Bill Faircloth can recall his second-to-last Wake Forest football game like it was yesterday — a 3 p.m. kickoff with clear skies ending in a win unlike any other in his playing career.

It was a cool afternoon on Nov. 17, 1963, when the Deacons took to the field against South Carolina in their final home game of the season at Bowman Gray Stadium. Wake Forest was on an 18-game losing streak under fourth-year Coach Billy Hildebrand, as the team searched for its first stroke of good fortune in two seasons.

A senior offensive lineman and captain at the time, Faircloth knew the Deacons were underdogs — even if the Gamecocks had a 1-7-1 record coming into the game Saturday afternoon. But a glimmer of good luck showed itself late in the fourth quarter.

“We won that game ... it was probably one of the most memorable for us at Bowman Gray,” said Faircloth, now 74. “We tore the goalposts down and brought them back to campus. Come Sunday morning, I woke up in my bathroom and there was part of the goalpost.”

It’s just one of many memories embedded in the concrete walls of Bowman Gray Stadium, which is home to the oldest running weekly NASCAR-sanctioned track in history. While the tire treads of stock cars belonging to legendary names like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison have left their mark on the quarter-mile track in Winston-Salem, the grassy infield has its own stories to tell beyond racing.

Tales of a gridiron, to be exact. Bowman Gray was the epicenter of football in the Piedmont Triad for decades.

ACC leaves big ‘Wake’

at the racetrack

And Faircloth was part of that story, beginning his varsity football career at Wake Forest in 1961 as a sophomore enjoying three seasons at the field after moving up from the freshman team. In the final game where the Demon Deacons won 20-19 against South Carolina — an ACC opponent from 1953-70 — he watched junior running back Brian Piccolo score every point to carry the offense past the Gamecocks.

It was an impressive feat. That year, South Carolina was led by junior quarterback Dan Reeves, who went on to start for the Dallas Cowboys at running back to win Super Bowls VI and XII.

“Piccolo had a great game that day — he scored every point for us and even kicked a couple field goals and extra points,” said Faircloth, who later became an assistant coach and assistant athletics director of football at Wake Forest from 1978 to 2017. “We went through some pretty rough times as a team, and I’ll always cherish that victory.”

But Faircloth’s college career began toward the tail-end of the Deacons’ home field history at Bowman Gray, which lasted from 1956-67 before the opening of Grove Stadium — now known as BB&T Field — in 1968. The stadium could possibly be credited as a factor in the university moving from Wake County to Winston-Salem.

“At that time, it was a pretty neat stadium and not many teams had one like that,” said Faircloth. “It’s probably one reason Wake Forest moved in Winston.”

Friday night lights

The Demon Deacons were just one of several tenants at Bowman Gray. From the early 1950s until 1994, high school teams from across the Northwest used the stadium on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Even the Green Bay Packers had a stint in Winston-Salem, using the field for their preseason Piedmont Bowl game from 1955-60 and drew crowds of up to 25,000. In 1956, a crowd of 15,000 watched as Bart Starr threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bill Howden in a 20-10 win against the Washington Redskins.

The “Madhouse” accommodated up to four games per week. As pioneer sports reporter Mary Garber noted in a Journal column titled “Goodbye Preps” in 1990, Bowman Gray’s field looked like “someone had been plowing” by the end of each season.

In its early years of high school play, Reynolds and James A. Gray High School — which was open from 1929-65 — were the only teams to hold every home game at Bowman Gray. In 1964, Central Piedmont 4-A scheduling accommodated big matchups for East, West, North and South Forsyth among others. The rental fee for teams to use the facility was $150 or 5 percent of the gross sales per game, and in 1977 the price jumped to $275 or 7 percent.

According to a Journal article from 1964, Carver and Atkins also held their annual rivalry game at Bowman Gray. As Donald Covington was announced April 5 as a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Hall of Fame, the 72-year-old couldn’t help but smile at the mention of his football days.

“We used to fill the stadium up,” said Covington, who lettered four years as a halfback with the Camels from 1960-64. “My favorite game was playing Carver — every year.”

Atkins and Carver competed in the Class 3-A and 4-A Negro Conferences, and the Camels were the defending Class 3-A state championships when Covington started his freshman season.

Thirty years later, those games left Bowman Gray. Reynolds and Parkland were the last high school teams from the 1970s to play at the stadium until the city built a joint home field for the Demons and Mustangs in Deaton-Thompson Stadium in 1994.

But the gridiron lived on.

Rams keep the football memories alive

The same year Wake Forest moved its games to the Twin City, Winston-Salem State began playing at Bowman Gray on Friday nights. The Rams have continued to rent the stadium ever since, using it as a home field less than a mile away from campus off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The 1970s were especially rewarding to the team, as WSSU went 11-1 in the 1977 and 1978 seasons. Bill Hayes, who coached the Rams from 1976-87 and was the school’s athletics director from 2010-14, recalls the 1978 season well, as his team defeated Cal-Poly in the Division II quarterfinals 17-0 at Bowman Gray.

WSSU had fullback and three-time Central Collegiate Athletic Association all-star Timmy Newsome leading the offense. He was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth round of the 1980 NFL Draft.

“What really surprised me was how emotional and how excited our kids played that game, and of course, we had the great Timmy Newsome in for us,” Hayes said April 4. “He probably rushed for 125 to 150 yards that day, and we pretty much dominated them physically.”

And it’s a football field with history that WSSU may own one day. That’s been a topic of conversation for nearly 50 years.

A Journal sports story in 1979 said the Rams paid $2,500 per year in rent to host home games. WSSU Chancellor H. Douglas Covington offered to buy the stadium for $125,000 that year, prompting ownership talks. In 1980, the school increased its offer to $450,000.

The conversation was drummed up again in 1983 when Covington looked to expand campus. Fast-forward exactly 30 years and the Winston-Salem City Council approved a resolution of intent to sell, which the $7.5 million needed for WSSU to purchase the stadium was later stripped from the N.C. House Finance Committee’s bill for improvement to state-run public institutions.

Nevertheless, the conversation still continues as Bowman Gray attracts thousands to Rams home games every fall. For Covington, the “Madhouse” will always be the most unique venue in the CIAA.

“Ain’t no stadium in the CIAA like Winston-Salem State’s, and I’ve been to all of ‘em — from Baltimore, Bethune Cookman to Florida A&M and all that,” said Covington. “They don’t got no stadium like Bowman Gray.”

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pferlise@wsjournal.com @PatrickFerlise

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