Lightning and thunder led to singing and dancing. And that, potentially, led to destiny. At least, that’s the way the story goes now.
Johnny Reese has been around the Appalachian State football program since 2007. Known by everyone as ‘J.R.,' he’s the student life coordinator. A lifelong police officer, he provides security for the team and all its members. Reese is an ideal combination of friendly and stern, acting as the human borderline between players and the people who try to go places they don't belong.
Reese stood on the track Wednesday inside Kidd Brewer Stadium, looking toward the remnants of Owens Field House. Demolition of the building, which opened in 1972, had finally finished. In its place stood rubble with two excavators perched on top. The machines sorted through the brick, the cement and the metal as Reese scanned their way.
“Well, it’s a lot of memories there for me,” Reese said.
But there’s one he picked out of all of them as the one he'll always remember. Reese recalled his first football season as eye opening. He’d always been a casual football fan, but he’d never seen how grueling the preseason could be.
He saw offense vs. defense, intensity leading to scuffles and two-a-day practices that first year.
“And I’d never seen anything like it,” said Reese, who started with Boone P.D. in 1980, “even in our police academy, with what these players have to go through.”
But that all led up to the moment he saw the players come together. During one of the team’s practices leading up to the start of the season, there was a thunderstorm. The players had to evacuate the field and head for shelter. Reese ushered them through the door and stood outside once the players made it in. After a few minutes, he started could sense a commotion building inside.
“I started hearing some laughing,” Reese said. “And then I heard a lot of singing, and then a lot of clapping.”
Reese doesn’t remember the song, but he remembers walking in and seeing the dancing. He remembers guys like Armanti Edwards, the former starting quarterback who was normally quiet and reserved, in the middle of everyone.
“What I saw was a group of young men, offense and defense, become a team,” Reese said. “They became a family.”
A few days later, App State traveled to play Michigan in the 2007 opener. The results of that matchup are well recognized. The Mountaineers went on to win their third straight I-AA national championship, and Reese draws a straight line back to thunderstorm jubilee.
Owens became a house of champions. But the champions kept winning until they needed a bigger house. App State built the Mark E. Ricks Athletics Complex onto the Kidd Brewer in 2009, becoming the home of football coaches and players. The Mountaineers have entered FBS play with a blistering pace — four bowl wins and three Sun Belt titles — since joining the league in 2014. And now the winners need more space again.
Owens Field House became a casualty of success. App State is starting work on a new 87,000 square foot facility to take its place. The project is expected to be complete in 2020.
While fans are fighting melancholy about the change, plans like the end zone project can entice a coach like Eli Drinkwitz, who was hired as head coach in December after three seasons as N.C. State’s offensive coordinator.
“I mean, it’s all about recruiting, and you’ve got to try to keep up,” Drinkwitz said. “And we want to be a premiere Group of Five program, and in order to do that, you’ve got to have what the other guys have, and that’s what our athletic administration is doing, so that’s exciting.”
Owens was part of the skyline that introduced players to practice every day. There was always Owens, backed up by Howards Knob and the dorms on the west side of campus. On Wednesday, it was still a little shocking for some guys to see.
“I walked through the tunnel, and I was like ‘Dang, it’s all gone,’” said Caleb Spurlin, a junior defensive lineman. “It just looked weird to be able to see the whole mountain and stuff. But I mean, I’m excited for the new changes though for sure.”
Owens for today’s players was a place for brief hangouts or a bathroom break. But for former players — like offensive line coach Shawn Clark, outside linebackers coach DJ Smith and people on the former coaching staff like Scott Satterfield, Mark Ivey and Nic Cardwell — the building made up their entire day.
As Satterfield walked around Owens for the Sun Belt Conference title game press conference in December, he pointed out all the rooms to MyQuon Stout and Darrynton Evans that he used to frequent.
Vic Johnson, App State’s senior left tackle, said Wednesday that Clark always talks about how much fun that building provided to him.
“He always says, ‘It was good times, man, I miss it,’” Johnson said.
Johnson chuckles because he knows those old players probably have some good Owens stories. And those stories are like Reese’s. They're about titles and victories, about laughing and singing.
And they might just start with something random, like trying to get away from the thunder.