Where were you in '62?
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Appalachian High School’s 1962 Blue Devils football team tore through opponents like a chainsaw through butter. They were not accustomed to losing games before they got to 1962, and they made sure that losing was not going to happen that year.
Led by coach Jack Groce, Appalachian High School was already a football power. The Blue Devils, who won the Class AA Region 3 title in 1961, crushed Murphy 39-7 in the 1962 Region 3 state championship to cap an 11-0 season.
It was a team that was balanced with an explosive offense and a stingy defense.
The final scores of the game speak for themselves as Appalachian High outscored 11 opponents 440-40.
“Murphy was undefeated and we were undefeated,” team linebacker Wayne Clawson said. “We still beat them 39-7.”
The Blue Devils celebrate their Region 3 state AA championship tonight by being recognized before Watauga’s homecoming game against South Caldwell at Jack Groce Stadium. The players will reunite before the game, and then after the game tonight for another look at a remarkable season.
“We had a number of good kids,” Groce said. “They were good football players, but also good citizens as well. They were intelligent kids and I thought that made the difference.”
The players have kept in touch with each other, especially since many still live in the Boone area. They’ve been meeting to plan this weekend for a little over a month.
“We have enjoyed so much getting back together,” said Clawson, who was a junior on the team. “We’ve had fun looking at the annuals and looking at the scores.”
From 1961 until 1966, the AA North Carolina playoffs were divided into regions during that era. The winner of the regional championship game held its share of the overall state title, since the regional champs didn’t get to play each other.
They were divided into east and west champions from 1967-71. In 1972, the east champs started playing the west champs to determine an overall state champion.
Appalachian State defended its Region 3 championship in 1962 after winning in 1961. The Blue Devils added a Region 4 championship in 1964.
“We played an eastern team when I was a freshman,” said Jim Cottrell, who was a junior and the team’s center in 1962. “That was the one game we lost my freshman year. After that, they split it, the west didn’t play the east after that.”
It’s up for debate, but doubtful that any other AA team could have beat the Blue Devils that season. Appalachian’s closest game during the 1962 season was a 25-7 victory over Taylorsville, an AAA team that felt it needed to slow down two Appalachian players to win the game.
“They were expecting to beat the (heck) out of us quite frankly,” Cottrell said. “They got really surprised.”
Of course, those two players Taylorsville worried about were formidable. One of them was Bob Matheson, who went on to fame as the number-sake of the famous 53-defense used by the Miami Dolphins during their undefeated 1972 season.
Matheson was a dominant fullback and linebacker while at Appalachian High. He later went on to play linebacker at Duke before playing with the Dolphins.
The other formidable player was quarterback Tommy Taylor. Clawson played guard at Appalachian State Teachers College with Taylorsville linebacker Rich Sherrill, who told Clawson about Taylorsville’s strategy.
“He said one of their coaches said Appalachian High School only has two players and they are Matheson at fullback and the quarterback Tommy Taylor,” Clawson said. “He said after the game, they were talking on the bus going back and he said it wasn’t just Matheson and Taylor. It was the whole bunch of those guys, who hit like a ton of bricks.”
Taylor led a balanced offense that averaged 44 points per game. He had Matheson, and halfbacks Ronnie Smith and Boyce Brown running the ball, and had a pair of fast and sure-handed receivers in Chuck Blanton and Bill Bingham to throw to.
The Blue Devils used a Fullhouse T formation offensively. They’d use two tight ends, but would split one out occasionally.
“Back then we’d mix it up,” Groce said. “We liked to make the defense defend the entire field.”
The results were devastating to Appalachian opponents. The Blue Devils delivered a 53-0 beating to Beaver Creek in the only afternoon game the team played. They beat Mount Airy 49-13 during the season and Hildebran 46-14 in the playoffs.
Appalachian opened the season by outscoring its two first opponents - Surry Central and Ashe Central - by a combined score of 83-0. By the end of the season, the Blue Devils’ defense shut out six opponents.
They were led by Groce, who had the players’ unquestioned respect. Groce was not the intimidating, yelling-type coach cut in the same cloth of a Vince Lombardi.
But in 1962, Groce had the Blue Devils convinced they could beat Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Clawson remembered a playoff game before the 1962 season when Appalachian fell behind by halftime and was not playing well.
It didn’t take a fiery speech to light a fire under the Blue Devils.
“He was never really emotional,” Clawson said. “I remember one time we were playing in the playoffs and we were behind 14-0. We were in the dressing room and he stood there with a clipboard under his arm. He kind of went around the room and asked questions about what was happening.
“Then he just stood there and the silence was deafening. It was unbelievable. Finally, some guy came in and said, ‘Coach you’ve got two minutes,’ or something like that. (Groce) said ‘OK.’ He said ‘You know, if you had told me before this game that this crowd would be ahead of you 14-0, I never would have believed it.’ That was the whole halftime speech. We won the game 34-14.”
Cottrell agreed that Groce didn’t need to scream to make his point. A bit of extra conditioning during practice seemed to work just as well.
“He was definitely not a screamer,” Cottrell said. “He was very soft spoken. He never got loud or mad. He just got even. If you didn’t do what he told you, he would run you.”
Cottrell said that when players think of Groce, they eventually think of the phrase “One more time.”
“That’s what he would say when we were running wind sprints at the end of the day every day,” Cottrell said. “He’d say, ‘OK, boys, one more time.’”
Appalachian was not always the biggest team around, but the Blue Devils used their quickness and athleticism to win 36 straight games until falling 7-6 to Mount Airy in 1963. Watauga was 9-2 that season before losing to Sylva-Webster 7-0 in the Region 4 state final.
It took a lot of good players to make those victories happen, but the standout was Matheson. At 6-foot-2 and about 220 pounds, Matheson was one of the top football players in North Carolina while at Appalachian.
Before he became an All-American fullback at Duke, and before he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and became a linebacker of the Miami Dolphins, Matheson was the cornerstone of the 1962 state champion Appalachian Blue Devils.
“He just had it all,” Clawson said. “He was strong and he was fast. He wrestled. He played basketball. I believe he won the state championship in the shot put and the discus on the track team. He was huge back then. He was 6-2 and about 220 pounds and he was coordinated. He was just a real athlete.”
Matheson, who died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1994 at age 49, was more than just an athlete that year. He was also the senior class president.
“We always looked to him as being a gentle giant,” Cottrell said. “He was just as pleasant and nice as he could be, but when you got him on an athletic field, he was just big and strong and athletic.”
“Bob Matheson was an outstanding young man,” Groce said. “He was a great athlete. Bob back then had great size that a lot of teams didn’t have for a running back and a linebacker. Everybody was a friend of Bob’s. He didn’t care if one lived next door to him or if one lived at the outstretches of the county. He was the same guy to all the students. He was a very popular individual.”
The team also had the support of the community, which was smaller than the current town. Anything east of the current highway 105 bypass along U.S. highway 421 was farmland in 1962, while anything east of the current Watauga County courthouse was not developed.
The school itself was located where Walker Hall is on the ASU campus. The Blue Devils played their 1962 season at Conrad Stadium, which was just constructed for that season.
In 1961, Appalachian High had to play all of its games on the road because Conrad Stadium was being built. Clawson didn’t mind the inconvenience.
“I always thought it was more fun to beat them at their own place,” Clawson said. “I think the fans complained more than the players because of the inconvenience.”
Appalachian’s practice field, which was across the street from the school, also did not have lights. The parents of the players had a solution for that should practice last a bit long.
“The parents would come out and turn the headlights on their cars on the field so we could do those one-more-times,” Cottrell said. “One of his philosophies was nobody was going to beat us because they were in better shape than we were. Everybody agreed that the football games were a piece of cake because of the practices.”
Groce felt that was an important part of Appalachian’s success.
“I’m sure they’ll let you know that I felt like we were always better conditioned than the team we played,” Groce said. “It was one more time up the ski slope or one more time up the hill where the Appalachian music facility was. They were a well-conditioned group and we believed in that.”
Groce was also happy to get together with the players and reminisce.
“These guys have been great friends all through the years,” Groce said. “It’s really nice to get together with part of them and rehash some of the old times.”
1962 season results
Surry Central .......................... W. 42-0
Ashe Central .......................... W. 41-0
Mount Airy .......................... W. 49-13
West Wilkes .......................... W. 40-6
Dallas .......................... W. 33-0
North Surry .......................... W. 45-0
Elkin ......................... W. 27-0
Taylorsville ......................... W. 25-7
Beaver Creek ......................... W. 53-0
Hildebran ......................... W. 46-14
Murphy ......................... W. 39-7
Final record ....................... 11-0
Total points ....................... 444-40