A role model: Hall of Famer’s attitude matches ability
Published 9:23 am Thursday, December 3, 2020
Fourth in a four-part series on new hall of famer Billy Riddle.
Billy Riddle carved out quite a legacy on the football field, but that wasn’t the half of it. He symbolized the term student-athlete, and he was the consummate role model.
Not only was he a Division-I prospect heading into his senior season in 2003, he was among the top-10 percent in his class.
Outside linebackers coach Keith Whitaker said in 2003: “As a father of two girls, he’s somebody you look at and say: ‘I want my kid to date somebody like that. What a great kid and on top of that, he’s our best football player.”
Defensive coordinator DeVore Holman: “We could talk for days about Billy Riddle. He weighs 190 pounds of muscle, he’s capable of running a 4.5 and he’s smart academically.”
Running backs coach Ron Bivins: “You don’t see a mean Billy Riddle until he puts the pads on. When he puts the pads on, he’s a different person.”
Letters from D-I colleges started coming in waves in the summer of ‘03. Several SEC schools and all but two ACC schools had their eyes on the free safety. He benched 310 pounds, power cleaned 270, squatted 355 and inclined 250 – and had blazing speed to go with it.
Head coach Doug Illing: “Last year he ran a 4.4 but he was 10 or 15 pounds lighter. He’s added muscle and still runs around 4.55.”
The 2003 season was nutty. The War Eagles got off to a spectacular start (4-0). That was followed by an exasperating four-game losing streak. They refused to crack, putting together a five-game winning streak and climbing to the state quarterfinals.
In the opener against visiting Alexander Central, Davie had an easy time in a 29-7 victory.
In a blockbuster showdown at West Rowan, James “Cooter” Arnold upstaged his cousin, “Cadillac” Joe Jackson, with 198 rushing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 28-7 Davie win. Riddle muffed a punt but regained control and rumbled 49 yards to the West 13, setting up a score that gave Davie a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. He laid countless hits and helped thwart West’s passing game (5 of 15 for 49 yards).
“Boy, Riddle made some sticks, didn’t he?” Illing said.
Lake Norman represented a seal in shark-infested waters in a 52-0 loss to the visiting War Eagles. Diving like a center fielder on a sinking liner, Riddle made a highlight-reel interception. He also broke a 56-yard punt return.
Turnovers and blown scoring chances gave the War Eagles every opportunity to lose at home to Mooresville, but their punishing offensive line and stingy defense wouldn’t let them. Riddle and the defense came through in the clutch in a 10-7 decision. With Mooresville on the march, Riddle saved his team from a dark finish by intercepting a pass at the Davie 5 with 5:42 to go.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations, and that was a big one right there,” Illing said.
Mooresville’s only pass attempt of the night was intended for the 6-4 Chris Peoples.
“I saw their No. 80 line up at tight end, so I kind of smelled a rat because he hadn’t played there all game,” Riddle said. “I kind of knew something was up. I knew he wasn’t run-blocking. He’s their go-to guy, so I just played it up on him. It’s definitely the biggest interception I’ve ever had.”
Riddle made 12 team-high tackles, a Herculean effort when you consider Mooresville only ran 36 plays from scrimmage.
After Riddle’s pick secured just the seventh 4-0 start in program history, Davie became snake-bit. Visiting Statesville rallied from a 13-0 deficit and won 34-27 in a shocking upset. The story was turnovers (Davie had seven to Statesville’s zero). Down 27-20, Riddle blocked a 25-yard field goal to keep Davie’s hopes alive. Moments later, Arnold broke an exhilarating 72-yard, game-tying TD. Davie, though, couldn’t close the deal.
The next game at Freedom was deja vu. Turnover-mad Davie gave up 37 unanswered points and lost 37-13.
“We’re our biggest enemy,” a disgusted Illing said after Davie lost the turnover battle 4-0.
The frustration mounted in a 24-22 homecoming loss to North Forsyth. In an epic duel between all-star runners, Arnold motored for 254 yards (181 rushing, 73 receiving) while North’s 6-3, 220-pound monster, Cedric Hickman, banged out 252 rushing yards. But again, the loss was marked by what-ifs as Davie wasted a defensive effort for the ages by Riddle, who piled up 20 tackles.
“The ball’s just not bouncing our way, but it’s going to happen,” said Riddle, who was choked up and could barely push the words out. “I know a lot of people don’t believe in us now, but we still believe.”
In the Central Piedmont Conference opener in Clemmons, Davie seemed poised to pull a monumental upset over West Forsyth. But after taking a 6-0 lead into the fourth quarter, Davie collapsed and lost 14-6 to the 8-1 Titans.
Riddle’s reputation as a clutch performer grew. He returned a punt 32 yards to set up the game’s first score on a run by Justin Brown. Then he foiled a West drive, jumping high for an INT. On a 41-yard pass play by West, Riddle smacked the ball out and teammate Dustin Morgan fell on it. In the end, however, Davie had its first four-game losing streak since 1990.
But Davie caught a second wind. The turnaround was magical, and it started against visiting South Rowan. The Raiders roared inside the Davie 10 with time running out and the War Eagles nursing a 21-13 lead. They held on when an 0-2 CPC mark would have eliminated them from title contention.
“I know how they feel, so it’s good it wasn’t us again,” Riddle said. “The whole county is looking down on us, and it was like a weight lifted off your shoulders.”
Riddle’s heroics delivered the spirit-boosting win. First, he blocked an extra point that kept Davie ahead 14-13 with 6:45 to play. Then on fourth-and-4 from the Davie 6, he planted Antonio McDaniel a foot short with 1:10 on the clock. One play earlier, Chris Blakley and Zac O’Brien held QB Hoke Shirley to a 1-yard gain.
Riddle: “I knew they were probably going to try to get it outside because they were successful with that all night. I saw the quarterback pull it out and pitch it, so I was all over it and just ate it up.”
Illing: “Boy, he’s come through many times.”
D.J. Rice led with 13 tackles. Brandon Pane had 12, Riddle 11, Dewayne Collins and Derek Cornatzer nine each, Terrell Wilson seven and O’Brien six.
After Reynolds scored a go-ahead, fourth-quarter TD that seemed to stab Davie’s season in the back, Arnold broke a 30-yard TD run and the defense held on from there for a dramatic 22-19 win in Winston-Salem. It left Davie, West Forsyth and North Davidson tied for first with one week to go.
Arnold’s run with 98 seconds left turned a 19-15 deficit into a 22-19 celebration, but the win belonged to a number of big plays. Tight end Ted Randolph caught a long pass and bulled into the end zone with a Demon on his back; Brown rushed for 147 yards; Jeremy Young reeled in a two-point pass while tightroping the sideline; Justin Norsworthy made a tackle at the Davie 1 for a turnover on downs; Riddle set up Arnold’s game-winner with a big punt return; O’Brien slowed Reynolds’ last-gasp drive with a tackle for loss; and Collins closed the door with a sack.
“I’ve still got goosebumps as we speak,” outside linebacker Cornatzer said. “Unbelievable. I’m still shaking.”
The game featured five lead changes, but the Demons appeared to have the win in hand when they took possession with 3:26 to go with the 19-15 lead. But Reynolds punted from its 13 at 1:55. Riddle fielded the bouncer at the last instant and hit the sideline for 17 yards to the Reynolds 30.
“I knew we needed good field position,” Riddle said. “It took a good hop, so I just took a chance and went with it.”
On the next play, Arnold took a shotgun snap, ran left behind Norsworthy and Zach Jakob and sliced 30 yards to paydirt.
Reynolds threatened in the waning moments as it reached the Davie 24. Riddle broke up a pass. Arnold shadowed the Demons’ No. 1 target in the end zone, forcing an incompletion. Collins applied the punctuation mark with a fumble-causing sack that nose guard Pane recovered.
In a high-stakes game against visiting North Davidson on Halloween night, the War Eagles used a miraculous grind-it-out drive to pull out a 23-20 win, giving them a share of the CPC title for the third time in six years.
Riddle: “Oh my goodness, after a four-game skid and then tying for the CPC championship, it’s just unbelievable.”
O’Brien: “People didn’t think we had a chance to win, with them being ranked eighth in the state and us being 6-4.”
Norsworthy: “This is by far the best sports moment I’ve ever had.”
North rocked Davie with 13 unanswered points and had control of the game at 20-16. The War Eagles had six straight three-and-out possessions and had been shut down for 27-plus minutes.
But they cut out North’s heart with eight minutes of smashmouth surgery. The drive began at the Davie 14 with 8:30 remaining. The drive went 19 plays, 86 yards and left North with 30 hopeless seconds. Facing fourth-and-5, Davie called timeout.
“A little pass in the flat was what we were leaning toward, and the offensive line finally said: ‘No, coach. Let’s go off-tackle left,’” Illing said. “So we put it in their hands.”
Arnold plowed behind Randolph, Jakob and Norsworthy and picked up exactly 5 yards. On third-and-goal from inside the North 1, Arnold bowled into the end zone on second effort.
“It was unbelievable to see the offense push and push and push and score to win the game,” O’Brien said.
Riddle brought his customary wood with 15 tackles, followed by Dustin Morgan with 13, Pane with 10 and Rice with nine.
In a remarkably balanced rushing attack against visiting Harding in the first round of the 4A playoffs, Arnold (116), Jamar Bratcher (102) and Brown (100) all rushed for 100-plus yards in a 33-14 pounding. Arnold did it all, rushing for two TDs, throwing two TDs and picking off two passes.
Logan Buchanan (eight tackles), Collins (three tackles for loss, forced fumble, blocked FG), Cornatzer (four pass breakups) and Riddle spearheaded the defense.
After embarrassing Page in the 2002 playoffs, Davie expected a tug-of-war when Davie and Page met again in Greensboro in the second round. It proved to be another mismatch – 34-14 – as Davie left its footprints all over the Pirates’ field and punched its third-ever ticket to the quarterfinals.
Illing: “We thought it was going to be a dogfight.”
The War Eagles played the smoothest game. They got the ball three times in the first half and bulled down the field all three times for a 21-0 halftime lead. In the first half, Davie ran 42 plays to Page’s seven. With tight end O’Brien and linemen Jakob, Norsworthy, Kyle Brown, Matt Markland and Ryan Boehm clearing the way for Arnold (25 carries for 135 yards), Brown (22-89) and Bratcher (14-69), Davie controlled the ball for 18:28 of the 24 minutes.
Norsworthy: “They knew who was getting it and where it was going. We could have pointed and told them where it was going, and there was nothing they could do about it.”
K. Brown: “We’re just a big line and we just punish people.”
Defensively, no one flexed their muscles more than Riddle, who was involved in 13 of Page’s 37 plays for the game. He broke up three passes, caused a fumble and notched his fourth INT.
“Riddle set the tone (on defense),” Illing said.
But in the quarterfinals at Mt. Tabor, the War Eagles finally faced a challenge they couldn’t meet, falling behind 14-0 at halftime and losing 27-12 to a ridiculously talented opponent.
Cornatzer: “Before the game, I felt like we were unbeatable. I felt like we could beat anybody the way we’ve been playing. It just went downhill real quick.”
Riddle: “They were just better than us. They’ve got so many weapons.”
The War Eagles left with their heads held high. They became the fifth team in 48 years to achieve nine wins and reached the quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
Illing: “I’m tremendously proud of the kids. A lot of teams would have quit after that four-game skid.”
Jakob: “It was amazing. I’ll remember it forever.”
Riddle buried his head in father Stan’s arms, cried his eyes out and said: “It’s been awesome. I poured my heart into it for four years. Every day I lifted weights and worked on my speed to play for Davie County.”
Arnold won CPC Offensive Player of the Year, the junior quarterback/tailback rushing for 1,921 yards, passing for 328 yards, scoring 26 TDs and picking off five passes. Riddle made all-conference for the second time with 165 tackles, 86 solo stops and four INTs. The other selections from Davie: J. Brown (1,058 rushing yards), Randolph, Jakob, Norsworthy, Pane, Rice (133 tackles) and Morgan.
Riddle, Arnold and Rice were named to the All-Northwest Team. When the Davie curtain closed on Riddle, he held the No. 2 marks for season tackles and career tackles (381).
A little over two months later, Riddle signed a scholarship with Appalachian State. He played in the secondary for the Mountaineers in 2004-06 and 2008. He was a part of two of the three Division I-AA national championships from 2005-07.
In 2007, Riddle made an announcement that made the world stop spinning for a moment. He left football to serve a seven-month mission with Samaritan’s Purse in Sudan. He first visited the war-torn African nation for two months in the summer of ‘07 and upon his return, he informed coach Jerry Moore that he had a calling to return to Sudan. He helped rebuild churches that were destroyed by a civil war. He lived in a village that was within miles of dangerous rebel forces and suffered from two bouts of malaria. He made a football comeback in 2008 and was an inspirational leader for the Mountaineers as a senior.
Davie County folks will always hold a special place in their hearts for Billy Riddle.
Illing: “There’s not a drill he goes through that’s not 110 percent. People watch how he practices, how he works out, and they feel like they have to keep up with him.”
Mike Rominger, who coached DBs at Davie, said this week: “I coached high school football for 32 years. Billy Riddle was one of the finest young men that I ever coached.”