MAXTON — The 1971 Maxton High School football team admittedly wasn’t very good. It was a season that, record-wise, was one of the worst any school in North Carolina has ever had.
“As freshmen we went 0-10 and got beat a lot by big scores,” said James McDougald, who was the school’s running back at the time. “But it taught us a lesson as well. You have to fight ‘til the end and from that point on we did.”
The Maxton football team built on the 1971 season, working together to turn the tide, and four years later on the back of McDougald, put in one of the most impressive seasons that a high school football team has ever had in North Carolina.
The 1975 Maxton football team held the record for most points scored in a high school season until 2001, putting up 801 points during the year. McDougald is still a top-five name in the state records for most career points scored and rushed for more than 300 yards on 13 carries in Maxton’s 86-8 drubbing of North Duplin in the 1975 state championship game.
It set the bar for McDougald, who later carried his legacy north to Wake Forest where he was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame and later returned to settle down in his hometown.
“We listened to our coaches and what they said, and we did what they said,” McDougald said. “You block and tackle, you run hard, you catch, you throw, you do all these things, your going to win. We felt like we’ll give you our playbook, and we’re still going to beat you.”
McDougald said as a team, they were able to play loose during games because of what they went through at practices.
“Being tense takes more energy than being loose, and we just felt comfortable going out there because we had practiced, and when you practiced at Maxton at that time, they were worse than the game,” he said.
With his success in high school, McDougald was a shoe in to make the move to the next level. The question became where he wanted to play. Growing up in North Carolina, McDougald wanted to play at N.C. State, and was recruited by then-head coach Lou Holtz. As it turns out, that wasn’t meant to be.
“I was looking for a coach more than anything else,” he said. “When Lou Holtz left and went to the Jets, I had to find a new coach, and that’s when Wake Forest went to the front.”
The move turned out well for both sides, as the Wake Forest coaching staff received an athlete who dominated school record books for the next four years.
“He was the kind of a player that you want all your players to be,” said Bill Faircloth, who was early in his coaching career at Wake Forest when McDougald started. “He practiced hard, he played hard. I’ve been here for 30 some years, and there aren’t many that have been as special as he was.”
McDougald didn’t expecting to be a go-to player when he arrived.
“I just wanted to make the team, play some at home, and then come home when the team traveled,” McDougald said. “When I got to practice, and saw what was taking place, I realized I could play there. There were guys with all the pins and patches and everything else, but they couldn’t bust a grape. I thought ‘We have kids in Maxton that could eat these guys alive.’”
By the first game of the season he was named the team’s starting running back.
“Even though he played for a small high school, he was the all-time leading rusher in North Carolina at one point in time,” Faircloth said. “If you pinned him up he would run over you and if he was in the open, you couldn’t catch him.”
In McDougald’s first game he rushed for 249 yards on 45 carries against Clemson. He continued his dominance that season, becoming the first freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season and was named the conference’s best freshman.
“He’s one of the greatest football players in Wake Forest history. He’s something special,” Faircloth said.
The thrill of competition is what made football fun for McDougald, whether it was at a small 1A high school or the comparatively small sized Wake Forest.
“Wake Forest had less than 4,000 kids at that time,” McDougald said. “You play at a school like Michigan, who had probably 40,000 kids and play in a stadium with 100,000 people. They had more athletes, and probably better athletes, but just competing against them, the competition was a lot higher.
“As a team, each individual on the team made it possible for us to get that win. And when you do the ‘impossible’, that’s pretty cool.”
By the time he left Wake Forest, McDougald was the all-time leading rusher with 3,811 yards, a statistic he held for 23 years that only one runner has topped. He is the only player in Wake Forest history to lead the team in rushing all four years he played, and still holds the record for most rushing attempts in a career with 880. He was inducted into the Wake Forest Hall of Fame in 1992.
McDougald said he tried to never let his success get to his head.
“I have always wanted to be known as James. Not the football player or the athlete, but James,” he said. “Athletes sometimes get a premature amount of awe and ‘Oh, he can do this, and he can do that’, until they give him the job and he can’t. I don’t want to talk about football first, I want to talk about the job first.”
McDougald got the chance to play in the NFL after college when he was signed by the Atlanta Falcons. It was short-lived. Before he even played in a game, McDougald hurt himself weight lifting, and spent a season on the injured reserve before being cut by the team.
“I think they felt like without the injury, they felt like I could have played,” McDougald said. “I could have made it, but God has other plans for me.”
McDougald said while he didn’t want to leave the game, the professional level didn’t give him the same enjoyment as high school or college.
“I would go back to my high school before I would go back to the pros,” he said. “The money was great, but yet you talk about just enjoying the game. Winning for your hometown. Winning for your colors. That was the most exciting thing.”
Even now, McDougald doesn’t worry about missing a chance to play professional football.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that I can’t catch the bus that left yesterday, the water under the bridge is gone so I’m not going to worry about that,” he said.
Today, McDougald is back in Maxton, where he currently owns a laundromat.
“I have always wanted to come home to open a business,” he said. “Home is where the heart is. For us 50-somethings, there’s a lot of us coming back now, it’s like salmon coming back to where you were born.”
McDougald said he was shocked to see what had become of Maxton since he had left, and he is working to build the town back to what it was when he was playing football in high school.
“We’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities, and the results of that are very visible,” he said. “So (I’m) coming back here and trying to do something to help, and who better to come and help than someone you know and love.”