ATLANTA (December 17, 2017) -- North Carolina A&T junior running back Marquell Cartwright didn’t see the departure of N.C. A&T legendary running back Tarik Cohen as a detriment. He saw it as an opportunity to further an Aggie tradition, and that is producing great running backs. Cartwright was named the 2017 Celebration Bowl offensive MVP after posting 164 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on 23 touches.
After the game, he spoke about replacing Cohen as the Aggies starting running back and what it means to be an RB at A&T. Cartwright says he talks to Cohen often and he said both men wanted something to be known. “We’re a running back school. We just wanted that to be known,” said Cartwright. “We just let everybody know that even though Tarik is gone, we can still be a dominant team.”
Whether it is Cohen or Cartwright or former NFL running back Maurice Hicks, there is one thing you can say about all three, they are a part of an exclusive, prestigious and successful club called Running Back U. “It has been an honor to be a part of such a great university,” said Hicks.
The club consists of 11 gentlemen who have been on NFL rosters. Eleven times in Aggies history, an Aggies tailback has had a 1,000-yard season. An amazing 12 Aggies have averaged 5.0 yards per carry or more for their respective careers (300 or more carries). The legacy of Aggie running backs is so rich, it even includes a College Baseball Hall of Famer in Al Holland.
“I have always been honored to be a part of the legacy of great A&T running backs,” said former NFL running back Maurice Smith who led the Aggies in rushing in 1999 with 1,022 yards on a team that won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, an NCAA playoff game and the black college national championship. Smith played for the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers during his NFL career (2000-02). Smith led the Falcons in rushing in 2001.
“From James Fisher to Tarik Cohen, George Ragsdale to James White, Brian Rodman to Eric Clark, Stoney Polite to Michael Basnight, Barry Turner to Maurice Hicks, Reggie Shuford to Michael Mayhew, Milton Shaw to Michael Ferguson, Wayman Pittman to Charlie Sutton, Tailback U as it was coined back in 2001, continues to build the tradition of yesteryear,” Smith continued.
The Origins of Running Back U
The modern-day Running Back U is believed to have started with James Fisher and Bob “Stonewall” Jackson in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Jackson and Fisher led the Aggies to the 1950 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in 1950. Fisher averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. Jackson, a fullback, was drafted by the New York Giants in 1950.
If Fisher and Jackson were the beginning, however, J.D. Smith, Jr., was the first legend. After compiling more than 1,500 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns as an Aggie, Smith was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1995.
Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl running back with the San Francisco 49ers, ranks sixth on the franchise's all-time rushing list with 4,370 yards. Nicknamed the “Cinderella Man” for his inauspicious route to the NFL, Smith played 10 years in the NFL, eight with the 49ers and two with the Dallas Cowboys. Smith was drafted 10th in the 15th round (179th overall) by the Chicago Bears in the 1955 NFL Draft. Instead of playing Chicago, Smith spent a year completing his military duty in the United States Army during the Korean War. Smith saw no playing time at halfback and was used sparingly by the Bears on defense. Picked up on waivers by the San Francisco 49ers from the Bears at the end of the 1956 season, Smith was also used on defense by the 49ers in his first year with the club.
In 1958, the 49ers moved him to offense. He responded favorably to the move. On December 7, he had the team’s longest run from scrimmage to date, 80-yards against the Green Bay Packers.
In 1971, Smith was an inaugural member of the North Carolina A&T Sports Hall of Fame along with Golden State basketball legend Al Attles. The next great was Will Beasley. Before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 1965, Beasley led the Aggies to their final CIAA championship in 1964.
“A&T has a great tradition of running backs,” said Hicks. “I think each great one paves the way for the next one. I’m truly honored to have been a part of the tradition.”
Future Pro Athletes Holland and Ragsdale
Holland’s N.C. A&T legacy largely revolves around baseball after spending 10 years with six different MLB teams, but there is a hint of football legacy for the former flame thrower known for his wicked fastball. Holland first built his athletic reputation on the football field at N.C. A&T in 1971. At the time, Holland broke the school’s single-season rushing touchdown record with 12. Holland teamed with another future professional athlete in George Ragsdale.
In 1975, the duo led the Aggies to their first-ever MEAC title. Ragsdale was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976 after breaking the school’s single-season rushing record in 1975 with 920 yards. Ragsdale would become the interim head coach for N.C. A&T football in 2009.
“There is just something about this place,” Ragsdale said at his press conference. “I bleed Blue and Gold and I always will.”
After Ragsdale and Holland’s tenures, the Aggies had numerous star running backs on teams who were not able to win championships. The duo of Charlie Sutton and Wayman Pitts held down the running duties in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Sutton was the workhorse who still owns the single-game record for carries with 44 (1978), while Pitts was the speedy back who broke Ragsdale’s single-season record with 936 yards rushing in 1980.
The Pass-Happy 80’s
Mike Jones came along next, broke Pitts’ record with 941 yards in 1983 and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1984.
Even during the years of airing it out with Aggies legendary quarterback Alan Hooker, the Aggies produced a great running back. Stoney Polite became the first Aggie in school history to lead the Aggies in rushing four straight seasons (1984-87). He also broke the school record for rushing touchdowns (41) that Cohen later broke despite playing for a quarterback who shattered almost every passing record in school history.
“We played for a guy by the name of Moe Forte,” said Hooker. “As much as coach Forte believed in passing the ball, he did not believe in throwing the ball once we got the ball inside the 10-yard line, so if we get the ball inside the 10, Stoney was getting the ball.”
A Spot of Wing-T
As much as Forte liked to throw it was as much as Bill Hayes liked to run. Hayes instituted the famous Wing-T era into the history of Aggies football in 1989. The offense featured a fullback and two halfbacks in the backfield and was built around the deceptive efforts of the quarterback. The offense would introduce Aggie fans in their first 1,000-yard rusher while also leading the program to three MEAC championships and 106 wins in 15 years.
James White, Barry Turner, Michael Basnight, Maurice Smith and Maurice Hicks became Aggie legends in the offense. If N.C. A&T was not a great place for backs to prosper before, it was once Hayes arrived.
“I have always considered myself fortunate to be a member of some great Aggie teams that consisted of some exceptional players, coaches, and staff,” said White. “Playing the running back position meant upholding both an Aggie tradition and a Wing-T tradition that followed coach Bill Hayes. I had a simple goal really, to contribute to the success of our football team, and I believe I accomplished that.”
Hayes’ Wing-T produced the best backfield duo in school history in White and Turner. White became the Aggies first-ever 1,000-yard rusher in 1993. He also left the school as its all-time leading rusher. Turner is perhaps the best receiving running back in school history. Turner led the Aggies in receiving in 1993, compiled 2,726 rushing yards and made 92 receptions for 1,148 yards.
White and Turner and fourth and fifth on the Aggies all-time rushing list.
“It meant the world to me to have the opportunity to play for a school like A&T with its rich background of running backs,” said Turner. “To have a chance to follow in the footsteps of former greats like Ragsdale and Arthur Lee Worthy was a true blessing to me. Similarly, my running mate James White and I laid down the foundation for the backs who came after us to get their opportunity to play at the next level. That is truly something I am very proud of.”
One of those who followed was Hicks. In only 20 games played, Hicks rushed for 2,812 yards to break the all-time Aggies rushing record. Hicks ran for 437 yards and four touchdowns for the Aggies in 2001. At the time, it was a single-game NCAA record. Hicks went on to play seven seasons in the NFL for the Bears, 49ers and the Vikings. Hicks’ abilities at N.C. A&T had many believing he was the best to ever do it until someone else eventually came along.
The Post Hicks Era
After Hicks and Hayes, the Aggies had some lean years. But they still had some great running backs. Michael Ferguson (2005-08) almost broke the school’s all-time rushing record and Mike Mayhew (2009-12) did before Cohen obliterated the record (and many others) with 5,619 yards. The Aggies latest superstar is Cartwright who led the MEAC in rushing this season and has 25 career touchdowns despite spending two years as Cohen’s backup. Cartwright finished the season with 1,190 rushing yards, averaged 99.2 yards per game and scored 14 touchdowns. His 1,000-yard season marks the seventh time in eight years the Aggies have had a 1,000-yard rusher.
“I just go out there and play,” Cartwright told the Greensboro News & Record during the season. “I know Tarik was a great player. Everybody knows that. He did what he did, and he taught me a lot. He left me — all our running backs, really — with a lot of knowledge. I just try to use that to try to keep the tradition going for the school.”
Therefore, whether you want to argue for J.D. Smith or George Ragsdale as the greatest tailback of all time. Or whether you have your statistical arguments ready for Hicks being better than Tarik or vice versa, one thing is for sure. N.C. A&T produces some special, special backs.