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Pirate
Time
Machine
No. 9

With Ron Cherubini
©2002 Bonesville.net

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Ken Strayhorn: 'Little Horn'
Runnin' Down a Dream

For many athletes, the lingering football void that follows the playing career can be so self-defeating that the remainder of their lives becomes more a footnote to football than the culmination of a lifetime of achievement built on a gridiron foundation.

For former Pirate running back Ken Strayhorn, football has become the latter.

His foundation goes much deeper than the gridiron. It is firmly rooted in the people that have made him the man he is today. [More below]


Ken Strayhorn was the centerpiece on the cover of
the 1975 East Carolina Football Media Guide. The
cover features an action shot of Strayhorn crashing
through the line of William & Mary, then a Southern
Conference rival of the Pirates.
Click picture for a full view of the cover image.

Strayhorn, or Little Horn as he was dubbed by then-head-coach Sonny Randle, was perhaps slightly lesser known than Big Horn, his older brother and bruising Pirate fullback, Les. But without a doubt, Kenny was equally appreciated by the East Carolina faithful during the years spanning 1972 through 1975.

“I don’t think any of us, at the time, had any idea just how long what we were doing at ECU would survive,” Strayhorn said. “We were one of the most successful classes to come through ECU, and I’d like to think it was our class that started the trend (at ECU) toward success.”


Strayhorn had to adjust to a new coach, Pat Dye, and a new offensive style, the wishbone, during his junior and senior seasons.

Under Randle's and then Pat Dye’s guidance, the 1972-75 Pirates posted records of 9-2, 9-2, 7-4, and 8-3, including a pair of Southern Conference titles in Ken’s freshman and sophomore seasons. It was an exciting time in Greenville and on the campus of ECU.

But, it was also a time when racial tensions were still thick in the air from the top of The Hill to West Campus — and when the appreciation for the athlete was compartmentalized to the turf on football Saturdays and never beyond.

“Was there racial prejudice at East Carolina?” Strayhorn pondered for a fraction of a second. “Absolutely, and a lot of it. It was so ingrained in the culture down here, that I just took it as the way it was supposed to be. Honestly, I didn’t feel free of it until I was in Canada with the (Hamilton) Tigercats for a little while. I remember being in Canada and going into a sporting goods store to look for some shoes and feeling that something was just different and whatever it was, it felt good. Then I realized that no one was following me around the store… no one was eyeing me… and I was happy.”

It was a difficult time, but Strayhorn was able to find ways to mitigate the elation and equality he felt on the playing field and the isolation that accompanied walking out of the locker room door.

“I found refuge in Tyler Dorm,” he said. “My girlfriend was (in Tyler). She was my friend, my adviser, my math tutor. She was the best thing that happened to me at ECU, so I married her.”

Lois, his wife, became one of the first bricks in the foundation for Little Horn when, as an Athletic Department assignment, she began tutoring him while he was admittedly, “failing College Algebra.”

But there were others at ECU that made a huge impact on Strayhorn, beginning with Coach Randle.

“Sonny Randle, I can’t say a bad thing about coach Randle,” Strayhorn said. “All Sonny cared about was whether or not you gained five yards, regardless of what color you were. I thought he gave me a fair shake in every aspect. I really liked that man.

“Sonny was what ECU needed at that time. He was emotional, fiery, fair, and he could really get you going.”

And there were teammates like quarterback Carl Summerell, whom Strayhorn says, “was a great individual… I have a lot of respect for Carl.” [More below]


This is what the East Carolina Pirate logo looked like
(graphic from a 1975 game program) during
Strayhorn's heyday as an ECU football player.

There was Cary Godette, the best man at Ken and Lois’ wedding and Clay Burnette, who “always wanted to be a doctor,” and Jake Dove, whose daughter is Strayhorn’s Goddaughter and works for him.

“These were the guys that I was closest to. That made ECU for me,” Strayhorn said.

And there was another. His father, Les, Sr.

Strayhorn was the second of seven children for the family from Trenton, NC. And for as long as Ken can remember, his family was, as he calls it, an “ECU Family.” So, when Ken was starring at Jones Senior High School and dreaming of college football, it was a foregone conclusion where he would play… at least to dad.

“Honestly, I came the closest to signing with North Carolina State,” he said. “I remember sitting at school and they had a scholarship on the table in front of me and I had a pen in my hand. And I remember the principal, Mr. Jenkins… I don’t remember his first name, but I know he was a friend of the family, and he said, ‘Kenny, don’t you think you should ask your dad about this before you sign anything?’

“You see, ECU had just taken for granted that I was going to play there because Les was there and my dad had already told them I was coming. It was years later that my dad told me about when the ECU coaches came by… I had no clue, my dad handled it all. So, when I asked daddy about the scholarship, he said, ‘you are going to East Carolina.’ In my family, dad made the decisions. If he liked certain pants, you wore certain pants. So, I didn’t question it.”

His father had good reason to like the Pirates. Not only would it ensure that he could easily catch all the home games, but it also had a lot to do with older brother Les’ experiences in the program.

“ECU had treated Les real well and he did well in both school and on the football field,” Strayhorn said. “There really was no other choice but East Carolina.”


Strayhorn has fond memories of the "emotional" coach who brought him to ECU, Sonny Randle.

ECU had, indeed, counted on getting Kenny, as Randle had penciled him in as the kick return specialist in the first year that the NCAA allowed freshman to compete on the varsity. Though Strayhorn was excited about playing right away on special teams, it wasn’t until the final game of the season that he got to play running back.

“In the William and Mary game, for the Southern Conference championship, coach Randle put me in the same backfield with Les,” he recalled. “I could see it in (Les’s) eyes, he was out there coaching me.”

He, Les, and their teammates won that Southern Conference title together. But off the field, Ken and Les weren’t really all that similar beyond their striking resemblance to one another and their athletic prowess.

“Les and I fought all the time,” he said. “I guess it’s part of being brothers. I had a lot of respect for him. He was the blocking back and I was a running back. He had a tough nose job and many times I saw him punch it in there and move those guys. At that time a huge linebacker was 235 or 240 pounds. Thirty years ago that was a big boy and what Les did every play was something to be respected. He obviously did a good job, too, because the Cowboys drafted him.

“Off the field, though, Les was kind of a comic book guy and I am an outdoors kind of guy. We did room together my freshman year, but we were not really close. He had his own group of friends and I had my group. Our personalities are just miles apart. But Les did good things for me. Professors and people already got to know Les and liked him, so when I got there, they already liked me because of the positives we share. He kind of broke the ground for me. Les was always a hard worker and he showed me that.”

By Kenny’s sophomore season, he was a mainstay in the backfield, along with Carlester Crumpler, and finished the season just shy of 1,000 yards. And then, Randle left for his alma mater, the University of Virginia.

“You know, I almost left with him,” Strayhorn said. “I really did, but I stayed.”

Strayhorn’s admiration for his coach sprung from Randle’s authenticity as a coach, albeit delivered via his gruff coaching style.

“I’ll never forget how I found out I was going to start for the first time,” Strayhorn recalled. “It was my sophomore season and we were down at Southern Miss — even then it was a rivalry. I was sitting in the locker room before the game and I was joking around with Raymond Jones (fullback). You never joked around in Sonny’s locker room. And Sonny yelled over and told me to ‘stop playing swap finger (thumb wrestling) over there!’ I could see he was watching me closely. I was like, ‘Raymond, what’s coach’s problem?’ and Ray says, ‘I don’t know.’

“Well, special teams is called and we go out and do our thing and come back into the locker room. Sonny is standing watching me and then comes over and says, ‘Horn, you’re going tonight.’ And I said, ‘Going where?’ And he said, ‘You’re starting the game.’ I was terrified because I didn’t really know the plays. I told him, ‘I know Southern Miss’s plays, coach.’ And he just told me to listen to Shag (Summerall). Shag taught me every play right there on the field right before we ran them — and I ended up gaining 125 yards and scoring one or two TDs.”

Randle’s departure spelled a big change for Strayhorn as Pat Dye rolled into town with the Wishbone, resulting in a huge reduction in carries for Strayhorn.

“When coach Dye came in he put me at the left halfback position in the Wishbone and my carries went from 35 to about eight a game,” Strayhorn said. “Willie Hawkins, who was the right halfback, was not as good a blocker as I was, so he ran more and I blocked more. The fans were used to see me running the ball and I think they were disappointed, too. They didn’t know the Wishbone and what it took to make it work.”

The change from Randle to Dye took its toll on Strayhorn, but he kept positive.

“Coach Dye had a friendly relationship with the players, but he was the kind of coach that took care of himself first and we had to learn to live with that.”

To compare the two, Strayhorn described camp:

“Sonny’s camp was a boot camp,” he said. “It was really Hell. I used to always talk about Quituation, not Graduation, but Sonny was trying to find out what you could do and not do physically. But, Sonny didn’t beat us to death in practice, we’d wear shorts and shoulder pads and he would run us. Coach Dye beat you up in practice.”

Strayhorn made it to Graduation, not Quituation, and began to rehab a bad knee in hopes of latching on with an NFL team. It wasn’t long before he had his shot. As a freshman, he had so impressed then-William & Mary coach Lou Holtz that the coach kept up with him throughout his career. Holtz subsequently went to N.C. State and then the New York Jets, where he gave Strayhorn a call and asked him to come up for a tryout.

“Coach Holtz knew me and knew the type of effort I gave, so they signed me,” he said. “But my knee didn’t pass the physical. I was pretty disappointed because I didn’t get a chance to show what I could do. I also realized that I didn’t have enough confidence then to keep after it. I know now that I could have played on the professional level.”

From New York back to N.C. to work in the retail clothes business and then up to Canada to work out for the Hamilton Tigercats, Strayhorn bounced around, trying to give his football career another shot. But the knee again failed him and he came back to Carolina.

From that point, Strayhorn embarked on a fairly long career as a sports broadcaster.

“When I came back from Canada, I went right into the media,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to do that. I went over to WITN, auditioned and got the job.”

Strayhorn then moved to the ABC affiliate in Richmond, Va., WXEX, then to Louisiana, and eventually ended up in New Haven, CT, at WTNH, another ABC station.

“I loved it, I really did,” he said of his more than a decade-long career in TV. “I felt like I did well in television, though I knew I was never going to be a rich man working for someone else.”

The latter point was driven home when he was laid off in the early 1990s after the New Haven station was sold. Though he had other opportunities in the field, it helped solidify his mindset.

“I decided I wanted to do it on my own,” he said. “I never again want to be in a situation where someone says, ‘Hey Ken, you don’t have a job here anymore.’”

So, in 1994, he opened his first Team Sports, Inc., sporting goods store in New Bern, and has since opened another in Greenville, and a third in Jacksonville. With his home, wife, and 15-year old daughter Shawna in Meriden, CT, it has made for some long days and some all-too-short trips home to see his family. But Strayhorn wouldn’t have it any other way… he is driven to see this endeavor work.

“I’m sticking out my dream,” he said. “I see my wife once every two months and the hope is that if we can get it to work, then I will fly home every month. My daughter misses me, but she’s like most high school girls — as long as she doing the things she wants to do, she is happy. My wife is a really, really understanding person and nobody has the confidence in me that she does.”

Strayhorn was once told by his ECU track coach, Bill Carson, that his skills were marginal compared to his will to go further than the next guy.

In retrospect, Carson's message was clear. Strayhorn's football success and all-around pursuit of excellence were due in large part to his relentless drive.

That drive is alive and well in today’s Ken Strayhorn.

 “What I learned at ECU is how to win,” he said. “I cut my teeth on East Carolina and it will always be a part of me and my family."

Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.

Click here to dig into Ron Cherubini's Bonesville archives.
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.

KEN STRAYHORN BIO BOX
Name:

Ken Strayhorn
(Little Horn)

Age:

47
.

Sport:

Football
.

Years at ECU:

1972-75
.

Position/Jersey No.

Running Back/ No. 43
.

Hometown:

Trenton, NC
.

Currently Resides:

Meriden, CT
.

Occupation:

Owner/Operator of TEAM SPORTS, Inc.

Locations in: Greenville, Jacksonville, and New Bern.


.

ECU Degree(s):

BS in Physical Education
.

Marital Status:

Married
.

Significant Other:

Lois
.

Children:

Shawna, 15

Shawna is currently one of the top shot putters in the Northeast.
.

Quotable: 

“When we played N.C. State or UNC, back in those days, they would call us ‘the skinny legged boys from down East going up to play the big boys.’ I think a lot of people still feel that way today. I keep telling people I know that the talent level, today, at ECU goes beyond the N.C. States and UNCs. It’s now with the Syracuses and the West Virginias and the Miamis. That is where they are now with their talent, their schedule, and their facilities. So, they should expect big things from their program and that will come. I’m talking about playing on New Year’s Day.”
.

TEN QUESTIONS

1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and Why?

“I don’t have a favorite… to be honest. I look at it as a team and how they play as a unit. Leonard Henry, he’s aggressive. He can play on Sundays, I think.”
.
.

2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“Well, to be honest, I’m the kind of person who knows when it is time to move on. I usually look for the next best thing in life and than focus on that. Got to keep on the next step. One of the things I wanted to do in life is to own my own company. It took me 40 years to get here. I put everything that I have into making this thing work and I’m still trying to see if it is going to make it.”
.

3. Where is your favorite spot on the ECU campus?

“One particular dorm room in Tyler was my favorite place. Where my girlfriend and mathematics tutor lived. As a matter of fact, I was failing College Algebra and I went to the coaches and asked for a tutor. They took me to my wife… she is still tutoring me after 25 years.”
.

4. What was your dorm room and favorite dorm story?

“I sure don’t remember, but I do know I was on the first floor of Belk. We had great times there. We’d get together and talk a lot. Those were good times. One philosopher once said, ‘most people don’t realize the most significant times while they are happening to them.’ He was right. Those were the most significant times in my life.”
.

5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate football player?

“Good question. The most satisfying moment to me was our 38-17 win (in 1975) over Carolina when I scored twice at Chapel Hill. I’ve heard other guys say how they can memorize every play they have made, but I don’t know how they do that. I can’t remember individual plays. I concentrated so much on what I had to do next, usually that was all I could handle. Never really had the chance to think about plays. When I was off the field, I was listening to the coach, getting water, preparing to go back in.”
.

6. Most disliked opponent?

“Carolina was our most disliked opponent, to me. You see, Bill Dooley was the head coach at Carolina at the time. I had always been a good athlete in high school, but he told me that I didn’t have the talent to play at Carolina. After we beat them, he shook my hand and said, ‘you should have played at Carolina’ and I said, ‘you didn’t want me.’ It really didn’t matter, because our family was an East Carolina family. I went where my parents wanted me to go. ECU really treated our family well so there was no doubt where I was going to go.”
.

7. Athletic Influences?

“My dad (Les, Sr.) was a baseball catcher for a community team – community teams were real prevalent in black communities then – and I caught for a year at ECU. My dad had dreams of us playing in the Major Leagues, but we both fell in love with football.”
.
.

8. Favorite coach?

“At East Carolina… umm… I’d have to say Sonny Randle. Sonny was a really, really emotional individual. His emotions moved me. He got me ready to play football. He would sit down and have one on ones with me. He had some problems at ECU, but he always stood up for his players. If you had a problem, he would help you work through it. I came very close to going to the University of Virginia with him after my sophomore year."
.
.

9. Best Locker Room Story

Sonny was a very emotional man and one time after we had beaten some team in Greenville, all the people were celebrating outside of our field house, which was Scales at the time. It was hot and the windows were open. Right outside the windows, were moms and dads and girlfriends and sisters, waiting for us. We won the game, but Sonny was not happy with the way we won. Well, he had a way with words and they weren’t always the nicest words. As players, we were used to the words, but they were not the type you would have used in front of a church gathering, you know. When we came out, my parents were fuming and it was all I could do to calm my daddy down and explain to him that this was just part the game. My dad did tell me years later that he actually did speak to Sonny about the language. Sonny didn’t change, but he did make sure the windows were always shut.”
.

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“We would go to the Crow's Nest or have parties in the basement of Belk. Those were usually on a Friday night or a Saturday night after the game. Those were great parties.”
.

 

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02/23/2007 02:08:29 PM

 

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