Ernest Williamson played football with Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice in the 1940s and went on to play in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants.
James Spurling met him working at a service station on Airport Road in 1979 after Williamson’s playing days were long behind him.
A man in bib overalls and a straw hat came in and asked the owner if he could borrow an air tank, Spurling recalled, but the owner turned him away. “You need to go borrow an air tank where you buy your gas and get your cars worked on,” he told the man, who turned around and walked out the door.
By then, the boys in the shop had told Spurling the man in the straw hat was a famous football player, and Spurling found himself rushing outside to find out if it was true – and to offer an apology.
“Sir, I’m sorry he talked to you like that, but can I ask you a question?”
The man, not smiling, nodded.
“Did you play for the Washington Redskins?” Spurling asked.
Williamson nodded again and said, “Yeah, but that was a long time ago.”
“Well, I love football, and I am a big Carolina fan.” Then Spurling asked, “You got a flat tire?”
“Yeah,” Williamson told him, but the tire was stuck on his tractor back home. “I can’t get the lug nuts broke loose.”
“Well,” Spurling said, “I get off of here at 5 o’clock. I’ll be glad to come out and help.”
One good turn deserves another
Since August 2005, Spurling has served as the director of Kenan Stadium and Football Facility, a job that has kept him close to the sport – and the people – he loves.
It is a job that requires him to put in long days, often seven days a week. Besides the football games, he is responsible for preparing the stadium for spring commencement each year, for hosting special events and retreats and managing the operations of the football center, including a dining hall for the football players.
He loves the work, Spurling said, because he loves the people he is doing it for. Last year, friends and colleagues expressed their appreciation for his hard work and dedication by nominating him for a 2015 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the University’s most coveted distinctions earned by faculty and staff.
None of it would have happened, Spurling said, if Ernest Williamson hadn’t pulled into that gasoline station 37 years ago needing help with a flat tire.
Spurling pointed to the picture frame on the wall across from his desk, a frame filled with photos of some of the special people in his life he proudly counts as friends.
At the top corner was a picture of country singer Reba McEntire wearing a Carolina football jersey. With each picture in the frame, there is another story for Spurling to tell – about Dean Smith, Roy Williams, John Bunting and Paul Rizzo. But all the stories connect back in some way to Williamson, who is pictured in the bottom corner in a suit and tie.
“We got that tire off, filled it with air and put it back on that tractor,” Spurling said.
Williamson, it turned out, wasn’t just any football player. Since 1957, Williamson had served as the director of the Educational Foundation, better known as the Rams Club, the athletic booster club and scholarship organization at Carolina.
But when Williamson offered to pay him, Spurling refused. So Williamson asked if he’d like to come to a ball game with him sometime.
“My eyes got as big as half dollars, and I said, ‘Sure I would,’” Spurling recalled.
He was 22 years old at the time and had never been to a college football game before.
“It wasn’t two days later Mr. Williamson called about the coming game with Wake Forest and to see if I could go,” Spurling said. “He didn’t just take me to the game. He carried me down on the sidelines and everything. Me and him got to be best friends.”
Building a family
Back home in Granville County, Spurling had little time for anything but work. After high school, he got a job working as a police officer for the town of Creedmoor and moonlighted as a construction worker for his father, a general contractor.
He was offered the job at the BP station on Airport Road while helping to build Chapel Hill’s new police department headquarters.
Eventually, Spurling went to work at the service station full time. His boss asked him to manage the Eastgate BP station on Fordham Boulevard, then surprised Spurling in summer of 1982 by offering to sell him the station. Spurling was just as surprised when the bank approved his loan to buy it.
As it turned out, Williamson drove past the Eastgate BP every morning on the way to his office in Carmichael Auditorium (now Arena). And almost every morning, Williamson would stop at the station for a cup of coffee. Over time, he brought with him a crowd, including retired Chancellor William Aycock, who came in to swap stories with Joe Hilton, the track coach at Carolina from 1946 to 1981.
“Coach Smith was a customer of mine, and I met him through Ernie,” Spurling said. “When Roy [Williams] was an assistant coach of Dean, he and his wife were customers of mine because Dean sent them down here.”
Home away from home
And so it went, Spurling said, for the next 24 years and three months he owned the station. The only days his employees knew to take him off the schedule were the days when Carolina played football at home.
In spring of 2005, not long after Spurling sold the service station, Coach John Bunting told him about the part-time job at the football center he would end up taking. When the job as director of Kenan Stadium came open a few months later, he applied for and got that job.
Officially, his job as director of Kenan Stadium is to take care of things – to make sure everything is up and running when visitors come. But from the start, Spurling always understood his real job was to take care of people. And just as he had at the service station, he understood the importance of meeting and greeting people and making sure they always felt welcome.
“I was lucky enough when Chancellor Folt came she wanted me to show her around, and so I’ve grown into the position that I’m with her on game day,” Spurling said. “I make sure she gets where she needs to be.”
Williamson died in 2002, but there is not a day that Spurling does not think of him and the lesson Williamson taught him so many years ago. That lesson is captured on a plaque in Spurling’s office. It reads: “You can easily judge a person’s character by how they treat those who can do nothing for them.”
“I love that,” he said. “I get up every morning thinking what I can do for somebody to make them smile. That’s what you do. You treat people right.”
Home: Chapel Hill
Job: Director of Kenan Stadium and Football Facility
UNC employee since: 2005
In 2003, Paul and Sydna Rizzo endowed a full football scholarship in Spurling’s name in appreciation for his lifelong commitment to Carolina
He has served as a member of the Board of Directors for the Educational Foundation and was chosen board member of the year by the foundation in 2004.
In 2009 the Athletic Department honored him with the Ernie Williamson award for his love and loyalty for the University, the Athletic Department and student-athletes.
What it meant to receive a Massey: “I am very humbled by it. It bothered me a bit because there are people who have worked here 30 or 40 years who deserve it more than me, but nobody has ever won the Massey award who appreciates it more than me. That’s because I love this place so much I guess – and I’ve been loved by so many people from this place. That’s meant a lot to me and it always will. If I live 50 more years, or 50 days, that’s special.”
By Gary Moss, University Gazzette
Originally published by University Gazzette: January 26, 2016