Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:20 AM
Coaches were lifeblood of Midget football
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
From the very beginning, the currency of the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football program was its volunteer coaches. The men who generously gave of their time for a season or, in some cases, decades are the lasting legacy for the thousands of youngsters who suited up.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Recreation officials struggled to attain consistency in the coaching ranks in the first few years of the program. In time, several men made coaching a Midget Football team their avocation and, in return, provided the program with personalities that sustained it over the decades.
Lee Gliarmis, known to the world as the proprietor of Dick’s Hot Dog Stand in Wilson, coached for 37 seasons, from 1950 to 1986 and, in that time, began relationships that would last a lifetime.
Walter Blake spent 22 years coaching Park Avenue while Pinkie Jefferson ran the Recreation Park program for more than two decades. Even if the coaches were only there for a few years, they made an impact but certainly the long-timers like Gliarmis, Blake and Jefferson contributed mightily to the league’s enduring popularity.
"It was very important because those coaches, even though they had their own sons playing for them, coached before their sons played and after their sons played,” said Kent Montgomery, who started as a recreation supervisor in 1969 and retired in 2005 as director of parks and recreation.
"These coaches wanted to teach these kids football, the basics of football — blocking and tackling — and get them started.”
Given that finding capable coaches is always one of the most difficult — and important — jobs of a recreation director, having men who would stay on the job for years, even decades, was like a dream come true, Montgomery said.
"You never know when you’re going to run across another Lee Gliarmis or Walter Blake and are going to be with you for years,” he assured.
Thus, it was no wonder the vetting process could be rigorous for aspiring newcomers to the Wilson Midget Football coaching ranks.
Bill Shreve decided as a 20-something batchelor that he’d like to give coaching a Midget team a try in the mid-1970s. He recalls approaching Montgomery about taking over one of the teams.
"I went down to the Rec one day to play basketball after work and one day Kent was standing there and I asked if they needed any coaches and said I’d be willing to coach Midget League,” Shreve said. "Kent said, ‘You can’t do that.’”
But Shreve persisted and Montgomery said he’d talk to Parks and Recreation Director Burt Gillette. Later in the week, Montgomery called Shreve and asked him to come by Recreation Park Community Center for, what was in essence, a job interview with Gillette and him.
"Burt basically read me the riot act first,” Shreve said. "He said you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’ve got to be there, all that kind of stuff.”
But then Gillette finally told him: "We’ll take a chance on you.”
It proved to be a good move as Shreve not only was successful on the field, winning four championships in his seven seasons as Five Points head coach, but he also built a rapport with kids that, in some instances, needed one with an adult.
Shreve remembers some of his Five Points players knocking on his door in the evening, when he lived in an apartment on Tarboro Street near Fleming Stadium.
"Some nights I’d be eating supper and there’d be a knock at the door and one of those boys would show up and want to go throw the ball, turn the lights on at Jaycee Field and go out there and pass,” he said.
He also recalls hearing that one of his players, Art Finch, was hospitalized with a high fever from spinal meningitis. Shreve, an East Carolina University graduate and active Pirate Club member, gave then ECU head football coach Pat Dye a call, asking him to write a letter to Finch. But Dye did one better and took a trip to Wilson to visit Finch in Wilson Memorial Hospital and Finch’s fever broke right after the visit.
The memory still chokes up Shreve.
"I was already well-mannered but he taught me right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Finch of Shreve.
The connection over the years with the players as they grew into men was there for most of the Midget coaches.
"I wasn’t his pet but he certainly gave me a lot of attention that was important to me at that time,” recalled Sonny Brice, the quarterback of Gliarmis’ first two Five Points teams. "He’s someone that after Midget football, I knew him all my life as a result of that, in a fond way and had a connection with him.”
For Gliarmis, that went beyond the players he coached. Briggs Sherwood, who starred for Walter Blake’s Park Avenue teams in the early 1960s remembered Gliarmis giving him "protein shakes,” ie, milkshakes with raw eggs, to help him add weight as a Fike High player a few years later.
"Blake was our guy but Lee was pretty much like a dad to me and everybody,” Sherwood said.
Gliarmis always wanted to give the kids a chance to play. He still bristles, a rarity given his perpetual cheerfulness, at the memory of kids from the county not being allowed to play Midget Football at the Rec.
"That just tore me up,” Gliarmis said, shaking his head at the memory. "You’d see a kid that had been out there for a whole month and then tell them they’ve got to go home and turn in their uniform. See them walk away crying and you’ve spent time working with them and they were good kids. That won’t right.”
Miller Gibbons recalls his father, Lem — who along with John Graves were the first coaches at Park Avenue — always being stopped in public by former players.
"He’d say, ‘Miller, come here, I want you to meet someone,’” Gibbons said. "‘This is Badie Clark, the finest Midget Football player who ever lived.’”
That was a common occurrence for the kids of the coaches. Monte Jefferson, who with his brothers, Pinkie and Michael, played for their dad, Pinkie Jefferson’s Recreation Park teams in the 1970s, said: "Men walk up to me all the time and say, ‘I played for your Daddy.’”
The elder Jefferson coached well before his kids were old enough to suit up in a Colts uniform, starting in 1960.
The chance to not only coach football but to make a difference in the lives of young men is the eternal coaching carrot-on-the-stick and it was true for the Midget Football coaches.
One of the first players Gibbons and Graves had at Park Avenue, Allen Thomas, remembers the lessons learned on the practice field.
"We were taught to hit hard but never to hurt anybody,” Thomas said. "I look back on that thing and it was as clean as it could possibly be. If we showed an attitude or if we looked at a referee or an umpire incorrectly, we were out of that game. We knew that we had to conduct ourselves perfectly. This is why I have such high regard for Lem Gibbons and John Graves. You’d get out there and do your best and that’s all that was asked of you.”
Wade Barnes, who coached the Recreation Park teams in the early 1950s, was well-remembered by his players.
"You couldn’t find a nicer person than Wade Barnes,” assured Eddie Robinson.
Walter Brown, Robinson’s teammate on the Rec Park teams of that era, remembers having fun with Barnes after practices.
"We would run him down like a pack of dogs and grab him and tackle him,” Brown said. "He was a good person. The kids liked him.”
BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY
The coaches cared about the kids, often going beyond the call of duty. Willie Thomas, who along with the late George Hill, engineered a dynasty with the Elvie Street Chiefs in the Reid Street Midget Football League, related how the two men would sometimes pay out of their own pockets for their players, some of whom looked up to them as father figures.
"I just loved the kids and I loved our neighborhood,” Thomas said. "I saw the talent there and just the way they responded to me and George. I respected George so much.
"It was like we owned the Elvie St. yard and when the older guys would come around and want to drink or curse or whatever, they respected George so much when George said go, they left. It’s like we were protecting the younger kids. They were safe there playing ball with us.”
Teaching, protecting and having fun with their players made it all worthwhile.
"You know these coaches loved football and that was the reason they were out there but they also loved teaching young men,” Miller Gibbons said.
Monte Jefferson, talking about his dad, Pinkie, and the other Recreation Park coaches, could have been speaking about all the Midget Football coaches when he said: "They thought they were out there raising men — and that’s what they were doing.”
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