|Dave Fagg '58 named 2009 Hendrix Award Recipient
November 09, 2009
Contact: John Kilgo
Dave Fagg had a dream as his high school career wound down at High Point High School in 1954. He wanted to be the first member of his family to attend college. But where was the money coming from to finance a poor boy's dream? He was the baby in a family of seven children that lived in a two-bedroom house on a dirt road where money was as scarce as hen's teeth.
His father was an alcoholic. Not a mean man, not an abuser in any way, nothing like that. But not very productive, either. He worked in a furniture factory and missed a lot of work. His financial contributions to the family were meager. His name sometimes appeared in the local newspaper, charged with public drunkenness. When it happened Dave Fagg dreaded the inevitable question from friends and classmates: "Was that your father?"
Tough thing for a young boy to endure, hearing questions like that and having to answer them. Real tough. Sports helped get him through it, gave him some self esteem. But Carrie Jones Fagg, his mother, gave him everything. Through her he learned real life lessons and survival skills. She demonstrated inner toughness and perseverance against overwhelming odds. And she showed him a love of family that ran so deeply that it somehow made it possible for her to endure the nearly impossible.
She was up early every day to be at the cotton mill gate before 7 a.m. to begin a shift that ran until 3:30 in the afternoon. It gave her 30 minutes to hustle from that building to another mill nearby where she worked from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Her union was 80 hours and five days a week, total pay of $50. Thank goodness for a family relative who helped make ends meet.
Dave Fagg saw his mother come home late every night, her body covered in lint, bone tired, and it burned an image in his mind that would never dim. Go find a football player or a wrestler - or anybody - that was tougher than Carrie Jones Fagg. Good luck.
Fagg's dream of going to college might not have been practical, but dreams often are more open-ended than pragmatic. His was, although his resume was impeccable. Good student, member of the honor society, played defensive end and tight end in football, wrestled and played baseball. On Saturdays, he mowed three lawns, washed two cars and did an assortment of other chores as assigned by his mother. Football practice was like recess compared to his weekend.
His first wrestling match at High Point High was against a wrestler from what was then Jamestown High. The opponent beat Fagg up, bounced him around, pretty much embarrassed him. Fagg retreated to the locker room afterwards where he didn't know whether to throw up or cry. He sat there alone in his misery and made a vow: "I will either quit wrestling or never let this happen to me again. I might get beat, but never again like this."
He stayed after practice from then on, not to run yards but miles, several miles each day. He conditioned himself physically and mentally and became state champion in his weight class his senior year.
He was a good football player, too. Not flashy, probably a little too small to hold college football aspirations. But he was tough and highly competitive. When somebody told Fagg "no," in his mind, it registered as maybe, leaning strongly towards yes. That remains true to this day. It's as much a part of him as his dark, piercing eyes. As his senior football season at High Point High wound down, he received some bad news, a "no" that he couldn't turn around. He was raised a Baptist and hoped he could play football at Wake Forest. The legendary Peahead Walker was the Wake Forest coach. He was pretty blunt in assessing Fagg's chances of playing for the Deacons, "Not quite big or fast enough to play for us."
Where to turn? Fagg knew next to nothing about Davidson College. Two of his High Point High teammates - Charlie Lucas and Sonny Butler - had been named to the North Carolina Shrine Bowl team, a group of all-stars that would play against a similar team from South Carolina in Charlotte at the end of the season. Bill Dole was the football coach at Davidson and drove up to High Point to scout the two Shrine Bowlers. At the time, he didn't know Dave Fagg from a Halloween pumpkin. Do you believe in serendipity? Fagg, who had never scored a touchdown in his entire high school career, intercepted a pass and ran it back 40 yards for a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, he scooped up a fumble and returned it 40 yards for another touchdown.
Dole saw all of this and talked with High Point coach Tony Simeon after the game. "Who's that number 24?" Number 24 was Dave Fagg, 170 pounds soaking wet and not the fastest man on the field. "He's a good student and a tough competitor, a good football player," Coach Simeon said.
Coach Dole did his homework, liked what he learned, played a hunch and offered Fagg a chance to come to Davidson and play football. Fagg accepted. Of course he did. Football gave him his chance - his only chance -- at a college education. He would never forget it.
But before college beckoned, a more important thing was at work in Fagg's life. Barbara Ellington was a High Point High cheerleader. Dave and Barbara had known each other since elementary school. The backyard of the Ellington property on Bridges Street in High Point touched the backyard of the Fagg property on East Lexington Avenue.
Fagg somehow made the junior varsity basketball team at High Point in 1952, and Barbara practiced in the same gym with the other cheerleaders. He wasn't courting her but he got a chance to see her every afternoon at basketball practice, and that was a good thing. Fagg did not set the world on fire in hoops. In fact, it didn't take the coach long to tell him that he wasn't going to be a candidate to play varsity basketball. Apparently the basketball team didn't need a blocking back. It was news that Fagg could handle. He knew basketball wasn't his sport, but how would he get to see Barbara in the gym every afternoon?
Fagg needed a reason, if not an outright excuse, to be in the gymnasium. Hey, what's that room over there in the corner? It's the wrestling room. Ever industrious, Fagg met with wrestling coach George Gillery who invited him to try out. Talk about hitting the lottery! Fagg became a champion wrestler and finally got around to asking Barbara for a date.
It was May 24, 1952. Fagg marched across his backyard to the Ellington house. Neither family owned an automobile at the time, so Dave and Barbara walked down the hill from her house and caught a city bus that took them to the Center Theatre in downtown High Point where they saw the movie, "Singing in the Rain."
The romance was touched by magic from the outset. As they got off the city bus down the hill from the Ellington house after the movie, it began to drizzle. Fagg took Barbara Ellington's hand and as they walked up the hill to end their first date, they sang "Singing in the Rain."
It soon came time for Fagg to pack his few belongings and head to Davidson College in the fall of 1954. He excelled in football for Bill Dole and in wrestling for coach Charlie Parker. He co-captained both teams. He was named Davidson's Freshman Athlete of the Year in 1955. He also threw the javelin in track but with less success than he enjoyed in football and wrestling. The good news is that he didn't hurt himself or anyone else. After a year of it, track coach Heath Whittle had seen enough. "I know you're busy with football," he told Dave, "so thanks for helping us but you don't have to do this anymore." Give Whittle high marks for diplomacy.
Fagg graduated from Davidson with a degree in Psychology. He was named Davidson's top athlete as a senior, winning the Tommy Peters Award. He won the Carolina AAU wrestling championship in his weight class and was named the outstanding wrestler that same year. His four football teams all enjoyed winning seasons.
Before the start of his senior year, Fagg and Barbara Ellington were married. The date was May 26, 1957, and the site of the ceremony was High Point's First Baptist Church. Barbara remained in High Point and kept her bank job while Fagg wound up his college career.
Then it was off to the races in a career that took them all over the place. Fagg spent four years of active duty in the Navy after his Davidson graduation and then jumped into coaching by taking a job as assistant football coach at Garinger High School in Charlotte, working for the legendary Joe Tomanchek. Fagg installed a wrestling program at the school in his two years there.
College coaching beckoned, however, so when The Citadel offered him the job as head wrestling coach and assistant football coach to Eddie Teague, he had to accept.
"I went there to stay for my entire career," Fagg said, "with the goal of making Citadel the Lehigh of the South in college wrestling."
His "lifetime" at Citadel lasted one year. An erudite, articulate Homer Smith had been named head football coach at Davidson. He called Fagg in 1965 and invited him to return to his alma mater as assistant football coach with the understanding that he would become head wrestling coach when Charlie Parker retired. Barbara and Dave packed up and came to Davidson. Turns out that Smith was a brilliant coach, years ahead in coaching the passing game. Fagg coached with outstanding assistants such as Dick Tomey, Ken Blair, Warner Alford, Bob Brown and head trainer Tom Couch. They became lifelong friends as well as associates. The wrestling job didn't materialize but football success was more than enough to make up for it.
Those were storybook years for Davidson football. With a passing game that was almost impossible to stop and a defense that was rugged and smart, the Wildcats got better and better until they were invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl at the end of the 1969 season. Toledo beat them in the bowl game, but just getting there was a monumental achievement.
The bowl game marked the end of the Smith era in Davidson football. He resigned and Fagg was named head coach, a position he held for four seasons. While records such as this are difficult to check, he might be the only person who has been both head football coach and head wrestling coach on the Division I level.
Fagg resigned as Davidson coach after four seasons, and the family hit the road on an odyssey that would crisscross the country and the Pacific Ocean. First stop was five years on the football staff of Pepper Rodgers at Georgia Tech. After much success there, it was off to sunny Hawaii and three years as offensive coordinator and associate head coach for good friend Dick Tomey. With a chance to come back to the mainland, Fagg went to South Carolina as offensive coordinator in 1982. But head coach Richard Bell and the athletic director had some disagreements that couldn't be mended.
On Dec. 10, 1982, Fagg called Barbara out of the blue in the afternoon and asked, "Do you want to go to the movie?" Barbara replied, "Movie? You're supposed to be working." It was the height of recruiting season and assistant coaches didn't take the day off to see a movie. "We've been fired," Dave said. Call it the craziness of college football. They went to the movie, and the next day, Barbara took Dave shopping. Bought him a suit, shirt, necktie and pair of shoes and told him, "Get out there and find us a job."
So it was back to Hawaii in football season 1983 to work again with Tomey. And when Tomey became head coach at the University of Arizona in 1987, Fagg went with him and stayed until 1990 when Davidson called and asked him to please rescue its floundering football program, one that had won a paltry four games and lost 47 in the five previous seasons.
Fagg came home, made the football players learn the words to the school's fight song, restored pride in Davidson football and won 16 games in three seasons. By mutual agreement he went into administration at the end of the 1992 season and has served there since, mostly as the highly-effective associate director of the Davidson Athletic Foundation. He's worked at Davidson a total of 29 years plus four more years as a student. He wears Davidson in his heart and soul like few people ever have. Call out the name of a former Davidson athlete and Fagg can most likely tell you when he or she graduated and what they're doing now. When it comes to his beloved Wildcats, he's an encyclopedia.
He retires from Davidson College with honors at the end of December. The poor boy from High Point and wife Barbara will leave a legacy with the establishment of the Ellington-Fagg Scholarships with the goal of a $1 million endowment.
"When you think of where we came from," Fagg says, "I never thought leaving any kind of legacy would be possible."
Didn't we say dreams were open-ended?
Furthermore, Fagg is this year's winner of the coveted Hendrix Award that goes to a Davidson football letterman who by the use of lessons learned on the playing field has gone on to achieve outstanding success in his chosen profession.
Now 73, Dave Fagg says, "We've loved every step that we've taken."
He and Barbara have four children: Dave, Jr., Scott, Brandon and Jon, and eight grandchildren. Fagg won't blueprint his retirement plans but intends to work as a volunteer for Davidson College Presbyterian Church and the YMCA and make calls for Davidson College. He will continue to live in Davidson but plans to spend one month a year in Hawaii and also time on the road visiting grandchildren.
Sitting on the porch and rocking is not in his DNA.
He and Barbara celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary May 26, 2007, at a surreal mountaintop villa located in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, belonging to Davidson alumnus and former football player Steve Smith, a great friend of Fagg's and the college as well as a major college benefactor. Smith won the Hendrix Award in 1992. He played at Davidson for head coach Homer Smith and assistant coach Dave Fagg.
One glorious morning as Fagg looked from Smith's front deck over the magnificent vista that was almost too beautiful and breathtaking to absorb, he called Smith to thank him again for his generosity. As Fagg described what he was seeing, Smith asked, "Dave, can you see High Point from there?"
Tears filled Fagg's eyes. He could see the two cotton mills in High Point and his mother coming home late from working two jobs covered head to toe with lint. It's a vision that will always be with him.
"Yes, I can see High Point," Dave Fagg replied. "I can see it clearly."