Star Power: Pugh Left Legacy for Northeast NC

He was afforded opportunities at perhaps too early an age.

But if opportunity breeds success, then a 16-year-old soft-spoken Jethro Pugh was already a story to tell, unfazed about a lack of life experience as a younger-than-normal freshman on the Elizabeth City State football team.

Then-coach Thomas Caldwell certainly didn’t care. He saw a 6-foot-6 behemoth who could run down Olympic sprinters.

Maybe he was good enough to leave high school a little early, right?

“That’s why they called him ‘Tricky Tom,’” said A.B. Whitfield, a teammate and good friend of Pugh, the former Dallas Cowboys great who died on Wednesday at 70.

“It was his second year as a head coach, and he was desperate to field a good team. Jethro’s uncle introduced him to coach Caldwell, who drooled over the 6-6 specimen. The rest is history.”

A history that has blazed a trail for countless northeastern North Carolina athletes as an inspiration to achieve goals and live out dreams, thanks to a defensive tackle from Windsor who grew from similar humble beginnings to a sack master for two Super Bowl teams in the 1970s.

That’s the kind of legacy Pugh left — more than just being double teamed on a Green Bay touchdown run to allow for a Packers victory in 1967’s famed Ice Bowl — and a message he gave through the years when he returned home.

“He was a wealth of knowledge and could also express things on the game of life,” said current ECSU football coach Waverly Tillar when Pugh came to speak to the Vikings in the field house that bears Caldwell’s name.

In an era where prospects from historically black schools were at best an afterthought, especially in less populated areas such as northeastern North Carolina, it made Pugh’s rise to a top NFL player all the more impressive.

But two others from Elizabeth City also beat the odds and made it to the league: Paul Winslow (in 1960) before him and Johnnie Walton after.

“He’s (Pugh) a pioneer and showed me it could be done,” said Walton, a former ECSU quarterback who later played for the Philadelphia Eagles among other pro clubs.

Winslow, now deceased, left Elizabeth City for another historically black college in Durham’s North Carolina Central, then played a year for Vince Lombardi’s Packers. He returned home to teach and coach at the former P.W. Moore High and then Northeastern.

Pugh’s own Bertie County now boasts three more natives who currently or have recently played at the highest level of professional sports: Kent Bazemore (NBA’s Atlanta Hawks), Travis Bond (NFL) and Jessica Breland (WNBA’s Chicago Sky).

Seems unrealistic that a rural North Carolina county could claim that kind of star power.

Then again, Pugh paved the way with the star on his helmet.

Antonio Moore, the Northeastern football coach who played at ECSU in the 1990s, never believed he followed someone of Pugh’s stature by suiting up for the Vikings.

Knowing he did has stuck with him.

“As a kid growing up here, you looked at Elizabeth City State as the bottom of the barrel because that’s what people portrayed it to be,” said Moore, who played alongside another ECSU alum who went to the NFL in Everett McIver, himself a Cowboy in his career. “One of the reasons I did go to Elizabeth City State instead of any other is because I knew by me playing there I did have a chance.

“The biggest thing for me is they were coming from a black college and going to the NFL, which I thought as a child was impossible.”

A hardscrabble

Gil Brandt, then the Cowboys’ personnel director who was one of the first to exclusively scout black colleges, made a trip to Elizabeth City when news came out about Pugh’s abilities.

Brandt, who is white, hit it off with Caldwell, who described him as a “blue-eyed soul brother.”

“I remember it was a place where it was a hardscrabble,” said Brandt, who convinced the Cowboys to take Pugh in the 11th round of the 1965 NFL draft, of

“They didn’t have a lot of money to do anything and there wasn’t much of a weight program. It’s a real rags to riches story so to speak coming from a school that size with the facilities they had.”

And so Brandt took in Pugh, offered him $14,000 to play with a contract Pugh’s parents had to co-sign (he was too young to sign on his own at 20) and brought him along with teammates Claudie Mackey and Whitfield — and the wily Caldwell, too — to Dallas training camp.

Pugh could have been sent packing after a shoulder injury limited him, but Brandt remained his biggest supporter even when the Cowboys’ biggest supporter had other ideas.

That was Cowboys president Tex Schramm.

“In those days $14,000 was like $4 million,” Brandt said. “We would give all these guys a physical, and Tex said ‘I don’t want to pay $14,000 for a guy who’ll be on the IR (injured reserve) all year.’

“And I said, ‘Tex, let me have you understand something. Elizabeth City is like a really good high school program. There aren’t many great players there. But this is a guy with unlimited potential.’”

And an unlimited motor, once it was allowed to plow down quarterbacks.

Pugh went on to lead Dallas in sacks for five-straight seasons, part of a 14-year career all with the Cowboys where he played in a then-record 23 playoff games.

Walton knows that all too well: Pugh sacked him a couple of times in a preseason game when under center for the Los Angeles Rams, the lone time the ECSU alums met on the field.

“He went down to help me up and said, ‘Come on old boy,’” Walton said.

“If he were to come out today, he’d be a Top 10 pick,” Brandt said. “A phenomenal, phenomenal player and even better person. I personally adopted him myself.”

Cowboy love

In a corner of the state that has a closer drive to Virginia’s pro teams than ones in its own borders, northeastern North Carolina has had a strong following with the Washington Redskins and even the then-Baltimore Colts.

Allegiances started to shift in the 1960s when a local boy became big in Texas.

“I think what Jethro brought to northeastern North Carolina and this region was that move away from the Washington Redskins to the Dallas Cowboys,” said Mackey, now the Marc Basnight Endowed Chair of the School of Education at ECSU.

“The years with the Cowboys andFor young and old, including then-high schooler Royce Jones, who recalls watching Pugh play while attending P.W. Moore.

When Jones later went into business and worked with others on trips, he was never shy about name dropping.

“They’d ask me about my favorite team, and I’d say, ‘Dallas Cowboys,’” said Jones, now 69, who is an assistant coach for Northeastern football and basketball. “They’d ask why the Dallas Cowboys with me being way out in Elizabeth City.

“‘That’s because I saw Jethro Pugh at Elizabeth City State’ I said. And I’ve been a fan ever since.”

Moore admits he’s a Dallas fan, too.

Same for Bobby Vaughan, the longtime ECSU men’s basketball coach and, at that time, athletic director.

It was also a publicity boon for the school. A recruiting radius that didn’t go past 50-75 miles began to expand when it was known that Pugh’s name was attached with Elizabeth City State.

“That was our real first national recognition where people before didn’t know we existed,” said Vaughan, who garnered recognition for the school himself by leading a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship hoops program and earning a spot with Pugh in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Mackey said Pugh playing with the Cowboys and their “Doomsday Defense” squads became a perfect fit, due to his respect for legendary coach Tom Landry, who also grew up with similar country roots and respected all regardless of color.

Even Pugh understood he wasn’t the only pioneer, as he said back in 2010 with his trademark humility — which may have made him overlooked amongst Hall of Fame teammates where, despite his accomplishments, he’s not in Dallas’ Ring of Honor around its own stadium.

“I grew up during the civil rights movement, and I know so many great people pushed to open doors for us,” said Pugh for a story on ECSU’s website.

Should Pugh have been afforded that first opportunity? Does it matter?

What does matter to many here is the foundation Pugh laid for ones who believed those chances to succeed didn’t exist.


Courtesy of : 

Owen Hassell, Sports Editor

The Daily Advance