Ex-Vol Robert Pulliam dies

Robert Pulliam, one of the finest three-sport athletes in Rowan County, N.C., history and a three-year Tennessee football letterman in the early 1970s, died last week after an extended battle with cancer. He was 54.

Pulliam is remembered as the 1970 Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year when Boyden High School went 10-1-2, but his honors extended far beyond the borders of the county.

He was a Parade All-America. Charles Little, his defensive line coach at Boyden, remembers Pulliam was recognized his senior year as the No. 1 defensive lineman in the entire South.

"A once-in-a-lifetime player," Little said.

Pulliam weighed 260 pounds as a senior, and the recruiting battle for his services was fierce. ACC and SEC schools were just beginning to accept elite African-American athletes.

Pulliam chose Tennessee, which already had a great black player from Kannapolis (tailback Haskel Stanback) on its freshman team. Pulliam went to Knoxville as part of a great recruiting class that included outstanding black quarterback Condredge Holloway and Johnny Yarbrough.

Pulliam's reputation swelled with Tennessee's freshman team. A Tennessee assistant stopped by Salisbury to inform the locals that the varsity Vols had stopped scrimmaging the freshmen.

The reason? Pulliam disrupted every offensive play.

"One thing I remember from those days is Robert's smile," said Conrad Graham, an All-SEC cornerback for the Vols. "He wouldn't say much, but he had that smile. The coaches told us Robert wrestled two guys at a time in high school. We believed it."

Pulliam started three years for the 1972-74 Vols at left defensive tackle and never missed a game. He played on three nationally ranked teams that went 25-9-2 and started three bowl games.

Pulliam played with Holloway in the 1975 Hula Bowl All-Star Game following his senior year, but he never got a real shot in the NFL.

"He was disappointed he didn't get a better opportunity," Stout said. "The word was that he was a little short. He was about 6-foot-1."

While Pulliam didn't get a chance to pummel NFL offenses, one of his pupils did. As a young coach, Pulliam schooled the late, great Reggie White at Howard High in Chattanooga.

"It's not hard imagining Robert instilling that same desire in Reggie he had," said Boyden teammate Justus Everett.

Pulliam added a master's degree in administration to his degree in education from Tennessee. He was an assistant coach at Appalachian State and North Carolina A&T and head coach at Fayetteville State.

Pulliam eventually moved his family back to Salisbury and went into administration. He was an assistant principal at Salisbury and Mooresville before accepting the challenge of the principal's job at Henderson Independent School in 2000. Pulliam, a Rowan County Hall of Famer in every sense of the word, is survived by his wife, Jean, two sons and his parents.

"It's an untimely passing of a great man and a great person," Everett said. "I really can't verbalize what he meant to all of us."

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