The legend of Carlester Crumpler was born on a hardpan practice field in Wilson in the fall of 1965. His junior high football coach, unimpressed with the effort of this gangly eighth-grader, moved Crumpler from tight end to runningback and promptly called his number. “I think he was trying to punish me,” recalls Crumpler with a modest grin.
They never touched him. In fact, nine years and several thousands yards later, they were still chasing him. Even today, as Crumpler enters the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, fans and foes vividly recall how he etched his name in the record books of East Carolina University and the history books of Fike High School and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
Crumpler’s performance as ECU’s star fullback was spectacular: 2,889 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns during a three-year career highlighted by Southern Conference titles in 1972 and 1973. He was even drafted in 1974 by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and played briefly for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
But nothing he attained at the college or professional level could ever compare with Crumpler’s accomplishments at Fike High School. Beginning with four touchdowns in the second half of the 1967 state championship game against South Mecklenburg and ending with a 237-yard performance against Winston-Salem Atkins in the 1969 title game, Crumpler and Wilson Fike became synonymous with high school football in North Carolina, and beyond.
Having also defeated Gastonia Ashley in the 1968 championship game, the Cyclones of Coach Henry Trevathan were the first team to ever capture three consecutive state 4-A football championships. Crumpler earned All-East, All-State and All-America honors along the way, starred in the Shrine Bowl and the East-West Coaches All-Star Game and even claimed two state championships in track.
Crumpler rushed for 4,089 yards and 40 touchdowns at Fike, culminating with a 2,083-yard, 26-touchdown performance in 1969. Be it five touchdowns against Kinston, 293 yards against Goldsboro, the 98-yard punt return against Rocky Mount or some other remarkable feat, the 6-3, 200-pound Crumpler clearly ranks among the state’s all-time greatest high school athletes.
Lesser known, yet perhaps of greater note, is the manner in which Crumpler overcame humble beginnings and deeply imbedded racial prejudices to achieve athletic and academic success during the early days of school desegregation.
As one of only a few black students attending Fike in 1967 and the only African-American on the football team, Crumpler was under a microscope. Some thought him aloof, others considered him shy, but there was no mistaking his natural athletic gifts or his determination to excel and win. In time, and in his own quiet way, Crumpler won people over with his humble grace and unparalleled physical prowess.
Crumpler, born March 28, 1951, is the father of three sons: Carlester Jr. of Seattle, Alge of Atlanta and Bryan of Amsterdam. Residing in Greenville, he remains close to football as the color analyst for ECU’s Pirate Sports Radio Network and serves as academic coordinator in the student development office for his alma mater.
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