At first look, Lincolnton is similar to countless other small towns. There’s no Wal-Mart. No mall. No movie theater. A Hardee’s but no McDonald’s – there just are not enough people for both.
People know one another’s name and what they’re doing. Outsiders are given inquisitive looks.
“The good thing about Lincoln County is everybody knows your business,” said Lamar LeRoy, an owner of the Hardee’s, a hot spot in town. “The bad thing about it is everybody knows your business.”
It’s usually quiet, with not a whole lot to do.
But there’s one exception. One big, red exception that makes this town of fewer than 2,000 different.
Lincolnton is home to the Lincoln County Red Devils football team, a state power nestled in east central Georgia.
High school football is the fabric that weaves through generations of families. Some first names have changed, but many of the last names haven’t.
With 14 state championships, Lincoln County hasn’t really stopped winning since it started. Buddy Bufford, for whom the home field is named, coached the Red Devils to their first state title in 1960 before he died of cancer not long after. Thomas Bunch followed and led the program to two more state titles in 1962 and 1963.
Living legend Larry Campbell was next. Still roaming the sidelines, Campbell has won 11 state titles and 473 games overall, losing just 84 and tying three. His win total dwarfs his nearest competitor in the state, a good 121 games more than No. 2 Robert Davis, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association Web site. Campbell is third in the country in all-time wins.
From the Class of 1984 to the Class of 2009, all made at least one state title game appearance in their four years. From 1985 to 1995, the Red Devils won seven state championships.
How did this small community nurture a dynasty?
Football was something to do. Young boys played football, and their families watched. A winning tradition fostered more winning and more titles.
“We have that old saying. There’s really only two things for kids, at least young boys, in Lincoln County,” said Dee Turner, who won two state titles with LeRoy in 1962 and 1963 and has a son, Ben, on this year’s team. “There’s football and spring football.
“When a male child is born, it’s not a question of whether he’s going to play football or not. It’s what position is he going to play?”
As the game day breakfast crowd finishes at Hardee’s, Marcus Spratlin climbs up a ladder just one traffic light away.
It’s quiet now in the town, especially with the children at school. Spratlin is outside the family-owned Spratlin Hardware & Building Supplies Store.
He gets down off the ladder, his work done. A white banner with red capital letters hangs in the morning light: NAIL ’EM DEVILS!
Spratlin played for the Red Devils under Campbell, starting at quarterback for the 1979 state runner-up. His cousin’s son, James, is the starting kicker on this year’s team and works at the family store as part of work-based learning for school.
History is never far from the present in Lincolnton. Like with the Spratlins, generations of the same family march through on Friday nights, wearing red: the Normans, the Matthewses, the Partridges. Lincoln County, which played as Lincolnton until 1970, can trace its long-term success, at least in part, to these families. They bring up young men who are surrounded by football.
“That’s all I ever wanted to do,” Marcus Spratlin said about being a Red Devil. “When I was little, we’d go and watch them. It was a dream come true … we just didn’t win the state championship.”
Not everybody stays in the town or county. But enough do.
LeRoy’s son, Jason, won two state championships, just like his father. He went on to graduate from West Point and works in Greenville, S.C. But he commutes there, because he wanted to raise his son a Red Devil.
Jason’s son has continued the LeRoy tradition. He is the Red Devils’ center, and, according to his grandfather, is 6-foot-2 and weighs 220 pounds, which is about 70 pounds heavier than Lamar was when he played.
His first name is Lincoln.
Pregame, someone shouts toward the band members, asking them to get ready.
The team is off the bus at the football stadium. It’s time for the Devil Walk.
Tradition has helped elevate the football program into an event.
About an hour before kickoff at every home game, fans and the band members form a tunnel for the team to walk through. Little boys in red jerseys stand close to proud mamas who wear ribboned buttons showing off photos of their football-playing sons.
The entrance to the stadium is an arc of triumph, with white pillars adorned by all the accomplishments. One pillar lists the state-record winning streak of 44 games. The 14 state championship years are listed on the other.
One of those title teams, the 1963 squad, was introduced before last week’s game in recognition of its 50th anniversary.
These men, like others, are featured in pictures that cover the walls at Papa’s Pizza To Go restaurant. They also come back to watch games, either because they live in town or drive to games.
Before those games, Anthony Glaze sits on a pickup while tailgating. He played on two state title teams, back when Lincoln County won three in a row from 1985-1987.
One of the rings has a home on his hand.
“I’ve got another ring at home,” he said matter-of-factly.
Any program that wins 14 state championships has All-State players and college stars.
Some are lucky to get once-in-a-generation – or lifetime – players such as Garrison Hearst. As the story goes, he could outrun everybody on the team as a seventh-grader. Hearst, who was a senior during the 1989 season, went on to star at the University of Georgia and in the National Football League.
But Lincoln County has always been about the greatness of a community instead of one individual.
In Hearst’s final season at Lincoln County, the Red Devils went 15-0 and won a state championship.
Without Hearst, Lincoln County went 15-0 and repeated the following year.
“My whole thought behind the process is, you don’t have to be great to be part of something that’s great,” Lamar LeRoy said. “It’s not just one person, not one family. It’s everybody coming together. It hasn’t been just great the last 20, 25 years. It was great the previous 20, 25 years.”
Through all those years, the community has done more than just put up “Go! Big! Red!” signs on lawns. It’s about going to the games.
There’s an old saying in Lincolnton that you could steal the county on Friday nights. Wherever the team was, the town would be there – some stores close early on Fridays if there’s a road game.
Public address announcer Guil Mattison, a Red Devils player in the 1980s, said his mom told him a story about when she was in school. Apparently, a family worried they left their stove on, but they couldn’t find anybody around who could check – everyone was watching football.
Mattison doesn’t know how true the story is, but he said it sure sounds like his Lincolnton.
But support is more than just attending games.
Last Friday, Huddle House closed for a time to the public at 2:30 p.m. so the workers could serve the team chicken, green beans, potatoes and rolls.
One worker, Holly Wade, wore a red Lincoln County shirt underneath her black apron. Armed with a smile and a giant garbage bag to clean up the finished meal, she started some conversations with the players.
“Y’all better kick some butt tonight,” she said encouragingly.
For a program used to winning, a down year is when the final playoff game is a loss.
This season, a young and inexperienced team is 3-3.
After the Red Devils’ game a week ago, Campbell sat on the small hill next to his players, who were about to get served food by the booster club. With an arm on a knee, Campbell was mostly quiet. His players were, too. The Red Devils had just lost to Aquinas High School, 42-14, for the first time since 1972, which was Campbell’s first year as head coach. It was just the 43rd time Campbell had lost at home since he became head coach in the 1972 season.
He talked about getting better and was bothered by the injury to lineman Andy Ray Wengrow. He’s a good kid, Campbell said. Andy’s dad, also named Andy, played for Campbell, graduating in 1976.
Behind Campbell, past the gate, a small group of young boys was in the near end zone. One boy kicked the ball. Another boy got it and zig-zagged around as the others chased him.
They were playing football and wearing red, because that’s what little boys in Lincoln County have always done.
“Their dream is to not be a Georgia Bulldog or Atlanta Falcon,” said Mattison, who has a son, Thomas, on the 2013 team. “They want to be a Red Devil. They’re playing in the yard. And there will be a good game on the field after the game until their mommies and daddies can round them up. It’s just the families all are there – all the generations. And they’re going to do it years after.”