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Sports

May 4, 2013

MERCER COUNTY NOTEBOOK: Photo stirs memories of one of county's best

OPINION — IT’S ONE of my favorite photographs from The Herald’s archives.

Pre-digital age, it’s a classic, glossy, black-and-white publicity photo issued from Wake Forest University’s athletic department, circa early autumn, 1967.

In it, the two men — a college basketball coach and his young, blossoming star — are smiling, easily. This is no Mike Rice moment. They’re relaxed, the harsh glare of Atlantic Coast Conference competition along legendary Tobacco Road having not yet begun.

Neil Johnston, Wake’s freshman team coach, poses, hands on knees, admiring his player. Poised in pseudo triple-threat, flaxen brown hair falling onto his forehead, adorned with his white canvas Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops, the 18-year-old’s whole life is ahead of him.

Whenever I look at that picture I long for those days and wish I’d grown up in Mercer County during the 1950’s — when Sharon and Farrell took turns alternating PIAA state championship game appearances — and the 1960’s, when the Mighty Mercer Mustangs manhandled opponents.

John Dale Swogger — Mercer mentor and mastermind of the Mustangs’ manic pace that approached the century mark almost every night — passed away a few months ago. And now, so has the easy-going kid from my favored photo.

I didn’t know him then, didn’t have the opportunity to see him play in high school or college. But I’ve always been infatuated with the stories: a pair of 50-point games as a high school senior, during which he scored 816 points — before the 3-point arc was established — 3-year starter at Wake Forest ... 4-year career in the Australian National Club League ... successful high school, AAU and college coach.

When he was inducted into Mercer County’s Hall of Fame during the organization’s 50th anniversary year of 1997, his classmates included some of the area’s hallowed hardwood hierarchy: Farrell’s Brian Generalovich, Jack Marin and Willie Somerset, and posthumously, one of his Mercer cage brethren and successors, Jerry Woods.

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