“Imagine being a fourteen-year old boy on the eve of West Virginia’s greatest rivalry. A rivalry which had been talked about nonstop since the moment it ended 364 days prior. Now, imagine running out to 10,000 fans cheering for your Bluefield… or the other. This is a moment a select few of teams get to experience; it is something they will never forget.
You see, this is Bluefield. Or Bluefields, as there is two. It is a pearl in coal country. There, football reigns the undisputed king. Every young man grows up looking forward to playing for the Beavers or the G-Men. This tradition has a history of legendary coaches, legendary players, and legendary games. Legends come from tradition; Bluefield has won a state championship in every decade going back to the 1960’s and Graham holds a similar title tradition.
An entire year’s work goes into this matchup. You might win nine games, you might have ten all state players, you might win the State Title, but if you don’t win this game… the year is incomplete. A loss becomes a conversation piece placed in every nick and cranny of the Bluefields. Grocery stores, pool halls, bars, restaurants, social gatherings, and the grand parking lot beneath Mitchell Stadium where the kids hang out all summer share a similar topic: who won last year and who’s going to win it this year.
Personally, I had a unique relationship with this annual game. My grandfather was the captain of police and worked every Bluefield-Graham game for nearly five decades. Of course, this game became signature to my youth. I was the third member of my family to have the opportunity to play in it. During my time, I played for the legendary John Chamra of Bluefield; the others had played for the predecessing legend Merle Gainer.
My neighborhood homed two former coaches and players: Glynn Carlock and Rhandy Barnett, a former Bluefield quarterback we begged to come out and play for both of our pick-up teams. My family held Coach Carlock in high regards. When he had his evening walks around the block, he would often joke to me while passing by about being a G-Man since I lived right on the border of Bluefield, Virginia. and Bluefield, West Virginia. I was nothing special as a player, just hard-nosed and hard-working, but moments like that made me feel special. It created a unique relationship.
As a coach, I joined Fred Simon, a man who had achieved legendary status himself by keeping the winning tradition alive. Coaching in the game is unique and differentiates from playing. There is almost more of a drive to beat the opposing staff. After all, the pressure for this opening game resembles playing for a State Championship. However, I can hardly remember a State Championship game in West Virginia having 10,000 fans in attendance. It is good practice I guess you could say.
I always thought it was cool to climb the mountains and be able to see both schools which were both in different states. Both with so many ties between each other. Both sharing the mythical Mitchell Stadium. The stories those locker rooms could tell… fifty years and I still haven’t seen or heard things quite like that. Moments where I tried to avoid Coach Carlock because we had beaten Graham, and he still found me to put his arm on my shoulder and say he was proud.
I’ve returned to Mitchell Stadium many times in one position or another. I’ve coached against Graham when they had a star running back named Ahmad Bradshaw and when we lost on a goal line touchdown with no time. Our own fans heckled us only for Coach Chamra, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, to light into them and have my back. Magical moments full of respect and honor.
However, few memories resonate like that of my very first Bluefield-Graham opener.
It was intimidating. The preseason two-a-days were absolutely brutal. We would run this old hill and even to this day I can remember Coach Ferrell, an assistant, yelling, “Fifty! You missed the line! Start over!” Players on the verge of fainting left and right…times were a little different back then. And, everybody did not get to dress, only 48 and we had 70 out. You had to earn your jersey, and there was no better incentive than running out against Graham. Nerves would run deep as we participated in the ‘Pride Practice’, a full scrimmage for everyone but the starters the Thursday prior.
The year before, I had fallen ill at Fairview and lost a bunch of weight my final year of Junior High. I had worked my butt off to get ready specifically for this game. I would walk down to the Western Sizzler every night for a fourth meal to ensure my weight restored. You can imagine my nervousness awaiting the release of the dressing list. Thank the heavens and Western Sizzler, I was on it.
The night before the game we had a huge pep rally at a small old gym in Beaver. Nobody cared how small it was even though it would be packed shoulder to shoulder. Hell, there was more adults in there than kids it seemed. I remember some old lady coming up to me and say, “You better win, boy.” As a fourteen-year old, I thought it was weird, but then I began understanding the magnitude in a different position. As it wrapped up I got the word from Coach Ferrell saying we all better be home by 10:00PM, and he would call to make sure. For some odd reason, he called me every single year at 10:01, but that’s another story.
The next morning at 7:00 AM you had to be inspected by the coaches to make sure you had your shirt with a tie and a haircut with absolutely no facial hair (fear was instilled that Coach Ferrell would shave us himself). We would then receive our ‘We Believe’ jackets. Often I wondered if Dwayne Woods or Donnie Jackson wore that jacket. Regardless, I was on cloud nine.
The halls were abnormally quiet for this game through the day unlike any other game days because everyone was aware of what was coming in eight hours. At 3:00 the school held another Pep Rally but only for students. The players had to relax and watch film even though the party could be heard through the walls. I always hated the quiet stretch leading up to the game; the anticipation was overwhelming.
It passed and the team meeting began where the leaders of the team went over plans for the game. I never liked those meetings. I always thought a bad plan violently executed is better than a bunch of talk, but back then I just listened. Luckily, we’d be saved by a delicious pregame feast. Two slices of roast beef, salad wedge, peas, baked potato and ice tea. Each one of us would depart and begin getting taped. Everyone got taped. Everyone. Coach Ferrell personally taped me every time; he had a way of calming me down.
Once mummied up, you’d go to the mesh cage and get your gear and helmet. At Bluefield, we had a practice set of everything and a game set of everything. Even helmets because it’s first class. I can remember the smell of the baby powder coaches used to on the pads which was to keep them fresh. I guess, I never knew why exactly. Every shoe had the same exact white shoestring and the same exact lace as every other player. Zero individualism.
We loaded the buses in a crowed fashion while the coaches road in vans. We wore our gear and it’d get so hot on that bus we had to take our helmets off as we went down Cumberland Road to the red light on College Avenue. We had to leave about 45 minutes earlier than normal to beat the rivalry traffic. However, you could see the wave of cars on the Virginia side lined up all the way into the distance. We’d drive by slowly hearing a slew of screaming fans, good and bad.
Once we saw the stadium, Coach Ferrell climbed in the bus and barked “Buckle them up!” You could hear the helmets of 48 players as chin straps snapped; nerves wore high. We got to the ramp of the stadium and were welcomed by hundreds of fans. We marched past them like a military squadron. Two hours before the game and a stadium that holds 10,000 plus was already half full. The posters, decorations, radio and TV shows lit up as you walked through.
You have to sit in there and listen to the bands come marching in as well as the many, many fans. As I heard, “Special teams up!”, I watched my teammates go out to battle. Soon enough my group was called as well. I would be fibbing if I did not glance once or twice into the bleachers in amazement of all the fans. You cannot hear a thing due to the crowd; you had to rely on habit to get through warmups.
Our coaches would never deliver big motivational talk; they believed in action on the field so we just waited until the National Anthem finished and eagerly awaited running out. My main goal was not to trip over the lip of concrete separating the blacktop and field. To a fourteen-year old in his first Bluefield-Graham game it was overwhelming. I was here, this was real. As if it was yesterday, we ran out and played the game we loved. A moment a froze in time.
This game is truly special and many schools in the state will never know the feeling of a game of this magnitude. As a head coach at three high schools and counting, the overall event is nearly impossible to duplicate. It is a night where legends are made for the next generation. A legendary game made for legendary players coached by legendary coaches watched by former and future footballers from both Bluefields.
Come a Friday night soon to a field near you, a lot of rivalry games will be played. A lot of the same emotions will be felt across the state. Those are the memories that many will remember for a lifetime. It’s not just a game, it is an experience, and that is why they call it Friday Night Lights. Everyone go out and have fun and hopefully you’ll be a part of history and some fourteen-year old’s memories.”