SHELBY — Everything about Shelby is typical of a small Southern town.
The tree-lined streets, parallel to railroad tracks. Folks who don't hesitate to say hello. The neon-lit Shelby Cafe, where the tables are adorned with old newspaper clippings.
But there's something remarkable about this community just an hour west of Charlotte: It's a gold mine for major-college football talent.
An analysis by The Fayetteville Observer of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision rosters shows 10 players this season are from the town's two high schools, Shelby and Crest. That's the eighth highest number among all cities and towns in North Carolina — impressive, considering Shelby's population is only 20,000.
Six of the seven cities with more alumni on FBS teams than Shelby are major cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. Only Wake Forest, population 40,000, has a comparable ratio to Shelby with 14 FBS players. Wake Forest, however, has become a hotbed of talent only in recent years, while Shelby has been a regular stop for college recruiters since the 1960s.
“They always come to Cleveland County, and will stop at Shelby and Crest to see what we have to offer,″ Shelby coach Lance Ware said. “This is definitely a regular stop on their map.″
Through the years, those recruiters have discovered talents in Shelby such as NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell, N.C. State quarterback Charlie Noggle, Penn State linebacker Shamar Finney, Florida All-American linebacker Brandon Spikes, All-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive back Robert Williams (UNC) and more.
“Shelby isn't the biggest town in the world, but it produces prospects every year,″ said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com. “All that speaks to the good youth development, good high school coaching, and it speaks to the determination of those players. So many kids with talent that could make it, throw it all away. Those kids in Shelby seem to have their heads on straight and want it more than other people.″
The desire in Shelby to excel at football begins, in many cases, because of family tradition.
Shelby High School players Nick Stites, Tre Jolly and Jack Hollifield are following in the footsteps of older brothers who previously played for the Golden Lions. Jolly's brother, Tavorris, earned a scholarship to North Carolina where he lettered as a safety in 2007. Hollifield's brother, Dax, was one of the nation's most highly recruited prospects last year as a linebacker and will be a freshman at Virginia Tech this fall.
Stites' brother, Will, played linebacker along with Dax Hollifield last season when Shelby went 12-3 and reached the state 2-A finals before losing to Hibriten, 19-7.
“When I was young I came to every game here,″ Nick Stites said. “I grew up running around here on the sidelines, throwing balls around.″
Ware, the Shelby head coach, can relate. His father, Larry, was an avid supporter of Shelby High football and brought his son to all the games. Larry Ware helped start the “Thursday Supper Club″ during which community men take players to dinner and mentor them. He also served as the public address announcer at the Golden Lions until he died in 2009.
His father's love for football was passed on to Lance, who played for Shelby and later Appalachian State University before embarking on a coaching career.
“It's kind of been something everybody is born with, the expectation of playing football here and doing well,″ Lance Ware said. “I was like 6 years old and my uncles were playing, so I'd come to the games with Dad. The excitement of watching those guys roll out in those gold helmets … I always wanted to be part of that.″
Today, Lance Ware's sons are carrying on the tradition. Oldest son Reece will be a junior offensive lineman this season for the Golden Lions, while youngest Stockton is joining the program as a ninth-grader. Ware estimates one out of four boys in his school of about 900 students participates in football.
Few, if any, families have a football tradition in Shelby and Cleveland County like the Ramseurs. East Carolina linebacker and Crest graduate Aaron Ramseur is one of six brothers who played for county high school teams. Five have come through the program at Crest, including older brother Tim, who was the state defensive player of year in 1994 before signing to play for N.C. State. Brothers Josh at Gardner-Webb and Devonta at Tuskegee are also playing college football.
“Nobody had to tell me, 'Aaron you've got to play football,'″ Aaron Ramseur said. “When I saw my brothers playing I felt like that was in the family and I already knew. I was asking my parents, 'When am I going to get to play?' They were like, 'You've got to wait until you're five.' I couldn't wait to turn five so I could be out there like my brothers.″
Alan Ford, the retired sports editor for the Shelby Star newspaper, covered Cleveland County high school football since 1979. He believes family connections combined with dedicated coaches and championship successes have fueled the development of football talent in Shelby.
Coaches helped establish a standard of success, such as N.C. High School Athletic Association Hall of Famer Jim Taylor (Shelby), Roy Kirby (123 wins, two state titles in 13 seasons at Crest), former Scotland coach Mark Barnes (63 wins, state title in five seasons at Crest) and Chris Norman (147 wins in 13 years at Shelby). They inspired children to strive to become part of the teams.
Shelby and Crest are two of the winningest football programs in North Carolina high school history. The Golden Lions have captured 14 state championships, including four straight from 2013 to 2016. The Chargers have claimed six state titles, the most recent being the 3-AA crown in 2015 under former Scotland assistant Will Clark. Both Crest and Shelby (2-A class) won state championships that season, and the only blemish on either team's record was a 40-33 triumph by the Chargers over the Golden Lions.
The other Cleveland County teams, Burns and Kings Mountain, have also enjoyed success in football. Burns won the state 3-A title in 1994 behind the play of current East Carolina University head coach Scottie Montgomery.
But it's been Shelby and Crest that have pumped out the majority of college talent in recent years, and their intense rivalry is a contributing factor.
“I've always subscribed to the rivalry theory here,″ Ford said, “that we can't let who is right down the road from us or right across town from us be better than we are.″
Only 5.7 miles separate the campuses of Shelby and Crest. Shelby's George Blanton Memorial Stadium is in the heart of town and has the feel of a small college with its multi-level brick pressbox and cement bleachers. Drive just outside of town, past fields of corn and soybeans, to reach Crest's Sid Bryson Stadium.
“I think if you lined us up and played checkers at midfield, we'd have 7,000 people come,″ said Shelby's Ware. “A couple of years ago, we were both 10-0 and playing for the conference championship. I think there were 10,000 people here. Cars were parked on the median on Highway 74.
“I remember another game in 2004 and they got us, I think the score was 38-35. There were probably a dozen college players on that field, and a couple who went on to play in the NFL.″
This season, Shelby's major-college contingent will be led by Crest graduates Ramseur at ECU, running back Jalin Moore at Appalachian State and defensive end Justin Foster at Clemson. Moore enters his senior campaign with the second-highest career rushing yards (3,170) of any returning FBS player. Ramseur is one of ECU's top returning defenders, and Foster will be part of the defensive line rotation for the nationally prominent Tigers.
Ware will be paying close attention this season to Shelby's most recent top prospect, Dax Hollifield. Hollifield ended an intense recruitment last February by choosing to play for Virginia Tech. Hollifield is expected to see playing time at linebacker and on special teams for the Hokies in 2018.
The Shelby high school talent pool will still be deep in 2018. Already Shelby linebacker Jaylon Scott has made a verbal commitment to N.C. State, and Crest safety Lannden Zanders is pledged to Clemson.
“There has always been talent here, and it isn't slowing down yet,″ Ford said.
Tommy Horton elicits a laugh from a waitress at the Shelby Cafe on a recent summer morning by calling her by the wrong name. Horton, wearing a North Carolina cap and T-shirt, is a regular at the downtown diner where locals have gathered since 1922.
Horton, who attended Crest High, sits at a table adorned with old articles from the local newspaper. A 1961 story detailing Shelby's first game in its new stadium highlights the pages on Horton's table.
As he eats a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon, Horton eagerly talks about a middle school football player he saw recently.
“He's a running back,″ Horton said, his voice raising slightly. “He'll run over four or five people, and drag three or more into the end zone. He may be the best I've ever seen in Shelby.″
That's typical talk in this small town with big football talent.
Staff writer Sammy Batten can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3534.