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
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
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
“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
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
(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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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