Locker Room: Cougars’ region’s dominant team in NFL

Last weekend the NFL Draft was the big deal, and you watched with interest what teams picked what players and who went first and all that stuff, but I got to thinking. What high school in this region of Virginia has had the most impact in the National Football League. Most people, particularly those under the age of 40 would likely say Salem. That would be wrong. The answer is Pulaski County. Over the past 50 years, no team from this area of Virginia has had as much impact on the NFL as the Cougar football program.

We’ll recap each former Cougar, but it started with wide receiver Gary Clark. Man, was he good, some thought too little, but no way. Just too good. Then came Todd Grantham, the first heavily recruited player at Pulaski County, and he is now a highly regarded defensive coordinator. Next was Shayne Graham, simply the finest foot these parts have ever seen, a record setter at every stop, high school, college, and pro. Then Jeff King, the highest recruited player in the history of the Cougar football program, turned down Tennessee, Florida State and others to play for Virginia Tech. He was first team all-state on offense and defense. I’ll tell you about Jeff who was also a dandy basketball player. And there’s Brandon Anderson, a quick silver cornerback who played for Akron and had three-years in the NFL for two teams, and today you’ll find out he’s still plenty active.

Just in case you don’t know and for those of you that remember, here’s a look back at five of the best players ever to perform for Pulaski County.

  Redskins Gary Clark2Gary Clark. He played on Joel Hicks’ first Pulaski County football team in 1979, wide receiver, defensive back, punt and kickoff returner and very good at all of it. Very, very quick. Went to James Madison and is still the all-time greatest receiver in JMU history, and the first player ever in JMU history to have his jersey retired. Then it was to the Jacksonville Bulls of the old AFL, but he was grabbed up by Joe Gibbs and the Redskins. During his NFL career, he caught 699 passes for 10,865 yards, scored 65 touchdowns, and won two Super Bowls. Clark was the first NFL receiver ever to catch 50 or more passes in 10 consecutive years. He is in the Virginia Hall of Fame, and has a space on the “Redskins’ Ring of Honor.” Gary was a presented at the NFL Draft last weekend.

Anderson Brandon   Brandon Anderson. Played defensive back and running back for Pulaski County. Was the team captain for the Cougars his senior season, never a harder working athlete in the history of the program. Played college for Akron, made 108 tackles in his career with three interception. Played three years in the NFL starting in 2009 for the Colts and Tampa Bay. Today, Brandon runs a fitness center and is an expedition leader and mountain climber in the Fremont, California area.

Todd GranthamTodd Grantham. A huge resume here. A 1984 Pulaski County grad. Grantham was the first great lineman to play for the Cougars and the first heavily recruited player in the program, an all-state player. Started for two years in the offensive line for Virginia Tech, and became a graduate assistant for Frank Beamer after graduation. Then moved to Michigan State to be on the staff of Nick Saban. His travels have been considerable and so is his reputation as a coach. He coached in the NFL for the Colts, Browns, Cowboys, and Texans. He has since been the defensive coordinator at Louisville, Mississippi State, Georgia, and is now running the defense for Florida.

 Shayne GrahamShayne Graham. A 1996 PCHS grad. Graham kicked 28 field goals for the Cougars, 15 in ’95, his longest 54 yards. All those numbers are records. He was 68 of 93 on field goals for Virginia Tech, and hit 97 straight extra-point kicks during one stretch. He’s the all-time leading scorer with 371 points. Needless to say he was all-state at PCHS and all-American at Tech.

Graham kicked for 14 different NFL teams in his career before retiring in 2017. Today, Shayne is the special teams coach for Central Michigan.

Jeff KingJeff King. The most recruited player ever to wear the cardinal and gold. He was all-state at Pulaski County and also high school all-American. He was all-state as a tight end and defensive end. He turned down such schools as Florida State and Tennessee to stay close to home and play for Virginia Tech. He also scored over 1,000 points and pulled down over 1,000 rebounds in basketball for the Cougars. Jeff was a horse.

His high school coach Joel Hicks once said, “Players like Jeff make coaching easier. All we did was line him up on the side of the defense against the opponents strength, and they knew they couldn’t go there. Then we put our second, third, and fourth best defensive players on the other side and you can’t go there either. That’s what a great player can do for you.”

King caught 58 passes for 724 yards at Tech, but his main strength at all levels was he was a physical, crunching blocker.  He was drafted by Carolina in the NFL where he caught 44 passes for 400 yards, and then finished his career at Arizona. Today, Jeff resides outside of Chicago with his wife and three daughters, and he works for the Chicago Bears.

The closest team to having as much impact in professional football in this region is actually Cave Spring, and that is totally due to the great twins, Tiki and Rhonde Barber. Tiki played most of his career for the Giants, and Rhonde for Tampa Bay. However, it should be noted that during their entire careers at Cave Spring, the Barber twins never played on a team good enough to defeat Pulaski County and combined they never crossed the goal line against the Cougars.

Hicks who retired as head football coach at Pulaski County in 2002 coached all five of these former great Cougar players, and even though the years have mounted, he remembers them all very well.

“Before I say anything individually about each of them, I want to say something about all of them as a group. Obviously, every one of them was outstanding, but the one word you would use to describe each of them would be ‘character.’ You always got maximum effort and more, and if you told one of them they could take a day off for practice they wouldn’t, and in fact would show up 10 minutes early and leave 10 minutes late. A real pleasure to coach them,” said Hicks.

Now how about Brandon Anderson? “A smooth athlete, very quick, played both ways most of the time, and was not big and took hits, but never backed up a foot. Always in terrific physical condition, probably ran up and down the Dobson Stadium steps more than any football player to ever play for the Cougars.”

How about Todd Grantham? “A serious competitor. We had a practice day, it was Tuesday, when we would let players challenge for a starting position if we felt they deserved the opportunity, and Todd was just a sophomore, and a very young one, but he never backed off and insisted he get a chance to challenge. He was a fighter and he loved every second of it. He won his challenge and became a two-way starter his whole carrier. I remember the day he won his starting job in the offensive line. Even though he was just a pup, you could see the fire in his eyes. He won the challenge and when we told him he was moving to a starting position he cried. He wanted and loved it that much. You cherish players like that,” said Hicks.

 Shayne Graham? “The very best thing I can say about Shayne was he worked hard at his craft, and when the money was on the table, he did not miss. Never once in his career as a Cougar did he miss a field goal when we had to have it, not one time,” added Hicks.

Gary Clark? “Gary got better in a hurry. He hadn’t really gotten to play until his senior year when we came. I didn’t know anything about him, but when I started working out the kids I thought he is small, but this kid can go, he has talent. Gary was a great player for us, on offense, defense, and special teams. You could not get him off the field, a couple of times we wanted to give him a break and he refused. If he didn’t get to play every down of the game, he felt like he was being penalized. One other thing, when the game was in the balance, Gary would look toward me on the sideline. He wanted me to know he wanted the football, and at the biggest moments, he got it, a super competitor,” said Hicks.

And Jeff King? “What an athlete! A big athlete! A great person. He is the finest big player I ever got to coach. Good basketball player too. When Jeff setup in the low block, you better be serious or you were headed out of the paint. A joy to coach, led by example. If you ever wanted to put a poster on the wall of your locker room and tell all your players who you wanted them to be like, Jeff King would do fine. Great hands, great reach, and very strong and very tough. At tight end, he was a physical pancake machine. If you had to lineup across from Jeff, you were going to have a long night, great, great player,” said Hicks.

I remember every one of the above players too. I remember them all fondly. And what Hicks said about all of them as a group was very appropriate, and what you can say most of the time about great players. All of them, King, Grantham, Graham, Anderson, and Clark were super athletically for their positions, great competitors, anything less than a win was not good enough, and that final word, “character.” All of them had plenty of that.

By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot