Earning a spot in the state football championship game has a few perks in Southwest Virginia, as Graham High School discovered on Tuesday evening.
That’s when the G-Men made the short trip east from Bluefield to Blacksburg to practice in one of the athletic jewels in the region — Virginia Tech’s Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility.
It was a good way to wrap up a rainy day.
“Being a senior, this has been my favorite season,” said lineman Connor Roberts, one of 11 seniors who will be wrapping up their high school careers when Graham takes on Central High School from Woodstock for the Class 2 state championship at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Salem Stadium. “I love that we’re up here practicing at VT and will hopefully get a win on Saturday.”
Spending the month of November preparing for and participating in postseason games has become a habit for Graham High School. This is the 12th consecutive year that the G-Men have qualified for the playoffs.
It’s been even better over the past seven seasons. Since 2016, Graham has compiled an 80-10 record. Out of those 10 losses, only five came in regular-season games, and only two were against opponents located in Virginia — nearby rival Richlands in 2016 and Union High in 2019 (the G-Men avenged that Union loss in the playoffs).
When a football team is enjoying an era as golden as this, the momentum can expect the bandwagon to get crowded. That’s what’s happened in Bluefield.
Just as in much of Southwest Virginia, the community has had its economic challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic caused more issues. But one thing the town could always count on was its football team.
“We’re a small town and we see how well the coaches do with the players,” said booster club president Tonya Henegar, whose son Cameron is junior lineman. “The community then stands behind the program. The crowds have been getting bigger each week at the games. The band has been great. It’s just been wonderful.”
The 2018 team overcame a season-opening loss to archival Bluefield (W.Va.) High (known locally as the Graham-Beaver game) by winning 13 straight games and beating Goochland 31-9 in the state final — the G-Men’s first state football title since 1995.
Another trip to the state final came last year, but this time Graham came up on the short end, losing to King William 48-21.
“That one hurt,” said senior Braden Watkins, who is both a defensive back and wide receiver for the G-Men. “Since then, we seniors have been telling ourselves that we never want to feel that way again.”
Now Watkins, Roberts and their class is the one that will see their chapter of the Graham football tradition end, and a win on Saturday would make sure this outgoing group will never be forgotten.
“This class right here has an opportunity to do something that has never been done at Graham High School,” said Graham football coach Tony Palmer. “We’ve won state championships, but we’ve never had an undefeated team. So if we’re fortunate enough to play well and we’re fortunate enough to win, it will be the first undefeated team in the high school’s history.”
Palmer, who is also a Bluefield police officer on the West Virginia side, became the head coach in 2015 with plans to bring back the success that had been enjoyed under legendary Graham coach Glynn Carlock.
“A lot of this is all culture-based,” Palmer said. “The atmosphere has changed the expectations of the kids. They’re no longer hoping to win. They have an expecting-to-win mentality.”
Palmer’s first team went 6-6, which included the G-Men’s first playoff win in five seasons. Other than the Covid-shortened 2020 season (which was actually played in the spring of 2021), Palmer’s G-Men have never won less than 11 games.
As his players dedicated more time and effort to the program both in-season and during the summer, the wins started to accumulate. With the wins came more attention from the community, as well as from college recruiters.
Palmer has four Graham alums currently playing Division I football, including two, wide receiver Xayvion Turner-Bradshaw and offensive lineman Brody Meadows, at Virginia Tech. Many more are playing in college football’s other levels.
“I attribute a lot of the success we’ve had to the assistant coaches I have, the parents and them allowing their kids to be part of the program and trusting the process,” Palmer said. “Winning always helps everything. When you start having the success that we have and then you have some kids that end up getting a free education because of what they’ve accomplished here.”
Palmer’s attitude trickles down to his players. The outgoing class learned from older teammates about what is expected year after year, and now are passing those experiences on.
“All of the seniors — especially last year’s — taught me how to be a leader,” Roberts said. “They taught us about the atmosphere that we have at Graham. It’s really a family.”
And while Tuesday’s trip to Blacksburg was a team-only affair, the line of cars heading for Salem on Saturday will be long.
“I’ve often said that when you’re in a small town, a team like this is the catalyst that brings a lot of people together,” said state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. “When they’re having success, you hear about it at the barber shop, the grocery store — wherever. It has been exciting to see Graham mature into such a great program.”