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A conversation with Chad Upton: Principal, Pisgah Bear, and radio announcer

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In Chad Upton’s office, students sometimes ask if the principal will pull a chair over and let them look above the cabinet. Assembled atop the wooden cupboard are the Avengers and members of the Justice League.

Upton’s office is covered with superheroes — figurines and drawings of Wonder Woman, Batman, The Flash, Union Jack, The Hulk, and countless others. The curtains in his office are adorned with the Avengers logo, and Captain America’s shield is his office clock.

“I am a comic book person. I did not grow up reading comic books, but I obviously like the genre,” said Upton, principal of Leicester Elementary School in Buncombe County.

The new trend all started with his son. Twelve years ago, Upton took him to see the first Captain America movie. One day, when his son was home sick from school, Upton saw a comic book and thought it could be fun for them to read it together.

Fast forward a decade, he and his office are fully invested in the comic book world. It was at first a way to connect with his son, but he sees it now as a way to connect with his students.

“It goes back to as much as anything else, probably back to connectivity with the kids.”

Chad Upton, principal at Leicester Elementary School

We were visiting Upton, not because he is the principal of Leicester Elementary, but because he is the play-by-play caller for Pisgah Bears football on WPTL radio. He has called the games for 18 years.

His father Bill Upton, principal of Pisgah High School from 1972-93 and eventual superintendent of Haywood County Schools, was the one who identified his son’s talent for game calling.

Chad remembers watching a game with his dad in the stands, and he was describing the plays under his breath, thinking no one was listening. He recalls his dad jabbing him in the side and saying, “You might be pretty good at doing that.”

Growing up, Upton remembers the constant sounds of the dial, thanks to his father. They listened to sports on the AM radio together constantly, following the Yankees, Green Bay Packers, and Washington football.

“I felt like I got sort of, maybe even subconsciously, a knack for understanding what it was that broadcasters were trying to do with sports. Because what you’re doing is, is you’re trying to take something that someone else can’t see and you’re painting a picture for them,” Upton said. “You’re trying to add enough color and language for that person to be able to imagine what’s going on. And one of the things I picked up on as a kid is that based on the language in the in the inflection, you can really communicate pretty big emotions.”

On any given fall Friday night, you can find Upton in the press box, whether it be at Pisgah’s Memorial Stadium or on the road for an away game. But it’s not just those game day evenings he dedicates to the Bears.

On Saturday mornings, you’ll find him posted up at the Riverview Farm & Garden in Canton for the Brett Chappell show. He and Pisgah Bears coach Brett Chappell meet to discuss the previous day’s game for the listeners on WPTL.

One dedicated fan of both the Bears, and his son, is always in attendance:

Chad Upton on the radio, as his father Bill Upton watches. Caroline Parker/EducationNC.

We interviewed Upton to get his perspective on Pisgah Bears football and learn about the big rivalry game. We talked about the Tuscola Mountaineers, the Pisgah Bears, the home opener, and more. The conversation below is from the first week of football season and has been edited for length and clarity.

EdNC: You grew up in Canton and have a gift for description, given your talent as a radio announcer. Can you describe it to someone who’s never been here, what is it like?

Upton: Maybe this isn’t accurate, but I have always felt like our community was a throwback community. To what communities in the south, communities in southern Appalachia, were like 60 to 80 years ago, based on those stories that you hear from the good old days.

And the reason I felt that way, and still do to a large extent, is because of the paper mill existing and being the primary employer and being such a centerpiece to who we are — it has helped over time to maintain that sort of dynamic.

There’s going to be change; it’s just the nature of all things. A huge piece for us was losing the paper mill recently. In a lot of ways, that’s a devastating blow for us, and has tentacles that sort of reach into just about every facet of our existence. Even if you don’t necessarily know somebody that works in the paper mill directly. But it’s certainly a huge part of who we are.

And as I said before, if I were to tell you the two things that I think about when I think about our community, it is first the paper mill, and second the high school. So much of who we are, as a group of people is, and has been, tied very directly into those two things.

EdNC: How did you get involved in Pisgah Bears football?

Upton: You know, as far as the Pisgah part of it is concerned, and high school football is concerned, I mentioned my dad was the principal at his school for 22 years. My first memories, period, were associated with Pisgah High School. And just being around, growing up literally in those halls, it was just always an important thing and continues to be to this day.

The high school itself continues to be really important to me and my family, as it is to a lot of people in our community. I’ve often said that it would be nice if that in this era, that every community in America felt the way it did about its high school the way we do.

EdNC: I’m here to talk about the big rivalry game between Pisgah High School and Tuscola. Can you tell me a little about the coaches?

Upton: For this game this year, you’ve got a veteran head coach in Coach Chappell, who was named a High School Athletic Association (Toby Webb Outstanding Coach Award) Coach of the Year. In addition to that, he is coaching in the Shrine Bowl, which is an all-star game between the best players from North Carolina and South Carolina that’s played in December. 

On the other side of the coin for Tuscola, you’ve got a brand new head coach, Jonathan Crompton, who had an absolutely exceptional career as a high school player himself. And an exceptional career playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee.

He is younger and is going to be a little greener in terms of those experiences, but has had a number of experiences around the game himself that he’s, I’m sure, able to parlay into success and able to certainly generate excitement from.

From the technical and the X’s and O’s standpoint, I’m sure he is going to do very well, especially as a former quarterback himself. Understanding lots of things in terms of the ins and outs. So I look forward to that part of the battle between those two head coaches. 

You’ve got two head coaches, both of whom saw action in the National Football League, in one county, in North Carolina. I’m sure that there is no other county, maybe in the southeastern United States, where 100% of the head coaches in that county played football in the National Football League, I’m sure of it.

EdNC: I know this community’s had challenging times in the past — natural disasters, then the pandemic, and now the paper mill closure. This game means a lot to a lot of people in Haywood County. Do you think it’s going to mean more this year?

Upton: This is a community that has seen, number one, with regard to football, not having had a home football game since the 2019 season.

In addition to that, as you mentioned, having not one, but two catastrophic floods in the last 25 years, that took away lives, and certainly property, and memories that are difficult, if not impossible to repair. And then the addition of now having our employer that’s existed over 100 years no longer being there?

I certainly think that there’s a possibility for that, I think. This is sort of what I perceived. If it is true that so much about our identity is tied into our high school and into the existence and the lineage behind the paper mill in losing one. Does the other sort of take on even more gravitas? And I think it certainly can.

EdNC: Is there anything else you think people should know if they don’t know anything about this rivalry or Haywood County? Is there anything you’d want people to know about your home?

Upton: I think a lot of people appreciate the way you phrase that because home is a big part of it. Certainly the effects of the rivalry itself. It’s such an identifier, for for us and for me. And that’s why I think I’d take so seriously what we what we try to do on Fridays, in terms of broadcasting is, I feel like that I’m talking to my people, part of who I am.

There is a line in the song Balsam Range wrote called “Papertown” — multiple members are from Canton. And there is a song about Canton that refers to who we are and certainly talks about the paper mill and those kinds of things.

And in the song, it speaks to the community, and there’s a lyric: “It’s not just a Papertown, it’s part of who I am.” And that phrase means a tremendous amount to me. Every time I hear it, you know, I tear up because it’s so true.

And this is just the the sheer definition that I think a lot of us feel, and I’m so proud of. I would like for everybody to feel this way about their community. When I introduce myself to people, I’m so proud of that. I often will tell them my name, and instead of what I do, which I’m certainly proud of, I tell them where I’m from. Because that matters so much to me, and so much to us.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.