It was December 2018.
A lot of things have changed since I once roamed the halls of East Forsyth High School 26 years ago. A 4-A school nestled in Kernersville, NC….visiting the school during the 2018 school year felt like homecoming each visit. Work visits eventually turned into fan visits. Work became pleasure.
In 2018, there was a culture shift of sorts in the country. Two years of Donald Trump as President, a former real estate developer and reality show personality, had turned traditional politics upside down. Social media became the largest tool to spread info, news and pop culture. Social Media programs like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram made billionaires out of its creators after only a decade or so of their debuts.
The number one song of 2018? Calvin Harris & Dua Lupa’s “One Kiss” was the top streamed single of the year. Drake’s “God’s Plan” was the 2nd most streamed song of the year. In 2018, it wasn’t about radio spins anymore or video plays…its about how many times can your song be streamed from giants such as Spotify or Google Play? We’re a long way from cassette players and waiting for a song to play on the radio all day long. Everything is instant now. Gratification is served hot and fast….with a press of a button.
Funny how when some things change they stay the same. When writing the series prologue on the 1992 East Forsyth title team, the number TV show that year was “Roseanne”. Fast forward to 2018 and the number one TV show of the year was….”Roseanne”. ABC had rebooted the show, dropping in on the Conners 25 years later with the entire original cast. The show opened to huge ratings and was a powerhouse for ABC. The star of the show, Roseanne Barr, couldn’t keep her show separate from her own political views and the network parted ways with her at the end of 2018. “Roseanne” would be turned into “The Conners” after show runners decided to kill off Roseanne’s character. The show would focus on the rest of the Conners going forward, primarily centering on the middle daughter, Darlene.
It was a big year at the box office in 2018. Three of the top ten highest grossing movies of the year belonged to Marvel Studios, with “Black Panther” grossing over 700 million domestically to become the top movie of the year.
Where was I in 2018? I had just returned to WSJS Sports Hub radio in the Triad earlier in the year in May, producing the afternoon drive program from 3-6pm Mon-Fri across the Triad. In June, the station decided to go in a different direction, cancelling the show and leaving me at a cross roads of sorts in my career. The Station set out on a talent hunt to find its next afternoon star.
By July, they had found one. Josh Graham, a young, passionate guy from East Carolina took the position and ran with it. The afternoon slot became “The Drive with Josh Graham”, a show that mixed sports with pop culture. Graham was excited, opinionated and ready to go. The offer was made to me by WSJS Sports Hub to not only become the main producer of The Drive, but to assume a new role at the station, “Creative Director”. This new position would allow me to run programming for the entire cluster of stations across the Triad, remain on-air during the week during “The Drive” as well as continuing to host my own show “The Rundown with Desmond Johnson” on Saturday mornings, over see social media and more. I gladly accepted in August of 2018.
The first thing to tackle in the new role? The upcoming 2018 High School Football Season. WSJS was going to broadcast a Game of the Week every Friday night. There were a handful of team in the area that were good. There were a few that were good pretty much every year. And then there was my Alma Mater, East Forsyth.
Head Coach Todd Willert didn’t have it easy in the beginning. Becoming head coach in 2003, the Eagle suffered losing seasons in his first 5 seasons. In 2008, the Eagles broke through with a 12-2 record, led by Senior QB Danny O’Brien, who would go on to play at Maryland and Wisconsin. After O’Brien graduated, the Eagles program would go through a 6-6 season in 2009 and a 6-7 season in 2010. Something needed to change.
Starting in the 2011 season, through the 2017 season, Willert and the Eagles hit their stride. Willert’s program would go on a run of excellence in those 7 seasons amassing a 78-17 overall record, and winning their conference 5 of those 7 years. Out of those 7 seasons, the 2015 team stands out. Ranked as high as #2 in the state, and undefeated at 14-0 heading into the State 4AA Semifinals, the Eagles were loaded with future Division I players. RB Christian Beal ran for over 1600 yards that season and reminded many of USC RB sensation Reggie Bush. Senior QB Noah Smith threw for over 2600 yards during the season with a 114.5 QB Rating. WRs Nique Martin and Sedrick Sligh formed a one-two outside punch that was hard to defend. A Junior DB, Madison Cone anchored the Defensive secondary, eventually going on to sign with Wisconsin. DB Khalid Martin, a leader of the 2018 team, was a freshman on the 2015 team.
The Eagles averaged 435 yards per contest and 41.8 points per game in 2015. Undefeated, with home field, the Eagles hosted Mallard Creek in the State 4-AA Semifinals in the Nest in Kernersville. The Winner would move on to play Greensboro Page in the State title game. The two best teams in the state were going to line up in K-Vegas in what many considered the defacto State Title game.
The Eagles would fall in overtime to Mallard Creek 41-38 in an instant classic. It would be the Eagles only loss that season. Coach Willert and others involved with that team would go on to say it was the toughest loss they have ever experienced with the program. That loss would be brought up over the next few years as the Eagles came up excruciatingly short the following years, unable to make it back to the state semifinals for the next few seasons.
The loss in Overtime in the State Semifinals in 2015 hung in the back of the minds of Willert, the Coaching Staff and returning players but it didn’t stop the train. The next season in 2016, the Eagles went 12-2, won the Piedmont Triad 4A conference again, but yet again fell short in the State playoffs, losing to a loaded Charlotte Catholic team in the State Quarterfinals, narrowly missing a dream match-up in the state semifinals vs Greensboro Dudley, a perennial powerhouse of their own. The Eagles would be stopped short by a team from Mecklenburg County. Again.
In 2017, the Eagles had been good for so long, people began to question the program when they rattled off 3 straight losses to Page, West Forsyth and Glenn in the middle of the season, three schools that had 30-3 records combined between them by the end of the regular season. Limping into the playoffs at 7-4, the Eagles would make a short run before losing to Harding 36-7 in the 4A State Quarterfinals. Harding, ironically, had last met East Forsyth in the playoffs the year before in 2016, losing to the Eagles in the opening round 43-20.
The loss to Harding in 2017 would be the 3rd loss to end the season in 3 years to a team from the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County area. The Eagles had dominated competition in the Triad for a decade. But there was still a major hurdle to cross for the program to become legendary. The playoff loss at the end of the 2017 season would set up a magical run the following year in 2018. That’s where this story will begin.
This is the story of the 2018 East Forsyth Eagles football team, The 4-A State Champs. But its not just about them. Its about the coaches, staff, alumni and the town of Kernersville, NC. Its about the support given to the program every Friday night, watching young men become legends in their own right. Its about being alumni like myself (Class of 96), walking into the press box and it literally feels like you just walked into your mom’s house for the first time in months. I was finally…back home. And Willert had a monster team on his hands, a perfect blend of experience, talent and expectations. This is the story of their journey.
Some of those kids on the 2018 team had dads that were members of the 1992 East Forsyth State Champs, the only state champs in school history up to that point. Undefeated, nationally ranked, the 1992 teams had become mythical in the area as each year passed. People began to wonder if East Forsyth could overcome that final hurdle, and put it all together for one more magical season. My co-host on “The Rundown“, Rod Funderburk, was ON the 1992 team, a starter on the defense and a leader. He was with me for a lot of the games that season, on the field, taking it all in. Friday Night Lights indeed. This team felt like the 2015 team…but different.
In 2018, it finally happened. East Forsyth defeated Scotland County in a thriller 35-28 to win its 2nd State Title in School history, Coach Todd Wilert’s first State Title as Eagles Head Coach. And with most of the core of that team back for 2019, the Eagles will look to defend that title. The night they won the title, I made a promise to myself, the program and readers of the first series detailing the 1992 team that I would do a sequel that would focus on 2018 and coming full circle.
Over the next month, SportsCarolinaMonthly.com is proud to bring to you the sequel to our “Myth Becomes Legend” series. This time, from the eyes and ears of players, coaches and staff involved with the 2018 4-A State Champion East Forsyth Eagles, 15-0 on the season. They cant take that magical season away from any of these players or coaches or fans like myself that witnessed history.
This series will attempt to give those players and coaches something that they can show their children in 25 years, in their own words, what it felt like to bring a State Title back to their school. My School. Our School.
I hope you all enjoy the series as much as I have enjoyed putting it together. #Eaglepride
Desmond Johnson is the owner/editor of SportsCarolinaMonthly.com, which is a Livewire Media Group entity. He is currently Creative Director for WSJS Sports Hub. He is married with two daughters and currently resides in Kernersville, NC. He is a graduate of East Forsyth (Class of 96) and UNCG (Media Studies ’03).