As fans filed into the stadium that bears his name on Friday for Mooresville High’s final home game of the regular season, many paused to pay their respects to its newest addition.
A bronze sculpture of Joe Popp – commissioned by Popp’s friends and family – now stands next to the Hall of Fame Wall as you walk through the main gate of Coach Joe Popp Stadium.
Popp, who passed away in July 2012, led Mooresville to its first undefeated season in 1960 and then coached the Blue Devils to their only state championship the following year.
Before the start of Friday’s 59-20 Mooresville victory against West Iredell, Popp’s children – Jim, Karen and Joey – along with each of their families made their way out to the 50-yard line for a special dedication ceremony.
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“We would like to thank everyone for this celebration of dad’s life,” Joey Popp said. “We know that he and mom are looking down from above smiling, especially with this team going undefeated thus far. They both loved this school and community.”
Joey’s words were followed by a moment of silence.
Once the game began, it was vintage Mooresville (9-0), ranked sixth in the Observer’s Sweet 16.
After sitting out the previous three games with an ankle injury, Akease Rankin returned to rush for 228 yards and four touchdowns on 10 carries, all in the first half to surpass 1,000 yards rushing on the season.
Popp, who went on to coach at the collegiate (UNC, Wake Forrest, Georgia Tech) and NFL (Cleveland Browns) levels, arrived in Mooresville in 1958 as a football coach and teacher and never truly left.
Popp returned to Mooresville in the early 1990s to retire with his wife, Peggy – herself an honored pillar of the Mooresville community, who passed away in November 2011.
The Blue Devils’ stadium was named after Popp in 2010.
Prominent local artist Jon Hair, who served as the official sculptor for the United States Olympic Team and the United States Olympic Committee from 2003 to 2008, sculpted Popp’s image.
The sculpture was installed in Coach Joe Popp Stadium on Oct. 17 – the same day as a bench (with a bronze sculpture) was placed on Main Street to honor Peggy. It would have been the couples’ 61st wedding anniversary.
“We’re so thankful that my dad was alive to see the stadium dedication,” Joey said. “It was a very proud moment for him to see his name on that stadium.
“So many people at that time knew of Coach Popp. We felt, afterwards, that we needed to have something to remind future generations who Coach Joe Popp was.”