Writing columns is, in some ways, a lot different than writing game stories. It’s an area of sports journalism that I’ve wanted to dabble in since I became the Richmond Observer’s sports editor.
My only problem was time. Writing three or four gamers a night during the peak of fall, winter and spring sports can take up a lot of time. Thanks to the coronavirus, I’ve managed to have a little bit more spare time these past few months.
But I wish I didn’t, because that would mean sports would be in full effect. Summer mornings spent beating the humidity at football practice, followed by making my rounds in the shimmering sun with the soccer, volleyball, golf, cross country and tennis teams.
All that said, I decided to start a new column — Sunday Night Writes — as a way to get back to my roots in writing.
In high school, I had several teachers tell me I had a knack for writing, especially storytelling. Two in particular, Mrs. Kristen Mowery (sociology teacher) and Mrs. Jessica Prosser (creative writing teacher), pushed me my senior year to pursue a career in journalism.
And they both know I’m forever thankful for their relentless pushing.
This new column will see me take a break from writing exciting game stories and features on Richmond Raider athletics and offer a different take instead.
A lot happens in between those big moments on the field or court, and this column will visit some of the cherished memories I’ve made in the last three years.
Story No. 1 — The first time I experienced Raider Magic
What seems like yesterday, the summer of 2017 was a big deal for me personally. The Richmond Observer officially launched on July 1, and with it, so did my writing career in Richmond County.
At the onset, I was a general assignment reporter and I remember offering my services to help cover sports (although I wouldn’t be officially named the sports editor for another seven months). My bosses, co-founders Kenny Melvin and Lance Jenkins, were more than happy to send me down that path — and I’m so glad they did.
Just as we were getting underway as a new digital news company in the county, Bryan Till was fully immersed in his first summer as the Raiders’ head football coach. In early July, I made my first of now hundreds of phone calls to Coach Till, a man whom I’ve learned to respect, admire and can proudly call a mentor and friend.
We had arranged for me to do a feature story on him as the new coach, although he was hired some six or seven months before. But to me, he was the new coach, and I wanted to give our readers a chance to learn about him and his visions for Raider football.
That feature story, my first football story about the tradition-rich Raider program which Till promised to restore to its former glory, is still framed in my classroom. But the first time I met Coach Till was a lot more magical than meets the eye in my story.
So picture Kyle Pillar, a 24-year-old eighth grade English teacher at Ellerbe Middle School, who is getting his first real shot at being a sports reporter. I park behind Richmond’s gymnasium and sit for a moment and look at the signs hanging above the door.
Cool, I think, as I look at the number of state championships and the years they were won. I see Coach Till’s name freshly painted on a faded sign next to the words “head coach.” At the time, very little of what Richmond Raider football is, and was, meant anything to me.
I go into the locker room and hang an immediate left, but Coach Till is meeting with someone in his office. He’ll be right out, he calls.
So I walk over to this padded chair in the hallway that has some of the stuffing spilling out of its arms and sit down. The smell of the locker room, which was pretty typical for a high school football locker room in the middle of July, hit me and I remember wishing Till would hurry up.
And I’m nervous. Apprehensive about meeting a football coach I know very little about to talk about a resurging program I also knew very little about. It was time to talk football in a town where high school football rules.
Honestly, at the time, I was just a Richmond County Schools employee who sporadically attended a football, baseball or soccer game for something to do.
But those 10 or so minutes I waited alone for Coach Till allowed me to experience Raider Magic for the first time.
I got tired of staring at the green and gold tiled floor and got up and moved toward the players’ entrance to the varsity locker room. It’s only about 30 feet from where I was sitting to where the first lockers start, but that stretch of hallway is like a time warp.
Framed on the walls are old clippings from championships gone by, old Associated Press rankings, quotes, images and the faces of former players and coaches who made the Richmond Raider culture what it is today.
Closer to Till’s office are banners of all the players and coaches who have participated in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and the East-West All-Star Game, along with players who have earned All-American recognition.
I just shuffled along from one banner to the next, one clipping to another, reading and trying to soak in as much as I could.
History has a way of impacting people, whether it’s dooming them to repeat it or helping them appreciate the glory days.
In those moments that it was just me holding my laptop and a notebook reading the names and articles, the history of Richmond football, its lore and magic, felt real. Almost tangible.
It was something I still can’t quite put into words, and I know there are countless others who have felt this same feeling when they stood in that hallway. And I’m sure they’d almost describe it the same way.
It’s almost something you have to do on your own, experience for just a couple of minutes alone in a dimly lit hallway under the school.
I get goosebumps thinking about it now as I write this, a flash of remembering the first time I felt the power of Raider Magic, its fans and its community.
And all of a sudden, Coach Till’s door opened and he stood there with his trademark grin, hand extended for a shake and welcoming me into his office.
The feelings I was experiencing vanished as quickly as they appeared, but every time I go back in the locker room, whether for an interview or to chat with the guys, it comes back in some small way.
Sports have an impact on people — young or old, male or female, and of all races, backgrounds and walks of life.
When I walk the sidelines on Friday nights at Raider Stadium, or some other Sandhills Athletic Conference field, or even the soccer pitch or baseball and softball fields, there’s a buzz that can only be associated with Raider Magic.
Sometimes it’s the simple roar of the crowd or teammates goofing off between plays, or a more intense feeling like a game-winning penalty kick over Jack Britt or the field filling up with thousands of fans after a come-from-behind win against Myers Park.
It’s not a feeling I take for granted because I’ve learned to appreciate and love its importance in the sports town that has become my home. And I hope to never forget its first true feeling I had three summers ago in the Raiders’ locker room.
But more than anything, I hope we get to experience it together this fall under those Friday night lights.
Kyle Pillar is the three-time award-winning sports editor for the Richmond Observer. Read his column “Sunday Night Writes” every Sunday as he recalls some of his favorite moments on and off the field of his coverage of Richmond Senior High School athletics.