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Carroll York played football for the team that came before the new Charlotte 49ers

Charlotte 49ers vs. Campbell, noon Saturday (WCCB)

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

When the Charlotte 49ers football team makes its big debut in front of a sold-out home crowd of 15,000 on Saturday, a lot of the day will be about what is new.

A new on-campus stadium. A new team. A new symbol of pride for fans.

But before the game against the Campbell Fighting Camels starts at noon, the 49ers will honor the old – in particular, a man named Carroll York, who will celebrate his 86th birthday that day.

In 1946 and 1947, York was a 6-foot-1, 170-pound wide receiver and defensive end for the college that was the direct predecessor to UNC Charlotte. Now, 66 years later, York is a former architectural engineer, who lives in a retirement home in Charlotte.

“I will be there at the game to represent the old team and cheer on the new team,” York said.

This mix of old and new began, like so many good stories do, in a barbershop. York was getting a $13 haircut about six months ago at the same place he’s gone for years on Central Avenue.

Waiting to get a haircut was a man who was a Charlotte fan who casually mentioned that the 49ers would be fielding their first football team later in 2013.

“Well, it’s not really their very first one,” York said. “I played on the first one.”

The man turned out to be a relative of someone who worked in the 49ers’ athletic department, and so York was put in touch with various athletic officials at the Charlotte campus.

Filling in historical gaps

They were delighted that someone from the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina Owls was not only alive, but also able to fill in the sizable gaps in the history of those first three football teams (1946-48).

“We were the Owls,” York explained, “because we held classes at Central High in Charlotte, and we only could go to college after the high school students were through. So we went at night, and that’s how someone got the idea for the Owls.”

In 1946, York played on the first football team at what is now UNC Charlotte. He also went to the first series of classes at the school.

His analytics teacher was Bonnie Cone, best known as the eventual founder of UNC Charlotte.

The school was then called CCUNC and had been established as one of 14 evening college centers across the state to serve returning veterans.

York had served in the U.S. Navy, and most of the team (although not all) was also made up of veterans. York played for the Owls in 1947, too, and then transferred to Clemson because at the time CCUNC did not offer a four-year degree.

York was gone by the time CCUNC fielded its final football team in 1948 – at the school that would soon become Charlotte College and, eventually, UNC Charlotte. In 1949, only 15 students showed up for football tryouts, and the team was disbanded.

‘We lost more than we won’

Then came a 65-year gap between football teams. Did York ever think he would live to see the day another one came running out of a tunnel?

“So many years had passed,” he said. “But I guess somewhere in the back of my head I thought ‘Surely they’re going to do a team.’ ”

A lot of Charlotte fans thought the same way. The 49ers finally decided to establish a football program in 2008. Five years later, here it is.

York may not be the only surviving member of those three early teams, but he is the only one the school has been able to find. Records are sparse.

The team played its home games in Memorial Stadium – where York had also played in high school for Charlotte Tech. The Owls had away games against teams like the Hamlet All-Stars and the Appalachian State Teachers College JV.

“They said in some article we had a great crowd of 200,” York said. “But I don’t know – we probably had 1,000 or so for some games.”

The Owls’ first game, in 1946, was played against a unit from Fort Bragg. The Owls lost, 20-0. The players wore helmets without faceguards.

The Owls had a quarterback named Robert “Goat” Davis and a head coach named Marion “Footsie” Woods.

“We lost more than we won,” York said. The Owls did beat Pembroke State and Belmont Abbey that year.

A lifelong teammate

York’s most memorable game came when he scored two touchdowns in a 33-19 loss to Presbyterian in 1947 – one on offense, one on defense.

York had to miss a later game in 1947 because his fiancée scheduled their wedding on the same day. His name was Carroll; her name was Carol. They developed a system, listening to the pitch of the caller’s voice, to determine whether they were asking for the male or female York. They were married more than 50 years before she passed away in 2000.

In those 50 years, the Yorks made a life mostly in Charlotte. York worked primarily for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, building stadiums, tennis courts and everything else besides the schools themselves for 28 years.

They had three children together. York now has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren as well. After a year of living alone following his wife’s death, he moved into the Aldersgate retirement home in Charlotte in 2001.

A homecoming

He still plays golf at least once a week – sometimes on the quaint three-hole, par-3 golf course Aldersgate residents established. He drives himself everywhere. He smokes cigarettes occasionally (“We’re no-smoking now at Aldersgate, but I was grandfathered in,” he said). He is a caregiver and friend to a 96-year-old woman who lives nearby in a nursing home.

His has been a life well-lived, and this late-blooming romance between York and his old college has been a happy confluence of events. York’s picture is prominently displayed at the 49ers’ new football facilities, and he has been invited to many “pre-football” functions.

“It’s one of the best things that has happened in my life,” York said. “The 49ers have just been so kind to me.”

York said he asked for a microphone so he could speak briefly to the crowd before Saturday’s game when he’s on the field.

He had a message he wanted to deliver. The 49ers said that probably wouldn’t work because of logistics.

So we’ll let York deliver that message now.

“On behalf of the old team,” York said, “I just want to tell the new 49ers to go get ’em.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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