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‘Warrior’ claims his place

MURFREESBORO – Chad Drake looks back on a decision made nearly 30 years ago as a “game-changer” – one that led to a highly decorated career in the United States Marines, retiring as a Lt. Colonel.

The Ahoskie native was coming off an outstanding football career at Hertford County High School. He had collegiate offers, but opted to stay close to home as legendary Chowan coach Jim Garrison saw a star in the making and developed Drake into a force along the offensive line from 1990-92.

The rest, as they say, is history.

On Nov. 2, Drake was part of the 34th annual class to be inducted into the Chowan University Jim Garrison Sports Hall of Fame. There he was joined by five other inductees – James Doggett (Men’s Basketball: 1988-90), former Athletic Director Dennis Helsel (2006-13), Trayvon Lathan (Men’s Basketball: 2003-07), Ashley Bradford Triplett (Women’s Soccer: 2006-10), and C.J. Westler (Football: 2008-10).

The induction banquet was held at the J.M. Jenkins Center. Those new inductees were also recognized at halftime of Chowan’s Nov. 2 home football game vs. Virginia State.

At the banquet, Drake made it very clear that other than his family and his military service, there is another love in life – football.

“I love football because it’s always about the fight to be the best,” said the Ahoskie native. “Talent counts, but what really counts is the spirit of the fight to see who will break.”

This rugged former football player and highly decorated Marine – the recipient of two Bronze Stars who led troops into battle as a Platoon Commander and Battalion Executive Officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan – was moved to tears when talking about his now late mother, Ann.

“She was my rock,” Drake said, his voice choked with emotion. “She was the one who selected the school for me to attend. Her direction sent me to Chowan; it was one of her best pieces of advice.”

He credited his father, Gene – a former professional football player – for his strong influence.

“Dad made me a warrior and the football player I aspired to be,” Drake insisted.

He thanked his wife, Jessica – his college sweetheart – for all she had done at home while Drake toured the world for nearly 25 years in the military.

“She was the best commanding officer a man could have; she kept our home together and gave me five beautiful children,” Drake stressed. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’m extremely proud of my kids.”

Drake also gave high praise to a particular group of individuals that had such a huge impact on his life.

“My football coaches were all instrumental in my life, they sacrificed a lot of their time and energy – and didn’t get paid a lot of money – to make an investment in me,” he noted. “My first coach was my dad; then came coaches Daryl Allen and Richard Murray (legendary leaders at Hertford County High School) who were both true Southern gentlemen and great, great coaches.

“Then I had the opportunity to come here and play at Chowan under another true legend and true Southern gentleman, Coach Jim Garrison along with his sidekick, Coach Dan Surface,” Drake continued. “I fell in love with Chowan football back when I was in the eighth grade and attended football camp here with all those former players, then NFL stars, coming back as instructors and motivators. They all taught me a lot about football, but they also taught me how to be a good student and a good citizen.”

Drake again choked back the tears when talking about his opportunity to be a starting player on the offensive line in his sophomore season at Chowan.

“I gave it my all,” Drake said. “I remember Coach Garrison standing in front of the team and telling them if we had 11 Chad Drakes on the field at the same time we would win the national championship.”

After Chowan, Drake went to Methodist College in Fayetteville where he played for another legendary head coach – Jim Sypolt. He was a two-year starter at Methodist.

“All these men taught me how to be a warrior, something that carried over to my years as a United States Marine,” Drake remarked. “They taught me how to improvise and overcome, just like I did in the Marines. They taught me how to be gracious as a winner and how to be a part of a team.

“This is a very humbling experience to be nominated and then inducted; there are so many deserving athletes that should be up here rather than me,” Drake added. “I thank the Hall of Fame Committee for considering me as worthy of induction.”

He praised Chowan Chancellor Dr. Chris White (the University’s former president) for the foresight and vision to transform the school and the campus into what it is today.

“Seeing it today compared to when I was a student here is a remarkable change,” Drake noted. “You have taken this university into the 21st century, and I’m sure Dr. (Kirk) Peterson (Chowan’s current president) will take this school even further. Chowan will forever be in my heart and I will forever be an ambassador for all the great things about this great university.”

Doggett came to Chowan in 1988 from Reidsville High School. In his two-year career, Chowan posted a 50-14 record and he was named to the First Team All Region X and All Carolinas Conference.

He recalled the first words he heard from legendary Chowan coach Bob Burke: “It’s my way or the highway.”

“I had no problem with that,” Doggett said, sparking laughter from the audience. “He made me a better player, but more importantly a better man. He pushed me hard, on the court and in the classroom.”

He thanked his family for all the support over the years, especially his mother and his brother, the latter for “all the battles we had, making me better.”

During his time at Chowan, Helsel led the university’s athletic transformation from NCAA Division III to Division II and its acceptance into the CIAA, the nation’s oldest historically black college conference.

“I was very fortunate during my time here at Chowan to be blessed with great coaches and great student-athletes,” Helsel said. “To the Hall of Fame committee, thank you for this great honor; it’s a great honor to have before you pass away and I congratulate the other five Hall of Fame inductees tonight. I’m truly humbled to stand here tonight with this great group of former Chowan athletes.”

In a unique move, Helsel allowed his two sons, Mike and Chris, to share stories about their father.

“You’ll have more fun listening to them rather than listening to me,” Hensel said.

Mike Hensel joked about why his father was chosen to join such a prestigious list of Chowan athletes in the Jim Garrison Hall of Fame. He said his father’s “athleticism” was restricted to his “career” as an adult slow-pitch softball player.

“And that was even questionable….he limped in to the dinner table one night, saying he separated his shoulder while diving into first base in an attempt to beat out an infield single,” said the son. “But that was my dad….he always had the will to win, even when we met in one-on-one basketball in our driveway back when I was 14-years-old and 120 pounds soaking wet.”

Chris Hensel said he recognized his father’s leadership qualities at an early age, starting with a stint at West Point Academy as the coach of the women’s fast-pitch softball team, to Penn State where he coached softball, to Old Dominion as an Assistant AD, to Syracuse University as a Senior Associate AD, to the University of Akron as Athletic Director, to the University of Maryland as Senior Associate AD, to Conference USA as the Associate Commissioner, and finally to Chowan.

“My dad wasn’t about the glamorous side of college athletics, but the person behind the scenes in charge of budgets, scheduling, travel, and finance,” he noted. “He was the guy that made sure that the buses were scheduled for travel and made sure you had a place to sleep while on the road. He made sure that all the student-athletics had to worry about was playing the game, and he did that job for almost four decades with unbelievable energy, honor and integrity.”

Lathan, a Chesapeake, VA native who played professionally overseas for 11 years after graduating from Chowan, was the final player recruited by the legendary Bob Burke, and was coached at Chowan by Jim Tribett. Lathan’s 1,925 points scored during his career at Chowan remains a school record. He was a three-time All-American and All-Region performer.

“I’ve played before thousands of people in a single game, but have never been so nervous as I am right now,” said the lanky, 6’-7” Lathan who still looked in shape to once again take the court.

“I remember well my playing days here at Chowan; it is a great school, one that allowed me to spread my wings and fly,” Lathan added. “My coaches turned me into a point guard, something I’ll never regret. Chowan will always be home to me….it’s like a family here.”

Triplett, also a Chesapeake, VA native now employed in Sales & Marketing with Optima Health, told a story about how her skills as a high school player were not fully utilized despite the fact that she was a two-time player of the year.

“Things changed when I got here to Chowan,” she stressed. “My coaches encouraged me; they let me be creative and we enjoyed a lot of success.”

Her success was also found off the field. During her career at Chowan, Triplett was on the Dean’s List or President’s List academically. She graduated with honors with a degree in Marketing Management and Entrepreneurship. She was named Miss Chowan University in 2009-10 and received a scholarship to study abroad.

“Chowan motivated me; I found my direction in life here,” she remarked. “Chowan is the reason for my success today.”

Triplett still owns several Chowan records: goals scored in a single game, goals scored in a season, points scored in a season, game-winning goals, and shots on goal.

Westler – currently the Offensive Coordinator at Harding High School in Marion, Ohio – was not only a record-setting quarterback while at Chowan (he held 15 offensive records upon gradating in 2010), but was a President’s List student and named to the CIAA Commissioner’s All-Academic Team.

“I want to thank everyone here at Chowan for welcoming me on this campus when I first arrived in the fall of 2008,” Westler said. “My mom and my girlfriend dropped me off and didn’t know anyone here. But ya’ll all made me feel at home and made my transition really easy.”

He thanked current Chowan interim head coach Mark Hall (his offensive coordinator while playing for the Hawks).

“He invited me to transfer here from Urbana (University) in Ohio and he put me in a position to be successful here at Chowan,” said Westler. “We had a great relationship.”

Chowan Director of Athletics Pat Mashuda presided over the banquet. Dr. Kirk Peterson, Chowan President, offered comments.

Comprising the Chowan University Jim Garrison Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2019 are, from left, former Athletic Director Dennis Helsel, Trayvon Lathan (Men’s Basketball), Ashley Bradford Triplett (Women’s Soccer), James Doggett (Men’s Basketball), C.J. Westler (Football), and Chad Drake (Football). Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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