As much I love football at any level, as I’ve said time and time again, my first love with the Sport was and forever will be High School Football. ESPN is trying to screw it up but it remains the purest form of competition and is important to the players who play it, the coaches who coach it, and the communities in which it is played. Most who put on the pads in a high school game will never do so after their final high school game. While some coaches use high school as a stepping stone to college, most do not and see it as part of their mission in life to guide young men from high school into college and beyond.
High School Football season begins Friday night in Virginia and West Virginia (the two states that I am most familiar with). It begins in the heat of the Summer and the goal is to still be playing in the cold December wind.
High School Football is about rivalries, and to be quite honest with you, I’ve never been witness to anything better than the annual “Battle of the Bluefields” between Bluefield and Graham. Friday night will be the 89th meeting between the two schools in a series that started in 1911. Bluefield, on the West Virginia side of town, leads the overall series with Graham, on the Virginia side of town, 63-23-and-2. The rivalry attracts not only current students, but alums and those from the community just interested to Mitchell Stadium typically on the last Friday Night in August.
Bluefield is West Virginia’s winningest High School Football program in terms of State Championships with 10 state titles spanning both the school’s days in West Virginia’s top AAA class, and its current AA classification. Known as nature’s Air Conditioned City because the temperature rarely gets above 90 degrees, and it has one of the neatest little traditions you’ll ever experience. On days when it does get 90 from the official records at the Mercer County Airport (which we always used to jokingly call Bluefield International with its three flights a day to Charlotte), the following day the City hands out Free Lemonade. The City also hosts a “Lemonade Days” Festival which this year occurs on Saturday following the football game.
The Virginia side of Bluefield was initially named “Graham, Virginia”, hence the name of the only High School in the town of Bluefield, Virginia. Graham may not have more victories than Bluefield in this series, but they’ve more than held their own and for a time from 1989 to approximately 2008 were among the best teams in their AA; Division 3 classification in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Graham won a State Title in 1989, followed that up with another in 1995, and played for a third in 2001 losing in the State Finals to Harrisonburg. In recent years, the program has struggled a bit, but have hired an alum in Tony Palmer to try and bring the magic back to the Virginia side. Graham has dropped from AA; Division 3 to Virginia’s A; Division 2 classification which is now just called 2A. They don’t get any real breaks in terms of competition however. Long time nemesis Gate City from Scott County near Bristol is also 2A, and just about 30 minutes down the road in Pearisburg, Virginia sits Giles High School, a long time super power in Virginia 2A football.
The series between Bluefield and Graham is as woven into West Virginia’s nearby coalfields as much as it is in the community itself. For a time some of the best football in the State of West Virginia was played in nearby McDowell County, the epicenter of the coal boom of the 40s and 50s. In War, WV, Head Coach Merrill Gainer coached the coalfield boys at Big Creek High School, but in 1959 left Big Creek for Bluefield where he achieved legendary status. Gainer coached at Bluefield from 1959 – 1967 compiling a staggering record of 87-6-and-1. That’s a winning percentage of 92.5 percent. His team’s won 4 state titles in 1959, 1962, 1965, and 1967. In those days, only two teams were invited to play in the playoffs (or the WV State Title Game), so getting into the State Championship Game was difficult and Gainer actually had an undefeated team in 1960 that was passed over for the State Championship Game. Gainer left Bluefield for Roanoke in 1968 to coach at Roanoke’s Patrick Henry High School where he led them to a Virginia AAA Championship in 1973. He died just a few years ago at age 87 and he’s not only a legend at Bluefield, the new Stadium turf at Patrick Henry in Roanoke is named “Merrill Gainer Field”.
Gainer was replaced by one of his assistants at Bluefield – John Chmara. Chmara, who would go from Bluefield to Virginia’s Fauquier High School in Northern Virginia coached at the school from 1968 – 1985, winning two state titles in 1975 and 1984 and he – like Gainer – had two undefeated teams in 1968 and 1972 that were not invited to the State Championship Game. He died in 2003.
When he left Bluefield for Fauquier, another Bluefield assistant moved up to head coach. Fred Simon is actually the only Bluefield coach I ever really interacted with since I didn’t arrive in Bluefield until 1990. He’s been the coach at Bluefield since 1986 and is the winningest coach at the school with 207 wins against 107 losses. Simon has 4 state championships in 1997, 2004, 2007, and 2009. He also coached three undefeated teams in 1997, 2004 and 2007. Simon, who is not the best interview in the world or the most dynamic personality you’ll ever meet, is a good guy and genuinely wants the best for his team and school. He’s also a survivor. For some reason he’s unpopular amongst some in the community and had to endure an 0-10 season in 1993.
As I said, Graham has only won only 23 times in this match-up, but they can credit 11 of those wins to another former Bluefield Assistant Coach in Ira Glynn Carlock. Carlock was a native of War, WV and played for Gainer at Big Creek High School. After High School he joined the Marine Corps from 1957 – 1960 and was at one point a Drill Sergeant. I can see that. After the Marines, he enrolled at nearby Concord College in Athens, WV. where his roommate was another High School coaching legend in former Salem High School Coach Willis White. After College he embarked on a coaching career and after serving on the staff at Bluefield, he made the jump across the border to Graham in 1973. All he did at Graham was win 244 games in 32 seasons along with two state championships. He also served as the school’s athletic director. Again, he wasn’t the best interview in the world but was warm and friendly. He understood my job and accommodated me accordingly, even if I was so obviously getting in the way of his primary job at times. I can’t speak for all high school coaches, but during the season you could drive past Graham High School late in the evening, and his little truck would be sitting outside the school while he was in his office watching tape.
Unfortunately, in 2005 Carlock was diagnosed with a terrible brain disease known as Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. It crippled his brain and on August 8, 2005, the former Marine Drill Sergeant and Virginia High School Hall of Famer passed away peacefully at a facility in Bluefield. He left behind a wife and a son, whose now the Athletic Director and basketball coach at Graham, but he also left behind hundreds of young men who he influenced with his discipline and genuinely good nature. Some are now very successful doctors, lawyers, fathers and even football coaches.
In my time at WVVA, I covered just 6 Bluefield-Graham games, but all were memorable. For starters, the game attracts a capacity crowd to Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield of approximately 10,000. The Stadium – built as part of President Franklin D. Rosevelt’s New Deal and Works Projects Administration – opened in 1935 and sits in the Bluefield City Park and entirely within the State of West Virginia. That makes Graham unique in that they play their home games in a neighboring state and became a rare team to win a Virginia State Title in 1989 on a field in another State. It’s named after former City Manager Emory P. Mitchell. At the time it was built, the baseball stadium Bowen Field was also built nearby, home of the Bluefield Rookie League baseball team. The stadium largely looks like it did when constructed but there have been upgrades including the installation of field turf in 2007 and a new scoreboard.
The games I covered with the exception of the last one in 1996 were also memorable, particularly the 1995 game. Bluefield took a 20-0 lead at halftime behind running back Yubrenal Isabelle – who’d go on to play at the University of Virginia and get a try out with the New England Patriots in the NFL. Graham came storming back in the second half scoring 26 unanswered points to win 26 – 20, the final three touchdowns by fullback Tony Easley out of his spot in Graham’s wishbone offense. The comeback set the stage for Graham to run the table to a 1995 Division 3 State title in which they threw just 21 passes all season, completing only 4. Along the way, they found a way to win the Region Championship on the road at Gate City, and survived a 7-6 win over William Campbell in the Semi-Finals at home when William Campbell was forced to go for two because their kicker was injured, and missed. Bluefield rebounded to go all the way to their first West Virginia AA State Championship game where they lost to finish 10-3.
I was also witness to a strange 1991 game where Graham had a 4-0 lead on two (2) safeties in the final seconds when Bluefield completed a “hailmary” pass to win 6-4. The following year I was also there when Bluefield won 20-14 in overtime. I won’t forget that one because it was a damp night and as we went over overtime the dampness was starting to mess with the camera. Luckily it lasted long enough to get the winning score.
But, mostly what I was witness to is a rivalry I’d put up against any in High School Football, or sports for that matter. For one night the two (2) Bluefields are divided in the name of competition, and then these two schools will go their respective ways and try to win State Titles in their respective states until they get together do it again the following year. There are only a few things you can count on in life, and thankfully Bluefield-Graham is one of them.