In more normal years, our community would be just about ready to tee up the football for our annual Brick City Bowl between Lee County High School’s Yellow Jackets and Southern Lee’s Cavaliers. The two schools have celebrated this local scholastic sports tradition for 14 football seasons. Bragging rights, great plays, outstanding athletes and often a share of league championships are on the line when these rivals collide, and the games are usually exciting and entertaining.
What you may not know is that our area has always been a football hotbed in the state. In fact, our history with championship football dates back nearly a full century, all the way to 1923, when Sanford High reached the state title game for the first of 4 years in a row. Lee County’s largest high school at the time finally won the title in 1926, by defeating Charlotte 13-0. The Yellow Jackets had generally good teams throughout the first half of the 20th century but the 1951 team (pictured here) missed out on their chance to play for the state title under unusual circumstances.
Sanford defeated Henderson in the Eastern Finals in 1951, but the losing coach filed a complaint, claiming Sanford had used an ineligible player, and Sanford was denied the right to play for the state championship. The controversy aspect came because Henderson’s coach had coached here in Sanford the previous season, and the player he raised questions about had been one of his players in the 1950 season.
The 1960s and 1970s were truly gridiron glory years in Sanford. Under the direction of Hall of Fame Coach Paul Gay — pictured at the start of our column — Sanford Central closed out 3 straight seasons as Eastern 3A State Champions between 1966 and, 1968, fashioning an overall record in that span of 35 wins, 2 losses and 1 tie.
The teams pictured here are from 1966 and 1967. It’s worth noting that the Sanford Central (now Lee County) football stadium made its debut over a half century ago and was eventually named Paul B. Gay Stadium, in honor of the school’s legendary coach.
Coach Gay was also on the sidelines when Sanford was acclaimed 3A co-champions in 1972 after tying Tuscola in the title game, and when the Yellow Jackets went 13-1 in their first year as a 4A school in 1973, earning the state championship with a 14-6 win over Greensboro Smith.
Editorial content, pictures and research background , compliments of Jimmy Haire and Images of America: Sanford and Lee County, by Jimmy Haire & W.W. Seymour, Jr, available here for purchase. All book proceeds go to Sanford’s Railroad House Historical Association, Inc.