Ever notice when you bring up an icon, you just have to say one word to ge the point across?
Madonna. Sinatra. Kanye. Springsteen.
It’s that way in sports, too. With teams and individuals.
There’s Carolina. Duke. Jordan. LeBron. Gretzky. Brady.
And during the 80s and 90s, there was one high school football team that was the ultimate obstacle to climb. The team that everyone gunned for in the Triangle and abroad.
Why were there so much anticipation? Because they won. Longer than the dynasties that have followed them at Hillside (locally) and Charlotte Independence (statewide).
Hillside has won six consecutive PAC-6 Championships, a remarkable accomplishment. They’re also still twelve years behind Northern’s record of 18 consecutive conference championships, set between 1984-2001 under head coaches Ken Browning and Gary Merrill.
From 1976-2000, Northern didn’t lose to another team from the city of Durham. In 1990, they lost to Person High at Durham County Stadium. They didn’t lose another conference game until 2000, a span of 69 games.
From 1981 to 2001, Northern didn’t have a losing streak. They went five consecutive seasons (1991-1997) without losing a regular season game, until they fell to Oxford Webb in September 1997 in Granville County.
And it wasn’t just the winning that made the program what it was. When you pulled up to any average school in the 90s, chances are there would be two grandstands. Some of the fans there were comprised of parents whose attendance was mandatory just to keep conversation active at the dinner table.
Northern played at Durham County Stadium, with rows seemingly stretching up into the lights. It wasn’t a Taj Mahal, but it sure looked like it to a high school student who wouldn’t know any better. Their winning made them more than a high school team. Before Riverside High came along on Rose of Sharon Road, Northern was very much the Bull City’s team.
The stands were backed with 5,000 fans, minimum, even for the most noncompetive games. On the road, no one traveled as well as Knights fans, who wore their trademark navy blue and gold just like a Yankees fan was adorned in pinstripes.
The rest were just challengers to the throne, like a revolving series of Batman villains. Each year there would be a new challenger, wearing different uniforms, often sporting a different offense. And the result would be the same. The Knights would hold the trophy in the end.
Hillside? Orange? Riverside? Might as well have been the Riddler, the Joker and Catwoman.
Because it was Northern.
But nothing lasts forever. The cracks in the foundation started to show in 2000, when the Knights faced Jordan at Claude Currie Stadium. Of all the challengers, Jordan was certainly the most unlikely to end Northern’s reign. Only a few years earlier, the Falcons had been the 98-pound weakling of the PAC-6 Conference. They had a losing streak that lasted three years. One former Jordan graduate once joked privately in 1999: “I graduated from Jordan and Duke University. And I pull from the Cincinnati Bengals. I come from football purgatory.”
Yet it was Jordan in 2000 who mounted a two touchdown comeback to shock the Knights 20-14 under a backup quarterback on its way to tying Northern for the league crown.
A year later, Riverside and Northern squared off in the penultimate game of the 2001 regular season. With the Knights trailing 20-13 in the final minute, wide receiver Fred Williams caught a touchdown pass Antonio Freeman-style, while laying on his back in the end zone. But the ensuing extra point was blocked. Just like that, Riverside won 20-19. Northern’s 18-year dominance was over.
Northern’s last PAC-6 Championship was in 2004.
Tonight, Orange travels to Northern looking for its first four-game winning streak against the Knights. Two years ago, Orange defeated Northern at Durham County Stadium for the first time ever.
Next year, they’ll be conference rivals again. Northern will jump down to 3-A, along with East Chapel Hill and Hillside in a brand new Big 8.
While Orange may be a slight favorite tonight, Northern head coach R.J. Wilson won’t have to work very hard reminding his team of how close they came to beating Orange last season in Hillsborough.
Bryse Wilson simply carried Orange to the win. First he ran an interception back 67 yards in the first quarter. He made two sacks at linebacker. He stepped in as placekicker on kickoffs because regular kicker Davis Dixon was injured. Then he caught the 67-yard game-winning touchdown with :52 remaining after starting the drive as the quarterback following an injury to starter Jackson Schmid as Orange won 20-13.
The Northern that fans knew back in the 80s and 90s isn’t the same dynasty. The regular crowds of 5,000 at Durham County Stadium have tapered off because of human nature. All sports dynasties inevitably fall, whether it’s UNC women’s soccer, UCLA Basketball, the Monteal Canadiens or the New York Yankees.
Northern hasn’t won a nonconference regular season game since 2012, a span of 13 straight losses. Orange has won 15 straight nonconference regular sesaon games.
Even with a win tonight, it will still be special for Orange, even if they are the favorites.
Because it’s Northern.