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They are rarely the fastest or the biggest or even the strongest members of the team, but there’s a certain type of football player that is integral to championship teams.
For the 1968 Fike High Cyclones, that player was Earl Killebrew. An inside linebacker on defense, an outside tackle on offense and a kicker in between, Killebrew played the game with a white-hot intensity and a zeal for contact that made many of his teammates glad he wore the same uniform as they did and left his coaches in awe.
“Earl didn’t tackle. Earl would hit you and run through you,” surmised Henry Trevathan, the head coach of the Cyclones that won three straight North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A championships in the late 1960s.
Killebrew, who died in January at the age of 67, was a starting linebacker for the 1967 Cyclones as a junior. For the 1968 Cyclones, who had to work a little harder than the other championship editions, Killebrew was indispensable.
“You know, they say football is blocking and tackling. Who on the team did it any better than him?” Trevathan asked.
Killebrew had as fine a senior year as any Fike player ever did. He was named all-conference, all-region and all-state and selected, along with senior teammate Steve Windham, to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas as well as the North Carolina Coaches Association East-West All-Star Game.
Killebrew, who played both fullback and linebacker at the junior high level, anchored the Cyclones’ 4-4 defense at inside linebacker, bringing a ferocity that he inflicted on Fike opponents each Friday night.
Stuart Walston, who played the other inside linebacker spot alongside Killebrew in 1968, recalled that intensity from his teammate, who usually led by example.
“Earl didn’t have a whole lot to say,” Walston said. “He did everything by his actions. He was a force to be reckoned with, there’s no doubt about that. He wasn’t as much of a vocal leader, as I recall, but he when he hit somebody, he hit somebody.”
Walston then chuckled and added: “I was glad I was playing beside him and not against him!”
Walston remembered Killebrew getting so worked up one time during the Fike coaches’ pregame speech that he punched a metal locker, denting it.
Killebrew’s brother, Dan, younger by one year, recalled his sibling making a stop during a game against Durham.
“They had run a play up the middle and Earl tackled the fullback and hit him really hard and the guy was crawling back to the huddle and Earl was on top of him,” Dan Killebrew said.
By his senior year, coaches didn’t have a reason to get Earl Killebrew off the field. In addition to playing inside linebacker, he played outside offensive tackle in Fike’s unique unbalanced offensive line and handled kickoff and placekicking chores. His two fourth-quarter field goals were the difference in the Cyclones’ late-season 6-3 win over Goldsboro in 1968. The year before in Goldsboro, after kicking off, Earl Killebrew made such a devastating hit on the Earthquakes kick returner that Trevathan described the play in Russell Rawlings’ book on the Fike championship era, “Cyclone Country,” as “separating the ball carrier from the ball.”
Throughout those first two state title runs, Earl Killebrew was often the Cyclone making the key tackle, the crucial sack, the critical fumble recovery or interception and, of course, the bone-jarring hit that not only revved up his teammates but the hundreds of Fike fans in the stands, no matter where the game was played.
Earl Killebrew was a throwback to the era when football players wore leather helmets without face masks. He was never the biggest, strongest or fastest Cyclone but few would argue against any of them being tougher than Earl Killebrew.
Toughness was a hallmark of the 1968 Cyclones, who lost twice, more than either of the other two Fike state championship teams.
“In my mind, that team was the toughest team,” Dan Killebrew said. “Those players at that time, I thought we were tougher than the first year.”
Killebrew’s fellow seniors included team co-captains Zeke Church and Windham, both of whom could be in the conversation for toughest Cyclone. But for the Killebrews, toughness was ingrained and honed at home.
BORN TO IT
It stands to reason that the Killebrews’ story begins in tiny Fountain, on the other side of Saratoga where their grandparents lived on a country road just down from where Trevathan grew up. Their father, Pat Killebrew, was a classmate of Trevathan’s.
“He went to Fountain High School and he was the best athlete anybody ever saw,” Trevathan said.
When the boys were still in elementary school, Pat Killebrew moved his family — including wife, Lib, and older daughter Connie, who would go on to be a homecoming queen and cheerleader at Fike — to Wilson. He bought the service station on the corner of West Nash St. and Forest Hills Rd. and the family lived in a new brick home a block over on Anderson St.
That’s where Earl and Dan Killebrew spent many days, playing football, baseball and whatever other sport came to mind, along with the time-honored sibling tradition of smacking each other around from time to time. That practice may have done as much anything else in molding the Killebrew brothers into the football players they became.
When asked what made his brother such a good football player, Dan Killebrew, who went on to play at East Carolina University, said simply: “He could take pain. I saw him make some of the hardest hits.”
Of course, pain was a mitigating factor in the brothers’ physical “play” as youngsters.
“It got to be so painful so we quit doing it,” Dan Killebrew said with a laugh.
“They grew up competitive,” Trevathan said. “They grew up athletic. They grew up accepting challenges and they grew up looking for competition. And when competition arose, they were equal to it.”
After graduating from Fike in 1969, Earl Killebrew played at Appalachian State, where he continued his reputation as a fierce hitter. He left college after just two years and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Killebrew spent five years in the Navy on an aircraft carrier before returning to Wilson, his brother said. He worked for 20 years at Firestone alongside Dan Killebrew. The last three years, Earl Killebrew lived in Morehead City and worked, in retirement, at Sanitary Seafood Market.
The Killebrew brothers were enshrined together in the second induction class of the Fike Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. To this day, one might find it difficult to find a better linebacker in the school’s 61-year-history if not the annals of Wilson County football.
“We could go back and total up tackles, assists, pass break-ups and all that stuff,” Trevathan said. “He did what linebackers do and that’s tackle. Every now and then you could find one that not only could tackle, but he could hit. And that explains Earl Killebrew.”