CONCORD – As word of Bob Boswell’s death began to spread early Wednesday morning, Cabarrus County’s high school football community momentarily became numb.
Boswell was most known as an A.L. Brown coaching giant, but it didn’t matter if people were Wonders, Trojans, Tigers or even Spiders. Hearing Boswell had lost his fight with cancer stung the masses.
All over social media, local schools in the county offered their condolences to Boswell’s football family and his personal family. Some shared remembrances of a man who was a gridiron savant, an innovator who made A.L. Brown football – and perhaps North Carolina football -- what it is today.
“It’s such a sad day – not only for the city of Kannapolis and A.L. Brown High School but Cabarrus County and all the coaching world,” former Concord High School football coach E.Z. Smith said.
When the Independent Tribune reached out to a handful of the people who had close relationships with Boswell, they shared stories about the man he was.
All of them noted that Boswell, who was 82 when he died on Tuesday evening, was indeed a football mind far ahead of his time. But his legacy, they said, extends far beyond the stadiums he dominated.
As Cabarrus County mourns, these are the stories of three people who know just how impactful Bob Boswell was:
The Dream Maker
When he first entered high school, Ethan Horton didn’t really know how to dream big.
Horton was a tall, talented kid who had enough skills to become A.L. Brown’s starting quarterback as a 10th-grader, which was quite the feat back in the mid-to-late 70s, but it was hard for him to see beyond the idyllic setting of Kannapolis Memorial Stadium.
“Being from a small town like Kannapolis, I didn’t know what big-time college football was,” Horton recalled Wednesday. “Back then, we just played and had a good time.”
One day, while Horton was in the midst of competition with a senior, the Wonders were doing a drill. As Horton recalled, Boswell began riding him. Hard.
“I was doing the same thing (the senior) was doing,” Horton recalled. “I wasn’t doing any worse than he was, and I thought I was fine. But I couldn’t get it right, according to (Boswell).
“At the moment, I didn’t understand. I was frustrated.”
Then Boswell’s remarkable touch as a coach began to shine through.
Although he was in just his third season with the Wonders, Boswell had long known how to reach players as a coach. He’d won a state championship at a brand-new school, Graham High, back in 1965. Then, he picked up another state title at High Point Andrews in 1972 before going on to spend three years as an assistant at N.C. State.
In 1976, Boswell moved on to A.L. Brown, a school that had experienced some lean years before his arrival but one that had some talent walking around the hallways. That talent, though, needed to learn how to do things the right way, and it needed to be loved the right way.
Even though the celebrated Boswell didn’t have to go back and break things down for Horton after the episode with the drill, that’s exactly what he did.
And the light bulb came on in Horton’s helmet.
“He came back and told me that he was getting me ready to learn how to play with the Alabamas, the LSUs, the UCLAs, the Southern Cals, the Ohio States and Notre Dames,” Horton said. “He was getting me ready for those types of situations.
“That was so impactful. It was that teaching moment of ‘I see something bigger in you than you see in yourself. But if you’re going to get to where you want to go, there’s a certain way you’ve got to approach it.’”
It was the beginning of one of the most special careers a Cabarrus County football player has ever had.
Horton went on to become an All-American quarterback for the Wonders. He turned down several other big-time programs to sign with the University of North Carolina, where he became an All-ACC running back. He was an MVP in two bowl games and later was drafted into the NFL, where he became a Pro Bowl selection.
Today, Horton is a successful media personality, and what’s helped him, he said, is that same approach he learned from Boswell on the practice field more than 40 years ago: dream big and develop the work ethic to match your dreams.
“In that drill that day, he showed me that, when you want something, you’ve got to strive for excellence,” Horton said. “And that became my approach, from that time to when I was at Carolina and when I was in the pros.
“That’s a lesson you can use in life, not just football. When he came back and explained that to me, that was impactful for me to take that one moment and make it a lifetime thing.”
Added Horton: “I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”
Long before he took over as A.L. Brown’s coach in 2011, Mike Newsome knew exactly who Bob Boswell was.
A Florida native, Newsome first became familiar with Boswell when he moved to North Carolina to play college ball at Mars Hill and had some former Wonders as teammates.
“Those guys played for Bruce Hardin,” said Newsome, referring to another Kannapolis coaching legend, “but they always talked about Coach Boswell.”
Newsome went on to coach at Matthews Butler, a school he led to back-to-back Class 4A state championships before being tapped to lead the A.L. Brown program. One of the first people to welcome him to Kannapolis was the legend himself: Bob Boswell.
Although Boswell still kept a busy schedule, he’d stop by Newsome’s office about once a week to spend time with the new coach.
Even though Newsome had the same number of state titles as Boswell, he was humbled. It might as well have been Bill Belichick or Vince Lombardi sitting across from him.
“I’m in my office, and I’m sitting there talking to a legend,” said Newsome, still in awe of those times with Boswell. “That’s the way the coaches are that have come through here – Bob Boswell, Bruce Hardin, Ron Massey. I mean, all those guys are Hall of Fame guys. And here I am sitting here.
“It was humbling for me and Coach Boswell to be talking, and I’m sitting there drawing plays on the board and he’s drawing plays on the board. And I’m sitting there talking to a legend, and he’s saying something like, ‘Dude, you really know what you’re doing!’
“It was just awesome for someone like that to say something like that to me,” Newsome added.
Part of what’s made the A.L. Brown job so attractive to successful coaches such as Newsome and others across the country is the groundwork laid by Boswell decades earlier.
The year before Boswell got on campus, the Wonders went 4-6. While the team only won a combined five games in Boswell’s first two seasons, he got things going in Year 3 and never looked back.
Boswell won 102 games and went defeated in conference play five times during his 13 seasons with the Wonders. The program’s stature grew, and so did community pride.
“There were some lean years before Coach Boswell got here,” Newsome said. “Every player, every coach – anybody that’s ever been involved with Wonder football – kind of owes some gratitude to Coach Boswell and his coaching staff for what he did to come in and kind of change the atmosphere around here.
Before he got here, we were known as the Little Wonders. I don’t know of any coach who’d want to be called “’little’ anything. And he changed that.”
Boswell also made Kannapolis Memorial Stadium the place to be on fall Friday nights. The teams following grew. Many people began to model their own programs after the one in Kannapolis. All because of the things Boswell did.
“He was so far ahead of his time,” Newsome marveled. “Back then, he was the integrator of bringing things that no high school football team was doing at the time. The whole state of North Carolina – maybe even the whole Southeast -- probably owes a debt of gratitude to him for what he brought to high school football.
“There weren’t weight rooms back then, there weren’t training sessions, (coaches) weren’t doing all these football-specific drills. He was doing things not just geared toward making people better football players; he was doing things to make them better athletes.”
Newsome said he learned of the legendary coach’s passing from one of the assistant coaches from Boswell’s original A.L. Brown staff, Pete Stone, who’s also working with the 2019 Wonders on a voluntary basis.
“Coach Stone texted me (Wednesday) morning,” Newsome said. “It was tough. We lost a true legend. I think he’s had as much of an impact on high school football as probably anybody has in North Carolina since the 70’s.
“And he definitely had an impact on me.”
Coaches from bitter rival schools are supposed to despise each other, right?
Bob Boswell and E.Z. Smith didn’t subscribe to that theory, probably to the chagrin of A.L. Brown and Concord High School fans.
Smith coached the Spiders from 1980-2008. When he first took the job, Smith was advised to meet with Boswell to see how he was able to turn around the Wonders’ program so quickly.
“Bob and I had some great conversations, and then we had some wonderful battles over the years,” Smith recalled. “And then we became very, very good friends.”
The two men competed like brothers trying to outdo each other during some famed Battle for the Bell games. But a mutual respect was always there.
Smith had some great teams during his tenure at Concord – teams that didn’t win state titles. Sometimes, those championship runs were halted by the Boswell-led Wonders.
After A.L. Brown eliminated the Spiders deep in the playoffs in 1997, Smith was walking off the field, a bit distraught.
“I feel somebody put their arm around me, and it’s Coach Boswell,” Smith said. “He said, ‘E.Z., there’s three things you’ve got to have to win a championship: You’ve got to be good, which you usually are; You’ve got to be lucky – breaks have to fall your way; And you’ve got to stay healthy, and you’ve had some injuries. Keep doing what you’re doing, and it will come to pass. You will win a championship.’”
Seven years later, Smith and the Spiders won the first of his two state titles. The first call he made was to Boswell.
“He said, ‘Coach, I told you,’” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘Bob, thanks, because I was almost ready to give up. After 25 years, I thought I had done everything I could do to win.’
“He’s the one that kept me going,” Smith said.
Their relationship grew even tighter when Boswell left Kannapolis and later began coaching in South Carolina. Smith would visit Boswell in the Palmetto State, and they’d play golf with their wives. Their bond was firm – again, probably much firmer than fans of their respective schools might’ve liked.
And politics literally got in the way of it going to a different level.
Smith shares something that will be shocking for many local fans to learn.
“A story that a lot of people don’t know is that I tried to hire Coach Boswell to come and work with me at Concord -- and he was coming!” Smith said. “He was going to come and work the defense, and we were getting the paperwork together.
“What happened was, several of his friends convinced him to run for the school board in Kannapolis. And he said, ‘E.Z., I can’t be on the school board and coach football at Concord.’ So he decided not to coach with me.
“After the election, he actually later on went to South Rowan and worked there as a coach and administrator until he retired a second time,” Smith said. “But it would’ve been nice.”
In a way, though, Boswell was with the Concord football team for about a 25-year stretch.
“To tell you my ultimate respect, I named our defense ‘K-town Right’ and ‘K-town Left’ because of Bob,” Smith said. “It was a gap-control defense that Bob had brought from N.C. State. At the time, it used to be called the ‘Shade 50’ defense, and today it’s called the 4-2-5.
“I installed that, and our kids were like, ‘Coach Smith, you’re going to name something after Kannapolis?’ When you respect somebody enough to call it something like that, then you know that person’s special.”
Although many knew Boswell had been ill during his fight with cancer, Smith said it still broke his heart to learn early this week that his dear friend’s passing was imminent.
On Monday, he got a call from one of Boswell’s daughters. Boswell wasn’t doing well, and she thought Smith might want to share a final moment with him.
“I was fortunate enough to go see him Monday, and he and I had a great conversation – for just a few minutes,” Smith said.
“I was able to hug him, thank him for all he had done for me and for Cabarrus County and the state of North Carolina.”
“I got to tell him I loved him one last time and let him go,” he said softly. “His daughter sent me a text (Tuesday) night at about 11:20 that he had passed away. Thankfully, he didn’t have to suffer anymore.
“He was strong until the end. I call him a warrior. He was not going to be defeated. A lot like (former N.C. State basketball coach Jim) Valvano, he fought that thing until the last second.
“I loved him. I really, really loved him.”