I thought about Barry Byers a lot this summer.
The Herald’s sports department – all one person of it – moved from the front corner of the newspaper’s offices into the middle of the newsroom. More than 30 years worth of coffee-stained newspaper, a library of college sports media guides, kitschy artifacts and other forgotten and yellowed detritus landed in the trash.
Some of it came from the corner office that Barry – a 30-plus-year sports reporter at The Herald who passed away during the 2013 football season – inhabited last.
▪ There were folders full of newspaper clippings from college scholarship signings (and not just football).
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▪ Unopened and dust-caked instructions on how to properly use The Herald’s digital publication system.
▪ A typically blunt employee self-assessment. “I know sometimes I can be an a**hole...”
▪ Scribbled notes from a sleepover with the Lewisville High football team, a favorite story idea of his.
▪ Corrections from an editor scrawled on a story about Frank Howard; Barry was not a Clemson fan.
▪ A framed photo of his two daughters in their Rock Hill High softball uniforms.
In different ways, it was all a reminder that Barry set the mark for passionate, informed coverage of the noteworthy football that Rock Hill and the nearby towns produce annually. I’m just trying to keep up with both.
Barry Byers covered local high school sports for over three decades without a hint of pretension or superiority. I’ll never forget the sideways look on his face when I handed him a story with the word “ubiquitous” in it. He rolled his office chair over to my desk and explained that ubiquitous was not in his, or anyone’s, vocabulary.
Barry was on my mind again the past few weeks as I cranked out The Herald’s high school football preview. He always wrote a column that ran inside the cover, normally a list or an ABC’s of local football; Barry liked lists even before Buzzfeed made them cool.
The man with the walrus mustache loved his job. He would have been so tickled headed into this 2016 season.
Rock Hill and the surrounding areas have always had prep football talent. The way college recruiting has developed, that talent seems to get recognized earlier every year. Barry probably would have been blown away by local freshmen and sophomores receiving scholarship offers from SEC schools, but he would’ve also covered every development breathlessly, gotten to know each kid’s mom and where their dad worked in case he needed to track them down one night.
Barry would have also been proud that his pet nickname for Rock Hill – Football City USA – seems to have taken hold in the area.
I’ll make a claim that Barry would have backed with all of his being: at the moment, Rock Hill and the surrounding towns constitute the epicenter of high school football in South Carolina. Sorry, but not sorry, Sparkle City.
The biggest and most worthy civic challenger to Rock Hill’s recent high school football dominance claims in South Carolina – Spartanburg – isn’t set up as nicely in the coming years. Spartanburg High, Byrnes and Dorman, three of the biggest powers in the state, all landed in the same 5A region that might be one of the toughest in the country. Those schools will cannibalize each other before the state championship game, with one team, at best, surviving for a shot at the title.
Northwestern and South Pointe have been two of the premier football programs in the state in the last 10 years, culminating in both schools winning state championships last December. Plenty of other schools have been dominant across the state, but haven’t had a cross-city neighbor at the same title-winning level.
Who knows how many state titles would have come back to Rock Hill before 2006 had Rock Hill High and Northwestern competed in different classifications. The Bearcats and Trojans met in regular season finales and subsequent playoff Turkey Bowls in six of the 10 seasons from 1988 to 1997. The last time the longtime rivals played a regular season-closer and an Upper State final in the same season was 2004 when Jim Ringer’s Rock Hill team beat Northwestern en route to a second state title in three years.
Those were the days, especially for Barry’s alma mater, Rock Hill High.
It’s a different era now, though. South Pointe’s arrival around 10 years ago shifted the city’s football landscape in a way Barry would have never imagined. Realignment kept South Pointe and Northwestern in different classifications, and the city of Rock Hill is uniquely positioned to win multiple titles each season in the coming years.
At least one of those two schools has played in a state final each of the last nine years, with one of them winning a championship in seven of those seasons. Last fall was the first time two schools from Rock Hill won state titles in the same year, and South Pointe became the first to win back to back championships.
86 Under Bobby Carroll and Strait Herron, South Pointe has won 86 percent of its playoff games since starting varsity football in 2006. Northwestern is 17-3 in the last six postseasons.
Teams aside, individual talent is rolling off production lines in Rock Hill, Chester, Fort Mill, York and other local areas. York County has nine active players in the NFL right now, with eight of those coming from Rock Hill High, South Pointe or Northwestern. Football City USA has the highest number of active players in the league from a single South Carolina town.
Wizened and winning coaching staffs support every school football program in the area. The culture of pigskin in the city explains why an assistant coach like David Pierce would stay at Northwestern for 30 years before finally getting his shot to be the head man.
Rock Hill’s football reputation is like a Batman beacon in the Friday night sky, attracting kids and their families to move into the area. Northwestern had a pair of transfers starting for it in the state championship game last season; both moved to town with their families because of the success of the Trojans’ program.
It’s happened again this year at South Pointe. Why? Because Rock Hill is the epicenter of Palmetto State prep football at the moment, a fact that would have made Barry Byers so dang proud, his mustache inching up at the edges in a big smile.
Two of a kind make Rock Hill kind of the one
Many areas across South Carolina produce more than one annual football championship contender; no other town has two from within the same city limits like Rock Hill does.
2008 - South Pointe 4A Division II state champions; Northwestern 4A Division II runners-up
2009 - No champion; Northwestern 4A Division II runners-up
2010 - Northwestern 4A Division II state champions; South Pointe 3A runners-up
2011 - South Pointe 3A state champions
2012 - No champion; Northwestern 4A Division II runners-up
2013 - Northwestern 4A Division II state champions
2014 - South Pointe 3A state champions
2015 - South Pointe 3A state champions; Northwestern 4A Division II state champions
Around the area: Clover won the 2007 4A Division II state championship, while Chester (2007, 2008), Great Falls (2008) and York (2014) have all produced state finalists in their respective classifications.