year after Virginia Tech had shifted from the Big East to the ACC. He made clutch shots against the best in the country, helping lead upsets of UConn and Duke.

Dixon played professionally overseas for 11 seasons in seven different countries. He recently was hired as director of basketball operations at Appalachian State.

Ellis is the grandson of Steven Gilmore Sr, a 2014 Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame inductee. That’s a unique family connection.

Ellis was a dependable double-figure scorer for North Rowan basketball teams in the 1990s, but it was in football that he made his mark. He’s one of the all-time best quarterbacks for both North Rowan and Catawba.

North had a standout QB, Carvie Kepley, ahead of Ellis, so he didn’t become North’s QB until his junior year. He produced two sensational seasons for coach Roger Secreast, who was in attendance on Sunday, passing for 5,581 yards and 50 touchdowns. He had a five-TD night against Mount Pleasant and shined with four 300-yard passing games.

Ellis would start four seasons at quarterback for Catawba and was a leader for the 1999 and 2000 teams, two of the strongest in school history. Those teams were a combined 22-3 and won Division II playoff games. Ellis passed for 5,550 yards for the Indians and 45 touchdowns. He’s fourth on Catawba’s all-time list in both categories.

Hayes spoke quietly, same as always.

Gantt, who coached Hayes in American Legion ball, joked that Catawba assistant coach Michael Lowman came to the ceremonies just to see if Hayes would speak.

Hayes was so sensational at East Rowan in football and baseball and in American Legion that it’s hard to describe. He didn’t pitch and he never hit a lot of home runs, but he’s one of the greatest ever for Rowan Legion, still the all-time leader for the storied program in hits, runs and stolen bases, as well as playing shortstop in phenomenal fashion. He batted .409 for his Legion career, with 276 runs, 279 hits and 141 steals.

“If he hit a two-bouncer to the second baseman, he was safe,” Gantt said. “Just a great talent. Balls that were hit close to him at shortstop were outs, and, on the bases, he was always just as fast as he needed to be.”

Fans will always remember that even after he was drafted in the third round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002, he stayed with the Legion team and helped propel them to a state championship and a best-ever 43-2 record.

Hayes batted .404 with 56 steals in his high school baseball career. He played on stellar teams for coach Jeff Safrit, alongside memorable athletes such as Bobby Parnell, Drew Davis, Julian Sides, Nick Lefko and Spencer Steedley.

Hayes’ football teams at East weren’t nearly as strong, but he kept crowds transfixed. There was a 344-yard rushing game against Robinson in 2001 that still ranks second in county history. There was a night against A.L. Brown in which Hayes scored all four East touchdowns and rushed for more than 200 yards. His blazing feats against the Wonders included a 71-yard run and a 90-yard kickoff return.

Sifford may have been all-county as many times as anyone’s ever been. In the late 1980s, he was the one of the best in football, basketball and baseball.

He was all-county both ways in football in 1987, doing double duty as a quarterback and cornerback. That’s a rare feat.

He was USA Today Player of the Week for  the entire state early in 1987 when he led an upset of Lexington, ranked No. 1 and a two-time defending state champ.

In baseball,  he was All-Rowan County four years in a row and All-Central Carolina Conference three times. Every summer, he was a starter for Rowan County American Legion.

Sifford also had his moments in basketball, scoring 683 points for the Cavaliers. His senior year (1988-89) for coach Bob Hundley, he averaged 16.6 points per game and helped North tie for the CCC championship.

Sifford went on to play defensive back for Lenoir-Rhyne. He earned All-South Atlantic Conference honors. He also had a memorable interception in a game against his hometown team — Catawba.

Sifford is still active athletically in golf and is visible daily as a community leader. He received an Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Award in 2015.

Sifford’s friend, Al Wood, No. 5 scorer in UNC basketball history with 2,105 points — more points than Charlie Scott, Larry Miller or Michael Jordan — was on hand Sunday to lend his support.

Sifford’s trip to the podium was the perfect way to close things out, as he has a strong sense of the county’s proud sports history, a history that helped shape the careers of all of Sunday’s inductees.

Commitee members are Cherry, Davidson, Jimmy Heggins, Charles Hellard, Jeff Holshouser, Mike London, Scott Maddox, Aaron Neely, Terry Osborne, Howard Platt, Ralph Shatterly, Liz Tennent and Mark Wineka. With the help of Clark, they’ll start working on the 19th class in the spring. Nominations always are welcome.

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