Combing the tobacco fields for talent

Published 1:51 pm Sunday, November 30, 2014

I don’t get to see many record-breaking events.  Among the ones I count as my favorite was seeing Bill Elliott pocket a million dollars in 1985 – the Winston Million – for winning three of NASCAR’s four major races: Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte, and Talladega.

Elliott won three of the first four races on that list before the season reached the half-way mark and then he closed it out with a couple of second-place finishes in Charlotte and Daytona, and his second win at Darlington where he claimed that whole bunch of RJ Reynolds money, a cool million bucks.

I was at that Darlington race and witnessed them showering Elliott in Victory Lane with play money that had his picture on it. That’s where they began calling him “Million Dollar Bill”.  I guess that’s also where the expression “make it rain” originated, because I was lucky enough to catch a fistful of those floating ducats and still have one of those paper dollars somewhere in a trunk at my house.

All this I’ve mentioned was a buildup to what I witnessed almost 30 years later in Greenville last Saturday.  That was when East Carolina receiver Justin Hardy ran a curl route and caught an eight-yard pass from quarterback Shane Carden and became college football’s all-time career receptions leader. Hardy broke the record for successfully catching a football in a 34-6 win against Tulane, and now has 355 catches for the Pirates.  He’s even got a few more games left in Purple and Gold to pad his lead and for his career, Hardy has 355 receptions for 4,153 yards and 32 touchdowns.

What some folks may not know is that it almost didn’t happen.  That’s because Hardy had just one scholarship offer coming out of West Craven High School in Vanceboro. That was to Division-II and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) member Fayetteville State. Instead of accepting the offer to play for the Broncos, Hardy opted to walk on at ECU.

Former ECU coach Steve Logan, now a radio personality and media college football analyst, summed it up on his radio show earlier this week.

“When you go east of Interstate 95, there is a different life form out there. You get into those tobacco fields where UNC and NC State are probably not going to go and you comb through those fields and you find those kids who are talented,” Logan said. “You bring them in, show them a different way to do things, put them in the weight room and develop the player.”

The man knew what he was talking about because he’d trod those same “fields” in search of bodies to fill out Pirate uniforms.

“This Hardy kid has done some things that are extraordinary,” Logan continued on his show. “Just a skinny-leg Eastern North Carolina kid that gets an opportunity, and there you go.”

Back in the day when somewhere in the bowels of what was then known as just plain Ficklen Stadium, and there were just a few free weights and some rickety old wooden benches; before there was training and conditioning like you have it now, many an ECU coach from the venerable Clarence Stasavich to probably Ed Emory had to do the combing in those “fields”.

As Logan said, these coaches brought some extraordinary talent to Greenville.  That talent included a group that won no less than eight games over a four-year period and a 1978 Independence Bowl winning team that featured a few of those “overlooked” kids.

Long-time Pirate-watchers may recall the likes of Zack Valentine, Leander Green, Theodore Sutton, Anthony Collins, Terry Gallaher and Edenton’s own Gerald Hall.

I even remember an undersized defensive back that former ECU Coach Pat Dye stumbled across who was playing his prep football at Lumberton High School.  That defensive back was player who would go on to later recruit that other player who is now the leading receiver in college football history.

That Lumberton player?  His name is Ruffin McNeill.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7211.