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Shayne Graham stood poised on a frozen field in Fairfax in 1992 staring at high school football immortality.
With Pulaski County’s VHSL Division 6 state semifinal game against James Robinson on the line, Cougars head coach Joel Hicks had summoned the 5-foot-2, 115-pound freshman to attempt a potential game-winning field goal.
Hicks’ faith was rewarded. The ninth grader’s kick was true. Pulaski County won the semifinal 12-10, and one week later the Cougars defeated Thomas Dale 35-20 for what was for three decades the only state championship for Pulaski County High in any sport.
Seven years later a bigger, stronger and older Graham stood poised in front of 60,000 spectators at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia, awaiting an even more significant kick.
His successful 44-yard field goal set up by a spectacular run by Michael Vick gave Virginia Tech a last-second 22-20 victory over West Virginia, keeping the Hokies’ unbeaten 1999 season alive and paving the way for a trip to the BCS championship game in the Sugar Bowl against Florida State.
Graham became Virginia Tech’s career scoring leader and place-kicker for 10 NFL teams.
But long before the NFL called and before Graham ever put on a Pulaski County uniform, his father picked up the telephone and dialed up Hicks.
“My dad called Coach Hicks when I was a freshman to decide if I should go out for football,” Graham said. “I had been kicking a football, but really had just been playing soccer.
“I think Coach Hicks kind of looked at me and thought, ‘This little kid isn’t going to be able to kick anything.’ “
Those doubts turned to trust. Just what was the impact of a coach’s faith in a young boy’s ability? Graham cannot count all the ways.
“Coach first met me when I was truly a little kid so you can imagine the influence he had on me,” he said. “I went from a little boy to a young man with my time with him. He gave me lots of opportunities and really opened the door for recruiting. The influence continued for many years.”
Graham is just one of many in mourning for Hicks, who died March 4 at age 81.
Hicks was the head football coach at Pulaski County for 24 seasons from 1979-2002, compiling a won-lost record of 210-75 along with a VHSL Division 6 state championship in 1992, two state runner-up finishes, 15 district titles and six regional crowns.
He also coached for 12 seasons at two high schools in his native West Virginia — Big Creek (1964-68) and Woodrow Wilson (1969-75) — finishing his career with 301 wins.
Hicks played football from 1960-63 at West Virginia University was an assistant coach with the Mountaineers from 1976-78 before he came to Pulaski County to stay.
He coached four players who reached the NFL — Graham, Gary Clark, Jeff King and Brandon Anderson.
A noted long-distance runner, Hicks competed in three Boston Marathons and set numerous age-group records.
He earned the Frank Loria Award for service in his native West Virginia and was inducted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 2008, Pulaski County named the playing surface in its stadium “Joel Hicks Field” where a memorial service for the former football coach and teacher is scheduled Saturday.
Hicks left his mark on more than the record book.
Graham, now a private kicking coach in Grand Rapids, Michigan, made 277 career field goals in the NFL, but he is known in Southwest Virginia primarily for the two he kicked seven years apart.
He said his game-winning kick for Virginia Tech against West Virginia became the source of some good-natured banter with Hicks, given his old coach’s connections to the Mountaineer State.
“He never showed anything but pride when that hapened,” Graham said. “And he always said he couldn’t have imagined it going any other way.”
Cardinal News contacted the following individuals to speak on Hicks’ legacy:
* * *
Jeff King was a Pulaski County High School freshman in the fall of 1997 when Hicks spotted the 6-foot-3, 225-pound athlete on a basketball court and suggested that it might be good idea to play football for the Cougars.
The coach was correct.
King played football and basketball at Virginia Tech, eventually reaching the NFL, where he was a tight end for four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
Today, King is the co-director of player personnel for the Chicago Bears, where he was involved in the franchise’s recent decision to trade the No. 1 selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
King reflected on the earlier life-altering decision that Hicks helped him make as a high school freshman.
“I didn’t play football when I was a freshman,” King said. “I was doing the ‘Hoop Dreams’ thing. I thought I was going to be a basketball player. Every day I walked past [Hicks] coming into school, and you could kind of sense it.
“There was a game I started as a freshman against [Patrick Henry’s] Boo Battle. We beat Patrick Henry. After that game, Coach came up to me and was like, ‘You’re wasting your talent.’ It was the first time really that someone had ever talked to me like that.
“As a freshman in high school, you’re kind of shocked by it. Coach was already considered a legend at that point and you’re kind of embarrassed to a degree. He said, ‘You can be a really good basketball player and I don’t want you to quit playing basketball, but you can be a great football player.'”
King said he found similarities in Hicks and his college coach, Frank Beamer.
“Their personalities were a little different, but Coach Beamer and Coach Hicks weren’t that much different,” King said. “What they stood for didn’t change.
“The way he ran a program, the things that he stood for, the toughness, the competitiveness, the way we practiced … those are the staples of every program I went through after that. He set a foundation for me all the way until I’m 33 and retiring from the NFL.
“Coach set the standard every day. He set the standard for the players. He set the standard for the coaches. There were coaches on the staff that were, not scared of Coach, but it was like, ‘Coach is here early. Coach is here late.’ He did it in the way most great teachers do. He instilled toughness, but also confidence.
“It was special.”
* * *
Todd Grantham has been an assistant football coach for seven Division I “Power 5” programs including Georgia, Alabama and his alma mater, Virginia Tech. He has coached for five NFL teams, including his current job as the defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints.
Grantham played at Tech from 1985-88, earning All-American honors at offensive tackle as a senior.
He played at Tech for Bill Dooley and Frank Beamer. He has coached under Beamer, Mark Richt and Nick Saban. He credits Hicks for setting the foundation.
“No matter your success, you don’t forget where you came from,” Grantham said. “Coach Hicks was really into the ‘tough love’ aspect. He was going to coach you hard and demand you do things the right way.”
Grantham is a proponent and a beneficiary of the weight training and offseason workout programs Hicks installed at Pulaski County.
“That’s where we made our team,” the NFL assistant said. “We outworked people in the offseason. Our winter program was run just like the colleges. It tested you. During those [agility] drills, they were going to try to break you a little bit to see if you would quit.
“But guys would push through. So what happened is, you felt like you accomplished something because you pushed through something hard. The other thing is, you had your teammates pulling for you. Once it was over, you had done something difficult together. I think that’s the lost factor a lot of times now.”
Pulaski County also instituted a tradition under Hicks of entering the field on Friday nights just before kickoff with the players walking two-by-two down a lighted set of steps from the field house, a chilling prospect for visitors who would often see Hicks on frigid nights clad in a pair of coaching shorts.
“Being a college coach, I’ve been to a lot of high school games throughout my career,” Grantham said. “I’ll be honest. None of them compared to the thrill I got walking down the steps to the Pulaski stadium and the crowds there.”
* * *
Buddy Ratcliff was a longtime Pulaski County assistant coach and a self-professed Florida State fan in the heart of Virginia Tech country.
On occasions when Florida State played the Hokies in Blacksburg, the Seminoles would stay at a hotel in Roanoke before making the trip south on Interstate 81.
Hicks and Ratcliff journeyed to Roanoke to see FSU assistant Rick Trickett, who was on the West Virginia coaching staff when Hicks coached for the Mountaineers in the 1970s.
“I grew up a big FSU fan,” Ratcliff said. “When Coach Hicks first came here I thought it was cool because I could watch Florida State on the weekend and see the same plays that we were running.”
On this day, Trickett, who had coached with former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden, was working for Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.
“We’re standing there and Jimbo comes walking by and we’re talking to Coach Trickett. Here’s Jimbo, coaching at FSU, and he called Coach Hicks ‘Coach.’ He called him ‘Coach.’ That’s the kind of respect he had.”
Hicks got the same treatment locally from Beamer.
“If Coach Beamer came over to recruit, Coach Hicks would say, ‘Frank, how are you doing?'” Ratcliff said. “Coach Beamer would say, ‘Coach Hicks, how are you?”
* * *
Long before Nick Saban became an NFL head coach and a college football coaching legend at Alabama, he was a young assistant at West Virginia for two years under Frank Cignetti, in charge of the Mountaineers’ defensive backs.
Saban spent two seasons at WVU, where he coached with Hicks in 1978, developing a friendship that continued throughout both men’s careers.
The seven-time national championship coach at LSU and Alabama reacted to Hicks’ death in an email to Cardinal News.
“Personally, Joel Hicks was a great, one-in-a-million-type friend,” Saban wrote. “He was the kindest of souls, had tremendous character, leadership qualities, and a standard of excellence we all wanted to emulate because of the example he consistently set.
“Professionally, Joel Hicks was one of the finest and most innovative teachers of Xs and Os that I’ve ever had the good fortune to work alongside. I have an endless amount of gratitude for the lessons I learned from Coach Hicks and am still applying many of his philosophies today.
“God always has a good plan for great people and I am certain my friend is in a special place … he will always have a special place in my heart.”
* * *
Willis White and Joel Hicks were parts of two massive branches on a high school football coaching tree with its roots buried deep in West Virginia coal.
That both wound up coaching at VHSL schools 45 minutes apart, two schools synonymous with success, was a mere coincidence? Believe that if you must.
White succeeded another West Virginia-born legend, Merrill Gainer, as Patrick Henry’s head coach in 1978, the year before Hicks came to Pulaski County. White spent 21 years building and maintaining the program at Salem, winning four VHSL championships in a five-year span from 1996-2000.
Hicks first became a head coach at Big Creek, where Gainer coached for 10 seasons, losing just seven times in his final eight years.
White and Hicks coached against each other 24 times, Hicks leaving with a 14-10 career edge.
The first two meetings came in 1979 during Hicks’ first season at Pulaski when White was at Patrick Henry. White won both, including a 14-7 victory in the Northwest Region championship game at Victory Stadium.
White and Hicks coached together on the West squad in VHSL East-West All-Star games.
“Joel was a stickler for details,” White said. “I learned that at the all-star game coaching with him. I’m a little more laid-back than Joel was, if coaches can be laid-back. Joel took every man on a kickoff team and walked him through what he was supposed to do every day. I got so bored I said, ‘Joel, give the kids credit for having some sense.'”
Hicks grew up in Richwood, West Virginia, where his father worked in a coal mine and owned a gas station.
“We had it tough growing up, and we kind of identified with each other,” White said.
They also gave each other a rival, perhaps a necessary neighborhood target.
“It gave us something to aim for,” White said.
* * *
Mark Hanks stood inside Pulaski County’s gymnasium wide-eyed with his mouth agape.
Fresh out of Emory & Henry College, he’d returned to his alma mater as a student teacher.
On the eve of the first Friday home game of the 1983 football season, Hanks witnessed a pep rally when Hicks took the microphone in front of a captive audience of 2,000-plus Pulaski County students.
“We had a pep rally before every home game, back before SOLs and you could do things like that,” Hanks said. “You do a pep rally now, kids check out, you might have half the student body there. Nobody dared check out.
“I remember standing there thinking, this is unbelievable. As soon as he took the mic, you could hear a pin drop. Ninth-grade kids were glued to every word he said. It just fascinated me.”
Hanks was in middle school when Pulaski County High was formed in 1974 out of the consolidation of Pulaski and Dublin high schools.
Pulaski’s Dave Brown was hired as the new coach. Dublin’s Jim Hickam did not get the job and left to become the coach at Northside. After Brown went 14-33-3 in five seasons, Pulaski County hired Hicks, whose first team finished 9-3 including a victory over George Washington, the top-ranked Group AAA team in Virginia.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Hanks said. “Those first few years there was so much animosity. The two schools hated each other. I don’t know that there’s a rivalry in the area that rivals that. People don’t understand. It was just brutal.”
Hanks was in college when Hicks first got the Pulaski County program rolling. Support for the program in the blue-collar area ballooned.
“It was perfect fit, working-class,” Hanks said.
“I remember coming back on weekends,” he said. “It was the biggest stadium in the area and they had to add on.”
Hanks led Liberty High in Bedford to back-to-back VHSL Group AA boys basketball championships and coached at VMI before returning to Pulaski County, where he coached basketball and served as the athletic director. Now retired, he understands the value of a winning football program.
“It drives everything,” Hanks said. “I’m a basketball guy, and I don’t have a problem saying that at all. When you start the year out if your football team is doing well, your school thrives.”
* * *
If Joel Hicks was the general of Pulaski County’s football program, then Jack Turner was the lieutenant.
A star defensive end for the Cougars in the early 1980s before playing for Hank Norton at Ferrum College, Turner succeeded Hicks as Pulaski County’s head coach in 2003, ultimately leading Pulaski to the VHSL Class 4 semifinals in 2008.
“I played for Coach Hicks and coached for him. I played for Coach Norton and coached for him,” Turner said. “How lucky I’ve been in my professional life and my playing life to learn from two great people like that.”
Turner was in elementary school when Hicks first came to the county. Even at that age, Turner sensed there was a new sheriff in town.
“Coach would come to the Rec League games. He told us then, ‘We’re going to win district championships with you guys.’ He put Pulaski County on the map, football-wise.”
Turner has taken Hicks’ death hard.
“My dad passed when I was playing at Ferrum in . Coach just kind of took that role. He was everything to me from a personal standpoint to a professional standpoint. I never made any coaching decision without talking to him first.
“It’s really bothered me. It’s broken my heart. He was everything to me. He really was. It’s a loss for a lot of us.”
* * *
Joel Hicks, a basketball coach?
His son, TJ, says it almost happened.
After graduating from West Virginia in 1963, the elder Hicks needed a job. He applied for coaching positions at Big Creek High in War, West Virginia, where there were vacancies coaching football and yes, basketball.
“My father was offered either position. He picked football,” TJ Hicks said. “It was that close. [Otherwise] he would have been a head basketball coach.”
Hicks coached Big Creek for five years, then spent seven seasons from 1969-75 at Woodrow Wilson High in Beckley, West Virginia, before taking the college job for three seasons at West Virginia.
At the suggestion of Big Creek alumnus and former Southwest Times sports editor Dan Callahan, Hicks checked out the situation at Pulaski County when the school was looking for a new coach in 1979.
“Dad came down, saw the facilities, weight room, field house, new school and a lot of population at that time,” TJ Hicks said. “He saw a lot of opportunity. He decided to make that move and take that step. Everything else is kind of history after that.”
Hicks said this in a WDBJ (Channel 7) interview when the school named the playing field at Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium in his honor: “The people of Pulaski County made this my home. I live here. I’ll die here.”
TJ Hicks said his father suffered a broken arm in September and also had complications from a broken hip and the onset of dementia. He was at his home in Newport Beach, California, when his father died.
“My mom was there, and a couple of his ex-coaches and friends were there, so he wasn’t alone,” the younger Hicks said. “Seeing the impact of everybody that’s reached out to my mom and offered condolences and help, it’s really overwhelming.”
Joel Hicks also is survived by his wife of 58 years, Malinda, and a daughter, Amy.
A private visitation will be held Saturday at Bower Funeral Home in Pulaski. A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at Pulaski County High School’s football stadium, where speakers from all eras of Hicks’ coaching career are scheduled to share their sentiments.
TJ Hicks, who had the unique perspective of playing football for his father at Pulaski County, will share his dad with the community one final time.
“He’s larger than life,” he said. “It’s still kind of surreal, getting my arms around that he’s actually gone.”