If somebody ever asked me why I love SWVA football, I'd simply have them read Tim Hayes' article on Appy Bulldogs and then they might just understand.
FOOTBALL: Appalachia Program Built On Toughness
Aug 13, 2009
Appalachia lineman Toby Needham talks to a teammate on the sidelines during a 1996 playoff game with Rural Retreat
APPALACHIA, Va. – When recalling the glory days of the Appalachia High School football program, several images quickly come to mind.
There’s the plain blue helmets and no-frill jerseys.
There’s the muddy, spartan-like playing surface of Riggs Stadium.
There are legendary coaches Jim Riggs and Tom Turner. There’s the toughness. There’s the tenacity.
But perhaps the true essence of the institution known as Appalachia football was summed up by Turner himself.
“It’s tradition,” the late Turner told the Bristol Herald Courier in a 1992 interview. “And all the credit goes to the kids because they grow up thinking they’re supposed to do well. They believe in Appalachia football.
“We don’t have any doctors’ or lawyers’ kids that have cars to get around in or money to blow in town, so football is [the] biggest thing going here.”
Turner seemed to be at the center of all of Appalachia’s biggest wins. He starred as a player on Appalachia’s 1971 Virginia High School League Group A state championship team and then coached his alma mater to state titles in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1997.
The small Wise County school was many times outnumbered, outsized and given little chance to succeed. However, the gritty Bulldogs always seemed to get it done.
“You can’t compare the heart of a Bulldog to anybody,” said Shane Gibson, the star running back on Appy’s 1989 VHSL Group A, Division 1 state title team. “Every down and every guy, it’s 100 percent.”
Turner stressed to his players that no opponent was unbeatable and no goal was unattainable. They listened and played with an unbridled passion for the sport.
“I just remember we were expected to win. Not necessarily by everybody else, but ourselves,” said Chris Mabe, a standout linebacker on the 1992 state championship squad. “When we came up, he instilled in us the attitude, you come from a smaller school, but you still should be able to beat anybody out there … He expected us to outplay whoever we were scheduled to play.”
At 6-foot-3 and 225-pounds, Turner was an intimidating presence as a player at Appalachia in the early-1970s. It didn’t take him long to set the tone his senior season in 1971, racking up 11 tackles in the first quarter alone in a 40-14 win over Saltville in the season-opener.
His bruising style was a big reason why Appalachia rolled to a 13-0 record and captured the Lonesome Pine District and Region D titles. Under the direction of Riggs, the Bulldogs capped an unbeaten season with a 24-0 win over Madison in the state finals.
Turner led Appalachia to the state basketball title that winter and earned a football scholarship to Virginia Tech, where he shined as a defensive lineman.
He would officially become the head football coach at Appalachia in 1980. Nine years later, he would guide the team to his first state title as a coach in unlikely fashion.
The 1989 Bulldogs finished the regular season just 5-5, lost its final three regular-season games and squeaked into the playoffs.
“There was just at lot of pressure on us,” Gibson said. “The three previous years we had faced getting in the playoffs and there was a lot of pressure to get it done and win. We all had a lot of heart.”
Appalachia posted close wins over Twin Springs and J.I. Burton in the regional playoffs. In a 27-23 victory over heavily-favored Bath County in the state semifinals, Gibson displayed his toughness by
rushing for 285 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries.
“I was so excited with the win,” Gibson said. “We were such underdogs. I was so happy we won, the thought of being tired never even crossed my mind.”
The next week Appalachia claimed the state crown with a 22-14 victory over Madison County.
Appalachia would claim another state title in 1992, this time with running back Kris Clark and quarterback Ken Sizemore leading the way on offense and Mabe wreaking havoc on defense.
However, the best was yet to come for the Bulldogs.
The T-and-T connection
Being the head coach’s son, Travis Turner had been groomed to be a star football player at Appalachia as long as he could remember.
“Appalachia football was a big part of my life, growing up and being around it 365 days a year,” Turner said.
Travis Clark also grew up dreaming of being a standout for the Bulldogs one day. He heard the stories and witnessed the postseason glory of past teams and hoped to add his own chapter to the success story.
“There was a lot pride to wear that blue and gold,” Clark said.
Together, Turner and Clark would combine to lead an explosive offense that won three titles in four years from 1994-1997.
Turner was impressive at quarterback, while Clark had blazing speed in the backfield. Players like Sam Sellers, Jamie Jessee, Travis Wells and many others would emerge as postseason heroes during that span.
“We had real good offensive lines,” Turner said. “We had great run blocking and pass protection.”
The 1994 team went 12-2 and posted a 72-7 beatdown of Middlesex in the state finals, scoring 10 touchdowns in the title-clinching victory.
As Turner and Clark continued to get better, the ’96 and ’97 squads put up impressive offensive numbers.
For Turner, the four years playing for his father are among his most treasured memories.
“It was a treat,” Travis Turner said. “It was something special when you look back on it now. You kind of relish those memories … He expected a lot of me and he expected a lot out of everybody. I think that’s what made us a good football team.”
The Bulldog legacy
Everybody that coached against him, coached for him or played for him seems to have a Tom Turner story. Mabe remembers one game in particular.
“We were playing Virginia High or somebody in August and our field is pretty crappy and gets dusty [in the warm weather]. They took a timeout and VHS wanted a water break,” Mabe said. “Coach Turner came out to the huddle and the referee said, ‘Are you going to give them water?’ He said, ‘Hell, I gave them water on Wednesday. I don’t think they want it.’ We all said, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ The ref couldn’t believe it, he was shocked. It was just little things like that.”
Turner was a master psychologist. He made it a habit of having the team bus roll into a stadium just before kickoff. Travis Turner remembers how his father and the team arrived at 1:27 p.m. – three
minutes before kickoff – before playing Surry County in the 1996 state finals.
“That was his trademark, showing up late for games,” Travis Turner said. “I really don’t know why he did it.”
Compiling a scouting report for the Bulldogs was also difficult.
“I’ve said this before, Tom was absolutely the best play-caller in crucial situations I’ve ever coached against,” Powell Valley coach Phil Robbins said. “You had no idea what he was going to call. Ninety-nine percent of the time what he called, it worked, because his kids believed in it. He had some great ballclubs.”
The 1997 season marked Appalachia’s last state title under Tom Turner. He retired following the 2005 season with a 205-107-1 career record and a plethora of coaching honors and achievements.
He died in 2006, but his legacy lives on in Appalachia.
“He took a group of kids that probably, in reality, shouldn’t have won as many games as they did, and he would have you convinced you could run through a brick wall,” Mabe said. “That’s what it was about … I just have a thousand memories.”