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Life after the lights

by Christian Bryant

Wayne Phillips (l) and Joe Taylor converse about their college baseball days. (photo by Alfonso A. Tobar / latinimage.net)

North Carolina has always been a hotbed for athletic talent. Bob McAdoo, Lou Hudson, Charlie Sanders, Wes Ferrell, Torry Holt and Chris Paul are only a few of many Piedmont Triad athletes whose names are associated with great success. Even so, these men represent a microscopic percentage of athletes that actually go pro.

An undated study listed on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s key issues page notes that an estimated 1.7 percent of NCAA football players go pro. For baseball players, the percentage goes up to an estimated 8.9 but drops for men’s basketball at 1.2. Earlier this year, the NCAA aired a PSA entitled “Dumb Jocks” that shows a montage of scenes from various athletic events. Near the end of the PSA, the narrator says, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.”

Wayne Phillips and Joe Taylor are both Greensboro natives, professionals, former multi-sport athletes and former crosstown rivals who have known each other since they were 8 years old.

Growing up, Phillips and Taylor played baseball on separate school teams but always ended up on the same all-star teams at the end of the season. With the help of mentors, both were groomed to be scholarship student-athletes on the collegiate level.

Phillips remarks on his late mentor, Billy Clark, and how the welfare of young athletes was one of his main concerns.

“Athletics and academics were important to him,” Phillips says. “Plus he was a magistrate and didn’t want to see us down there.”

Phillips graduated from Dudley High School and earned a scholarship to play at Florida A&M University at 16 years old. Taylor graduated from Grimsley High School and took his talents to UNC- Wilmington.

“When we left, we didn’t talk again until the summertime,” Taylor says.

In that year apart, both saw their own share of struggles.

“I’m learning all of these things, like… the weekend starts on Thursday,” Taylor says while laughing.

“It was almost overwhelming…. I needed to change.”

After their freshman seasons, Phillips and Taylor weighed their options and in 1984 transferred together to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh to once again play in the same uniform.

“When we ended up at St. Aug, it just meant something,” Taylor says.

Former Head Coach Henry White commented on the two players and their contributions on the field.

“Wayne came to me as a pitcher,” White said. “He hurt his arm and became one of my better outfielders. Joe was an infielder and became one of my better pitchers.”

During that time, there were fewer restrictions as to which teams could play which and schools would often cross division lines. St. Augustine’s College was a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a smaller division that rivaled the NCAA. In an unusual occurrence, St. Augustine played against Division 1 Old Dominion University. The larger school was the victor but White remarked that Taylor gave a stellar performance.

Kevion Latham has always had his priorities straight. A former defensive lineman for Page High School and, more recently, Pennsylvania State University, Latham sported at least a 3.5 grade point average throughout his high school and college tenures.

“Joe had a knuckle ball,” White said. “Best game Joe ever pitched…. Back then, I had baseball players.”

St. Augustine’s baseball team won the regular season championship in 1986. Phillips and Taylor agree that “so many crazy memories” were made during those times and solidified that statement with elbow nudges and a concerted laugh.

After graduating, “We saw that we should go to tryouts or open camps [for minor league teams],” Phillips said.

Although hopeful and confident about making good showings, Phillips and Taylor found that they were not only competing against other athletes but political systems and a real-life scatter plot where as age increased, ability decreased.

“As you get older, the possibility of you making it [to the major league] shortens,” Phillips says.

Taylor’s first tryout with the Baltimore Orioles yielded little success and opened his eyes to the opposing forces that were at play.

“I wasn’t getting a good look,” Taylor says. “I would’ve had to run a 4.1-second 40-yard dash and throw a 92 mph fastball…. They had kids they signed out of high school.”

Taylor tells a story about a friend who went to bat against a pitcher who was given $250,000 signing bonus out of high school. Thefriend knocked the pitch out of the park, but he was subsequently taken out of the drill. The “name of the game” was playing time, and players without professional contacts or previous observation from major league recruiters were at a disadvantage.

“It was clear to us then how political and how unfair it could be,” Taylor says. “It helped you grow quickly.”

According to Phillips and Taylor, capitalizing on rare opportunities — like gaining attention when a scout was present to watch another player — made or broke careers; however, in listening to the accounts of tryouts and open camps, there’s the sense that decent players were merely practice dummies for high school hot-shots that wowed scouts and recruiters.

“I knew to move on when it got to that point,” Phillips says, with Taylor’s concurrence.

The two friends laugh briefly after mentioning how professional team representatives parade players around like cattle. The laughter is stoked after the mention of NFL quarterback Tom Brady and his unimpressive physique compared to other players before the 2000 draft.

Nearly 20 years later, Phillips and Taylor respectively work at Filtrona PLC and Sealy and have remained friends, still laughing and ribbing at each other. They are not without senses of humor.

“I tried out for the Orioles, the Red Sox and Cincinnati,” Phillips says. “That’s why I don’t wear any of their hats!” Phillips doubles duties as the head coach of Smith High School’s baseball team while Taylor is still waiting for the right time to be as compassionate to other young players as his mentor was to him.

“The sport was good to me,” Taylor says. “I got a great education and I’ve got to give back.”

Kevion Latham has always had his priorities straight. A former defensive lineman for Page High School and, more recently, Pennsylvania State University, Latham sported at least a 3.5 grade point average throughout high school and

college.

“Books came easier than sports for Kevion,” said Otis Yelverton, a former high school football coach. “He was always more willing to put in the work to be a great student than to be a great football player.”

And Latham was a great football player.

According to the Penn State football website, Latham recorded 107 tackles and 22 sacks during his senior season at Page. He totaled 241 stops and 95 sacks during his high school career, earned All-State and All-Conference honors during his junior and senior seasons, was named All-area and All-county after his senior season, and participated in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas featuring top players from North Carolina and South Carolina.

He began playing football when he was, as Yelverton puts it, “a little, chunky fat kid at Lewis Center.” This was Yelverton’s first time coaching Latham. Yelverton later reappeared at Page to coach Latham through what would be tough but successful seasons and a difficult recruiting process.

“The real recruiting started when I was a junior [in high school],” Latham said. “All of the schools are trying to sell you on their product. Some schools will even bash other schools.

It all came down my comfort level with recruiters and my comfort level with the school… and my chances of going to the NFL.”

Kevion was offered nearly 30 athletic scholarships but took a liking to Penn State and their coaching staff.

Before handling the recruitment rush, Latham had to deal with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery.

“[After the surgery], doctors said, ‘It’s impossible for you to play,’” Latham said.

Against the orders of physicians, Latham continued playing and working out but committed to Penn State University in June after his junior season just in case he suffered another injury. This way, his education would be paid for regardless of his ability to play football.

Once at Penn State, Latham began acclimating to a city thats built around a school and its football program.

“[State College, Pa.] was different because it’s a college town,” Latham said. “If you were a football player, you were the man.”

Latham redshirted his freshman year. This gave him time to begin adjusting to the level of play and the fact that his biggest competitors were men years older than him.

“The game is so fast and it’s nothing like high school,” Latham said. “I was going against grown men…. You had to hold your own.

“You had to know the different offenses every week…. Some guys would just know how to play the game. I thought a lot, and that slowed me down.”

If you read into Latham’s page on the Penn State Football website, it shows his constant and steady progression moving up the depth chart each year that he played. Although a seemingly favorable progression, there’s a different story that the statistics don’t show: Latham was a part of a top-ranked football program under the direction of Head Coach Joe Paterno, one of the most notable figures in college football, and was unsatisfied with his experience.

“I wasn’t having fun at all,” Latham said. “I just hated being up there… I hated it, I hated the feeling.”

Latham cites a strained relationship with Penn State Defensive Line Coach Larry Johnson as the root of his football woes. According to Yelverton, it was Johnson that initially attracted Latham to the program because of his relatability.

“[Johnson] would say, ‘I’m not dealing with this. I’m going to play with the best guys,’” Latham said. “I was never late for anything but dudes were [getting caught violating team policies], suspended for a week, and then playing over me… All [Penn State] cares about is winning.”

Johnson could not be contacted for an interview.

Halfway between his redshirt junior year, which was his academic senior year, Latham began looking for jobs. He graduated a semester early and opted out of playing football for his redshirt senior season.

Latham now works for PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pa. as a finance trainee doing lots of “back office work.”

“It’s competitive, but I’m used to that,” Latham said.

Although his hopes of going to the NFL have been abandoned, Latham plans on keeping close ties to the game he loves through another avenue.

“There are guys in the league that I played with that are pretty broke. They don’t think about the future, they’re just thinking about today. I want to be a financial advisor and help guys in the league manage their money.”

Alan Ireland and I agree to meet at the Buffalo Wild Wings off of Samet Drive in High Point. The restaurant bustles like a yellow-and-

black beehive with employees swarming to fill orders as the rush hour hits. TVs cover nearly all of the intersecting space between the walls and the ceiling, with non-stop sports and news action blaring amidst the smell of hot wing sauce.

We speak for only a few moments before realizing that we share quite a few similarities: we grew up in Greensboro, went to the same high school and consider ourselves to be fairly personable.

Ireland uses his hands when he speaks, which engages his broad shoulders and his sixfoot-something frame.

“I like consulting… talking, coaching…. I enjoy helping and working with folks,” Ireland says. “I can articulate a lot better at this age.”

He comes off as talkative and easygoing; however, Ireland is reluctant to speak on a single topic: his football career.

“I don’t bring it up,” he says. “I rarely talk about it.”

Ireland divulges that it’s not that he doesn’t like reminiscing on yesteryear, but specific events become blurred and he likes to get the facts straight. Even as his memory is jogged, he speaks with caution for fear of embellishing things as they truly happened. He knows a few people who have done that.

Ireland played football at Page High School.

He was a part of their very first state championship team with Marion Kirby, 2000 NC High School Hall of Fame inductee, as the head coach. He mentions snapping the ball to known Ford dealership owner Bob Dunn, who was the quarterback at the time. He does the “We’re dealing” signature movement just to make sure we’re on the same page.

After high school, Ireland knew he wanted to continue playing football but says that he was still very naïve.

“Back then, I wasn’t interested in school,” Ireland says. “At 17, I didn’t understand what was valuable.”

East Carolina University’s football program showed interest in Ireland. He subsequently waved off other offers in hopes of making it to Greenville.

“I had some looks but I thought I was going to ECU,” Ireland says.

Needless to say, things didn’t work out and Ireland found himself at GTCC for a year, taking classes and plotting his next move. With a new resolve, Ireland sat down and composed handwritten letters to every college that initially showed interest in him for his athletic ability.

“For me, I knew I needed to go to school and straighten up,” Ireland said. “[At that time] you’re really trying to figure out what you want to do. I worked, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Winston-Salem State University was the first school to respond to Ireland’s letter. Shortly thereafter, Ireland was on the field taking orders and absorbing life-lessons from then head coach William “Wild Bill” Hayes.

“He would say, ‘You better use me before I use you!’” Ireland says while laughing. “He had stories for us all the time.”

Hayes, who is now director of athletics at WSSU, is regarded as an NC football legend who saw success as an athlete, a coach and an educator. During his 12 seasons as head coach, Hayes and his team captured three Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships, one of which Ireland helped secure.

After graduating, Ireland would find that he still had some growing to do. He and a friend went to an open tryout for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a Canadian Football League team based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba to see if their talents were suitable for professional football.

“It was like a meat rack,” Ireland says. “They were cutting people left and right… Some guys were bigger and went to better schools. They looked like Greek gods but they still had to put [their pads] on like I did.”

A long and arduous workout of several exercises to test strength and ability resulted in Ireland’s friend getting cut. Without notice from the coaches, Ireland also left the field, abandoning the possibility of making the team. He walked off before being cut.

“That’s where my head was at then,” Ireland says.

He had one more chance to take his football career to the next level and got an invite to an Atlanta Falcons tryout with help from Hayes. They worked Ireland out at the long-snapper position but at the end of the day, “[the Falcons] pretty much said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’” Ireland took on several jobs before finding himself back at WSSU as the school’s purchasing director. Ironically enough, he now works in a modular unit where his old practice field used to be.

Ireland seems like he’s counseling whenever he speaks. It’s the effect of something that may have subconsciously taken root when he was in school. Then, he considered WSSU to have a “nurturing environment”… coach Hayes included.

“If you said you needed some assistance, somebody was there,” Ireland says. “That’s why I am the way I am today. I’m at an age now where I can help.”

With a wealth of knowledge and a slew of “takeaways” from his college experience and beyond, Ireland still makes it a point not to talk about his accomplishments with his two sons.

“I took [my athletic career] as far as I could.

I’ve enjoyed it. It’s all about them now.”

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