May/June 2018With Faith the Size of a Cotton SeedText and photos by Joey Frazier
About twenty-eight years ago, a few college friends with a propensity for hard work and big fun created a fundraising event that offers everyone involved a blast... and a barbeque.
Rusty Darby makes his living farming cotton in the same ground his ancestors did more than two centuries before him, but he lives for something else: The High Cotton Classic, an annual sporting clays charity event that he and a few boys from northern Chester County organized in 1989. Of course, the story goes back even a little further.
"In 1978, when you could still shoot doves in the morning on opening day, a bunch of boys scattered around South Carolina wanted to come here to hunt with us on Labor Day weekend," Darby said. "So, they would all come the Friday before dove season and spend the night. Back then we were all fresh out of college and footloose so to speak, so many of them would bring campers and pickups and tents, and we would camp in the backyard at my house."
To pass the time before the dove shoot, the friends found an old trap machine at Darby's farm and started shooting clay targets on Friday afternoon, but they quickly became bored. Trying to find a more creative way to pass the time, they tried to launch the targets in a way that would emulate the flight of gamebirds. It was not exactly a sporting clays course, but they had so much fun with it, they decided to hold the clay shoot every year and named the group the Northern Chester County Trap Throwers Association or NCCTTA for short, according to Darby.
"All total, it was about fifteen guys, and we even sent out engraved invitations and an annual newsletter announcing our event," Darby said. "We cooked a pig on Friday, shot clays and just had a big time. I didn't know it then, but that was the precursor to the High Cotton Classic."
Fast forward to 1989. By now most of the NCCTTA members had families, and many of their children attended Westminster Catawba Christian School, a private school in nearby Rock Hill. Darby and friends came together to renovate a closet space at the school to house the library, but money for books was still short. Darby called a meeting of the NCCTTA, and together they hatched a plan to turn their fun shoot into a fundraising opportunity. The High Cotton Classic was born. They raised $384 that first year, bought library books for the school and had so much fun they determined it would become an annual event.
"We decided we would give 50 percent of the money to the school [Westminster Catawba] and divide the other 50 percent between various organizations in the community associated with youth and Christian education," Darby said. "So, our parameters were set, and we have held to that. The NCCTTA members became the High Cotton board of directors, and each person has a department to chair so everything gets done. That means coordinating logistics, safety, sponsors, finances, running the tournament, scoring, and of course we have to cook barbeque. It all works because these guys love each other; it's like family."
High Cotton board member Bill Cranford praises Darby for his continuing role in supporting the charity event. "It's like a family reunion; it's a tent revival with shotguns and barbeque," Cranford said. "For me, this is Southern tradition at its best, and we have been blessed by it, but it could not happen without Rusty. He and his family enable us to do this."
Today, after twenty-eight years of blasting clays, cooking barbeque and raising money, the group has given away nearly one million dollars to Westminster Catawba and other like-minded, youth-oriented organizations in the community. That, in and of itself, is a remarkable success story, but, once again, there is a little more to this tale.
Once the formula for success was established and proven, these friends got bored again. It was not enough to just raise a lot of money and give it away, they wanted to have an even bigger - and for them a more personal - impact on the community. According to Darby, that meant passing something on to the next generation besides dollars. So, the High Cotton board came up with the trapper program, and that is the real legacy of the original NCCTTA and the High Cotton Classic. It is the heart of the event and of the men who make it all happen.
Chip Hutchison and Tommy Palmer coordinate the trapper program. They explain how the High Cotton course is run by the trappers who, surprisingly, are all teens between fourteen and eighteen years of age. These young men are responsible for moving the participants through the course in a safe and efficient manner. They use tablet computers to enter scores into a wi-fi-enabled system so visitors at the clubhouse can watch the leaderboard update in real time on a large screen monitor. They greet each shooter with a firm handshake, welcome them to each station, and of course, they throw the clays.
"Tommy and I are involved because of the trapper program," Hutchison said. "Our sons grew up with the trapper program. Although they all are in college now, we are still here handling this end of the High Cotton Classic."
According to Palmer and Hutchison, the trap machines used on the High Cotton Classic course almost all are manual by design. It gives the trappers a job to do, a responsibility. Each trapper receives a High Cotton Trapper hat and tee shirt, but those are earned with hard work.
"From the time the shooters leave the yard to tour the course, they are in the care of the trappers," Palmer said. "It is just amazing what responsibility they crave, and the way they respond to the responsibility we give them."
That responsibility begins well before the day of the event. Palmer explains the boys must register in advance to become a High Cotton trapper.
"They have to sign up to be a trapper," Palmer said. "Moms and dads can't do it for them."
Each trapper must go online to register for the trapper program. They also must attend a mandatory trapper training to learn about safety on the course and how to load and launch the clay targets. It is a big job, but the youth always live up to expectations. Just as importantly as managing the course, the High Cotton board members insist that each trapper learn to properly greet shooters as they arrive at their station.
"They have to look each shooter in the eye and greet them with a firm handshake," Darby said.
This teaches the youth to have respect for the shooters who come and spend their money to participate in the event. It also makes it clear to shooters who is in charge at each station, so the boys get respect from them, and that goes a long way towards keeping the course safe. There has never been a shooting-related accident at the High Cotton Classic, and Darby and the other board members want to keep it that way.
"Dr. Bill Cranford recruited our sons to be trappers years ago," Chip Hutchison said. "Now it takes four of us to do what he did by himself."
But to be fair to Hutchison and Palmer, the High Cotton Classic has grown quite a bit since their sons' time as trappers. In 2017 they had nearly four hundred shooters on two courses.
"On the surface, the High Cotton Classic is a fun shooting event to raise money for worthy charities," Hutchison said. "But the reality, from our perspective and why I'm involved, is the byproduct for what it does for the young men. They want to get involved. They want to wear this hat that says High Cotton Trapper. Nobody else can get these hats or shirts, and no one gets them for free. They have to earn it."
Without a doubt, the High Cotton Classic has created an environment that fosters leadership and learning through the trapper program.
"These young men want someone to trust them, and we do," Palmer said. "We help them develop self-confidence. We are always close by to make sure that safety comes first, but it is amazing what these young men can do given the opportunity to take it and run with it."
There is a faith aspect to this story. It permeates everything about the event, but it is never preached. Rather, the men on the High Cotton board teach the young people in their charge by setting an example.
Palmer believes this is the best way to approach a teachable moment, and there are many during the course of trapper training and the actual event.
"They emulate what they see," Palmer said. "So, we try very hard to make certain we are the best role models we can be."
Chip Hutchison sums it up like this: "If we as adults don't teach these kids how to have respect for the outdoors and how to safely enjoy shooting sports, then who will?"
For more information about the 2018 High Cotton Classic, go to www.highcottonclassic.com.