North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
It would be inconceivable today for a consensus All-America tackle from a Power 5 school to turn down the opportunity to play pro football for a job in the business sector. But in 1958, that’s exactly what Tom Topping did when he decided to accept an offer to work for Roadway Express rather than become a member of the San Francisco 49ers, who had drafted him following his college career at Duke.
The average NFL salary was just under $7,000 per year at the time, so the decision made financial sense — especially since Topping went on to become president of the company.
Topping was just as successful on the athletic field as he was in the boardroom. He was a three-sport star at Roanoke Rapids High School, where he earned all-conference honors in both basketball and football and all-state recognition in football on his way to winning the Sam Owen Athletic Award as the overall sports MVP of his senior class of 1953.
In his first varsity season with Duke, as a sophomore in 1955, he helped the Blue Devils to a 7-2-1 record and a share of the ACC championship with Maryland. As a senior in 1957, he was named Most Valuable Player on a team that got off to a 5-0 start, finished second in the conference and played in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma.
Topping was a first-team All-ACC selection that season, earning mention on six different All-American teams along with an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, an opportunity that led to him being drafted by the 49ers.
He was inducted into the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989, only a year before his death at the age of 55.