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G-Men Pride – We Wear It Still

We came from Across the Tracks and Between the Bridges.  Places with names like Springville, Falls Mills, Sedgewood, West Graham and Pine Hill Park.  We came from in town and out in the country and we gathered at the Double Gates.  Why?  To become men.  To become G-Men.

The day the dream began.  Some of us might remember the exact moment when it happened, others may not.  For many it likely happened when we were kids, seven or eight years old, and on a Friday night in late August.  We walked the path with our parents and friends up to the concrete cathedral called Mitchell Stadium.

It was a scene unlike any of us had ever experienced and it happened every year in our little town.  Entering the gates to the hallowed grounds serenaded by the rhythmic roll of warrior drums and the buzz of excitement that had brewed all year long.  It was bigger than Christmas.  Well maybe not Christmas, but it was bigger than anything else.  It was the night of The Game.

The Game is a cross state rivalry that literally happens on the state line.  A home game for both teams that share the stadium throughout the year.  The Graham G-Men and the Bluefield Beavers.  A city and town usually united, but for one night fiercely divided.

As kids our introduction to the Friday night lights of high school football was a season opening stadium filled with over ten thousand fans.  A battle of two schools steeped in history and pride, and a community united, but one night divided. 

Entering Mitchell Stadium for The Game, we walked past the stone locker rooms that must have been there since the beginning of time, or so it seemed.  It was easy to imagine, that, perhaps the Romans once did battle here. Climbing the steep concrete steps between endless rows of wooden seats, beneath the towering three-story press box, the view was premium, and priceless.  

White stripes lined across the crisp green grass all wrapped in dark pavement and tucked in a bowl of mountains and concrete.  The glimmering lights illuminate the scene. The massive scoreboard appears small tucked against the carved-out mountain. Beyond the tips of the goal posts, more mountains and layers of rolling Appalachian splendor.  

It’s both magical and mystical. As the westward sun sets on the night of The Game, thousands of fans fill the stands to capacity and hundreds more gather around the field. It’s standing room only.  The air is electric, the energy eccentric, an annual tradition unlike any other, dripping into our veins like the falling dew, and the sweet scents and sounds of dawning autumn, and Friday Night Lights.

To our young minds there was no difference between that stadium carved in the mountain and the Sunday afternoon images of RFK Stadium on the big box Zenith.  To us it was just as big, maybe bigger.  Our perceptions were heightened even more by the blend of deep burgundy, gold and white stripes of my home team G-Men that perfectly matched the uniforms of the Washington Redskins.

As kids we could not differentiate and our Friday night heroes were no different than the men that played or coached on Sunday.  The only difference was the big gold G-Star emblem on the side of the helmets.  We grew up idolizing the young men that wore those colors.  They lived in our neighborhoods and we knew them.  Some were our older brothers or our friend’s older brothers.  To us they were famous and we wanted to be just like them.

For many of us, that moment and that feeling would never leave.  It became part of who we are, and who we would become.  It’s why it’s called – The Game.

Back then we could only dream of one day wearing that helmet and those colors.  We savored every moment as the bands played and fans cheered.  The voices and sounds echoed into the night and etched another memory into history.  As kids we carried the feeling back to the parks and playgrounds.  We had epic back yard battles honing our skills in hopes that one day we might carry the colors and town pride out onto that sacred turf.

The dream was born amidst the glaring lights of an early autumn night, but it became real on the worn fields in which we used to play.  Through the heat or in the snow, we nurtured the dream.  It’s where G-Men are born.

Our dads coached little league and took us to the high school practice field where we could see our heroes up close.  The stories of our fathers had an even greater impact on our young minds.  When they spoke of the greatest coaches or our era we heard names like Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, George Allen, Merrill Gainer, John Chamara, Burrhead Bradley and Glynn Carlock.

To us there was no difference between the greatest coaches in professional football and the “old school” gridiron coaches marching the sidelines right in front of us.  The names all rang together and to our impressionable minds their legends were equal, each respected and feared all in the same breath.

The man that we called Coach brought unprecedented pride and achievement to Graham High School during his 32 year tenure.  Coach Carlock’s legacy was cut short by an untimely and rare disease in 2005, but his legacy lives on.  Even early in his career his legend seemed imminent.

Glynn Carlock emerged from the coal fields of southern West Virginia, where he played for the great Merrill Gainer at the football coaching factory formerly known as Big Creek High School.  The school is now closed and the Friday night lights in Coalwood, WV have been turned out, but the small town’s history continues to shine in the legends it produced.  Carlock and Gainer are two names on a long list of coaching greats with roots in Big Creek.

After serving in the Marine Corp and completing his college degree Carlock worked as an assistant under Coach Gainer at Bluefield High School alongside Coach Chamara.  Chamara took over as head coach at Bluefield and in 1973 Carlock crossed the state line and took the reins at rival Graham High School.  He never looked back and carved a path that changed the shape of a town and impacted the lives of the many young men that played or coached for him.

Being a G-Man during the Carlock era was not easy and that was by design.  His design.  Many fell out in the wake of the traditions he bore into history.  But there was, and still is, a certain pride that comes with being a G-man.  He brought his Marine Drill Sergeant mentality to high school athletics and imparted a way to work, play and live.  You did all three with pride.  Graham teams were most often outnumbered and seldom if ever bigger than their foes.  But no team was ever more physical than a Carlock Graham team.

The practice field ghosts still bark at night, “You gotta have some grit in your craw boy!” and “You gotta be tuff!  With two Fs!”  I’m certain Coach knew the proper spelling of tough, but it was his style.  Why use five letters when four says it better?  Or maybe he wanted us to be volcanic rock tuff?  Regardless, we still hear the ghost and we remember.  He made us all tuffer.

Coach taught the meaning of pride in wearing the G-Man colors.  Our shoes were always crisply polished, shirts tucked in and helmets waxed.  Every player every moment had their chinstrap snapped and ready for battle.  We learned to take pride in the little things and that the big things will take care of themselves.  We learned discipline, we learned to work hard, we learned to recite poetry, we learned to think and we learned to trust.  It’s the one in the ring that matters after all.  Right Coach?

“Play with poise, play with pride, play with character.”

It has been more than a decade since Carlock walked the halls of Graham High and led his G-Men to gridiron glory.  Yet his memory remains.  Some of those traditions and that glory may have chipped away with time, but it has taken a former tuff G-Man to bring them back.

Tony Palmer was a standout player on the ’89 state championship team, but even before that he was a seven year old kid experiencing the magic of Mitchell Stadium on a glorious Friday night and dreaming of one day running out onto that field.  The traditions are branded into his soul and he just might be the one to carry that pride back home.

Coach Palmer’s eyes tear up when he talks of Graham football.  It’s more than a passion for him.  It’s a way of life and no one lives it better.  The dream for him was born long ago under the Mitchell Stadium lights and that’s where it will continue to shine brightest.    Tony Palmer was born to be a coach.  A coach of G-Men.

There is a certain and unmistakable pride that comes with being a G-Man.  We wear it still.

The Game

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