CANTON, North Carolina — To get to Tommy Hall’s place, you have to drive about half-a-mile down a bumpy gravel road – past a rustic white farm house that looks like something out of an old Civil War movie – and take a right at the fork a little ways up yonder.
It’s a gorgeous spot, really, Tommy’s place. The front porch offers a pristine view of undulating mountains, and the back yard essentially is a mountain, covered in a green pasture turned hyper-lush thanks to the high volume of rain that has fallen this spring.
Inside is Tommy Hall, one of Pisgah High School’s original sons.
When you arrive at the front door he’ll tell you not to take off your shoes, even though you’ve already started to do so, because it’s alright, he’s got his on, anyway. You’ll see his 6’3” frame, his slim figure, his shimmering blue eyes that look like they belong to someone 50 years his junior.
Then he’ll sit down in his recliner, invite you to plop down on the couch, and tell you some things about Pisgah, about football, about life. And he’ll laugh, and maybe even cry a little.
Hall was a sophomore in 1966, Pisgah’s first year of existence and also the year it won its first football state championship. He has the ring to prove it, which was presented to him just last year during a ceremony at halftime of a Pisgah football game. He jokes that he hardly earned it, since he didn’t receive much playing time that season due to the fact he was an underclassman.
Even so, Hall went on to become an all-time Pisgah great during the school’s formative years, wearing number 35, playing fullback and defensive back, and breaking a 93-yard run against Asheville that purportedly still stands as a school record.
“There have been longer returns, I think,” he says. “But none from scrimmage, that I know of.”
Hall became such a force on the gridiron, in fact, that by his senior year he had received a scholarship to play at Clemson – a big time, Division I institution, home of “Death Valley,” one of the most feared home stadiums in all of college football. Three of his teammates – Robert Allen, Mike Mathews and Steve Hardin – also received scholarships to don the orange and purple.
“We had some good athletes at Pisgah back then,” he said. “Still do now, of course. But we had something special going on back then.”
Hall lasted three years at Clemson before returning home to Canton – or “Milltown,” as it’s affectionately known, a reference to the paper mill that smokes and throbs like a hazy heart at the core of this small but tight-webbed mountain town.
Hall took a job as an electrician at the paper mill (a position he held for 40 years), married Mary Rhea and started a family that eventually included three kids: Sheila, Tammy and Anthony. In a come-full-circle moment, Sheila won a girls basketball state championship at Pisgah in 1989, making her and Tommy just one of three known father-daughter combinations to accomplish that feat.
Their two rings sit side-by-side in the glass case in Tommy’s home.
In the mid-70s, while putting in tough hours at the mill and coming home to help raise his kids, Hall got involved with the Pisgah Athletic Boosters. He may or may not have known it at the time, but that decision would, in many ways, shape his life’s work for the next 40-plus years.
It was through the boosters that Hall met Walt Leatherwood, a man who would become a lifelong friend. Leatherwood recalls “coaching youth football and cutting wood” alongside Hall. The two kick-started the 50-50 raffle at Pisgah football games, said Leatherwood, a raffle that is still alive and well today and reportedly reaches a five-figure pot when Pisgah and Tuscola square off for their annual Battle for Haywood.
The Pisgah Athletic Boosters – Hall and Leatherwood included – also played a key role in the construction of Pisgah Memorial Stadium during the mid-80s, a facility that’s still in use today.
“He and I helped with pretty much every phase of it,” said Leatherwood. “Putting the bleachers up, wiring it, putting up the lights. It was a big effort from everyone involved, but the two of us did put a lot of work in.”
But it was more than just the big projects that Leatherwood and Hall took pride in. It was volunteering to do the unglamorous, unnoticed work – like carrying former PA announcer, Jamie Brown, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, up 30 flights of press box stairs each Friday night – that proved how much he cared.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Leatherwood. “He’s just one of those guys you can always count on. Not just for the boosters club, but anybody that needed help.”
Because of that, Hall has become a widely-respected community figure throughout Canton and Pisgah. To no one is that more apparent than his son, Anthony Hall.
Anthony, the youngest of three and the only male, said “you knew what he meant to the community just by how he carried himself and how others looked at and up to him.”
Anthony, of course, grew up in the shadow of his father’s well-known football success. He couldn’t escape it. Every day, during his walk to the field house before football practice, he had to stroll past a picture of his dad catching a pass during his Pisgah days. His friends would often point it out to him.
“I wanted so badly to be that good,” he said.
But, try as he might, he simply wasn’t wired for football. He played it through 10th grade, thinking something might eventually click and, vroom, he’d be on his way, scoring 93-yard touchdowns just like his dad.
It never happened. But he did begin to develop a passion for basketball, a sport that, ironically, Tommy admits he was quite awful at himself.
So one night during his sophomore year, at the Rhoda Street stop sign, Anthony broke the news to his father: he was going to quit football and focus on basketball.
“I was scared to death to tell him,” said Anthony. “But do you know what he said? ‘It’s up to you and I know you will work hard.’ I was so scared for so long because of what he expected of me, but what he saw was his son chasing a dream and doing what he loved.
“That’s a good dad,” he added. “He didn’t berate me…he encouraged me. Amen to him.”
So yes, while it’s true that the Tale of Tommy Hall hinges greatly on the glory of high school athletics past and present, it goes far, far beyond that, addressing questions about what it means to lead a good life dedicated to a community you cherish, what it means to be a good father, a good husband, a good man. It’s a story that transcends fields and courts, stepping into the realm of the eternal.
This, unfortunately, is also a story about cancer.
Hall’s wife, Mary, who worked with an oncologist for a number of years, passed away from glioblastoma multiforme – the deadliest form of brain cancer – last November.
For over a year, Tommy was right by her side, doing whatever it took to make the love of his life feel as comfortable and content as possible.
“[He was] feeding her, watching TV with her, cleaning her up, encouraging her every day,” said Anthony. “Crawling into a hospice bed with her so she would go to sleep. That is Tommy Hall. No one really sees that side, but that is him.”
Just one week after her passing, a doctor informed Tommy he had recurrent head and neck cancer, which then metastasized to his brain and other parts of his body a week before Easter. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer back in 2012, but this new discovery was more severe.
Did such a grim diagnosis fundamentally shift Tommy’s perspective about what really matters in life?
Not really, because he’s never not known what truly matters.
“I’ve always had a strong faith,” he said. “So no, it didn’t change much of anything. I’ve always known that I’ve been blessed in so many ways…it didn’t take having cancer for me to see that.”
And true to the blue collar, “Milltown” attitude that so permeates this mountain town, Tommy isn’t letting a little thing like cancer keep him from living life the way he believes it should be lived.
“He doesn’t have cancer, he’s just sick,” said Anthony. “That’s what he would tell you and that’s how he tackles it. It’s like he has turned green and into the Hulk, because all he does is fight and fight. He has a tumor on his brain stem, I mean, who else is not complaining and accepting awards [when they’re in that state]? It’s simply amazing.”
His middle daughter, Tammy Irish, called her father a “rock.” His eldest daughter, Sheila Zavaglia, is “amazed…every single day” with the lightness and levity he brings to his chronic predicament.
“He has remained in good spirits, and he keeps us laughing,” she said. “You almost forget he has cancer when you’re with him. He is so strong. He never complains, and he refuses to give in…he is such a fighter. He has over twenty lesions in his brain, but we would never know had we not seen the MRI. He is a fierce protector of his family, and his strength comes from his faith and trust in God.”
It’s not just his immediate family that he’s inspired by the manner in which he’s faced down one of the most difficult hands life can play. He’s also reached out to other people – specifically, one member of the Pisgah community – fighting a similar battle.
That person is Casey Kruk, the athletic director at Pisgah. Kruk has endured his own fistfight with cancer, saying “unless you have heard those words, ‘you have cancer,’ you can never identify with the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that comes with that.”
Kruk thanks Tommy for helping him ease the sense of hopelessness that such a disease can so easily bring on.
“When I was down and out a few years ago, Tommy was a voice of comfort and strength to me,” said Kruk. “I always knew he had his hand on my shoulder when I needed it. There are very few like Tommy in the world…he is a man who should be celebrated.”
And celebrate good men we should, which is why a sports editor less than three months on the job drove out to Tommy’s mountain home this past Monday to listen to him speak on whatever he felt like speaking on.
And that’s why when Tommy puts on his 1966 state championship ring and walks out to his back porch, you bring your camera, because these are the special moments, the fleeting moments.
You point and click, kneel down, point and click again. Even though you know Tommy isn’t one to welcome much attention, you know it’s important to capture these times.
“Don’t overdo it with this story now,” asks Tommy politely. You promise him you won’t, and try not to.
And as you’re standing there, surrounded by the bursting greens of spring, one of Pisgah’s original sons offers up a final thought:
He grew up in this house, which his father built in the 1950s.
When his father, now deceased, was placed in a nursing home, Tommy decided to move back to his old stomping grounds, to live between the mountain out back and the mountain view out front.
His father came to visit one day, and as he was taking in the heavenly scenery, made a witty remark, half in jest.
“Man, this sure would be a good place to retire.”
It certainly would be.
This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer.