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John Grimes one of Davie’s first sports legends

Davie High lost one of its first sports legends recently as John Grimes died Oct. 20 at the age of 77. He passed away at his Siler City home after four days of hospice care.

He was the son of John F. Grimes, Jr., and Virginia Williams Grimes and grew up in Cooleemee.

He made his mark at Davie in 1961, becoming the first Davie athlete to earn an athletic scholarship to a Division-I school. He received 22 full-ride football offers, including one from all eight teams in the ACC. After playing football at Wake and graduating from college, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts offered him an undrafted free agent contract. But Grimes declined because he was ready to join the military and start a family.

He fulfilled his military obligation, serving in the 3/8th Calvalry of the 8th Infantry Division in Germany and retiring with the rank of Captain.

In 1968, Grimes’ father-in-law asked him to join Cecil Budd Tire Company in Siler City and he accepted, setting up 59 years of public service. His career there as a businessman spanned 49 years. He became the first and only Republican elected to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners during the 20th century, serving from 1994-98. In Siler City, he ran successfully for District 4 Town Commissioner from 1999-03. He was re-elected in 2003, 2007 and 2011 and served 10 years as Mayor Pro Tem before going on to win four consecutive terms as Mayor. He was re-elected for his fourth two-year term as Mayor in the fall of 2019.

He was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor for a citizen of our state.

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You can’t have a conversation about Davie’s all-time football greats without mentioning John Grimes. You can’t have a conversation about running back Brian Piccalo’s record-setting 1964 season for Wake Forest without mentioning the blocking tight end.

A blue-collar, lunch-pail player, Grimes was everything a coach could ask for in a player, and he’s legendary for his toughness. Here’s Grimes’ toughness in a nutshell: He got two teeth knocked out in the first half of a 1958 Davie football game against Barium Springs, but he continued on. He got two more teeth knocked out in the second half, but he kept gutting it out.

“At some point in the game we were going along hot and heavy, we had a pileup and John came out of the game and said: ‘Coach, look,’” the late Jack Ward, Davie’s coach from 1956-67, said in 2007. “John’s front two teeth were gone. They were broken off, which had to be painful. We were wanting to get him some attention from some medical people. Well, it wasn’t long after that and John came up to me and said: ‘Coach, we’ve got something I could bite on and I’d like to go ahead and play this ballgame.’ I said: ‘Get back in there.’ We ended up cutting a piece of foam rubber. John bit down on it and played the rest of the game – and did a good job.”

Ken Cassidy, a lineman from 1958-61, remembers the Barium Springs game. “Back then our running backs had one plastic bar, and that (Barium Springs) guy was known for throwing elbows,” he said. “He got Bob Thies with an elbow and he had to get stitched up. He caught John with an elbow and that plastic bar came into his teeth. Coach Ward said: ‘Well, they’re gone.’ But John was ready to go back in. Back then it wasn’t mandatory to use a mouthpiece. I never wore one. You didn’t have to have a bar on your helmet.”

Grimes’ parents, Effie and Virginia, didn’t find out the teeth news until John got home.

“I got two knocked out in the first quarter and two in the third,” Grimes said in 2007. “I came in after the game and my dad (Effie) said: ‘You didn’t play very well. What was wrong?’ I didn’t say anything. I finally turned around and smiled and he said: ‘Oh, my God.’ Mom said: ‘What’s wrong?’ I went to the dentist Saturday morning. He cut my gums. The teeth were broke off even with the gums.”

Grimes was Davie’s first four-year varsity football player. He was the first four-year varsity boys basketball player. In 1961, he became Davie’s first East-West All-Star football player.

For Davie football, he was a two-way starter for three years, and he even got starting time at tackle as a freshman. He played offensive end and linebacker as a sophomore and junior. He played fullback and linebacker as a senior. Grimes practiced with the varsity as a 6-1, 155-pound eighth grader.

“John was one of those athletes that was real easy to coach,” Ward said. “John had a lot of ability. He had good size, could run, had good hands and it was easy for him to get into the mix at an early age. The hitting, blocking, tackling and all that stuff didn’t faze him. He was a starter for four years, and I don’t know of any other freshman that started in my time. John was a player at Wake. He wasn’t just at Wake – he was a player.”

Davie football took a big step forward during Grimes’ junior year in 1959, the 7-3 record far surpassing anything the Rebels had done in their first three years. With Grimes and Thies serving as co-captains in 1960, Davie sustained the success at 6-3-1. Grimes scored a touchdown in all six wins.

Grimes was a difference-maker in the West’s win over the East in the all-star game.

“On a pitch-out play, Grimes came in and hit the runner so hard he caused a fumble,” Peattie Feathers, a Wake assistant during Grimes’ career at Wake, said in 1964. “The West went on to score the touchdown that won the game. Grimes was the one really responsible for the victory.”

Grimes was deeply admired by his Davie teammates.

“As far as I’m concerned, you won’t find a better end,” the late Mole Spry, a running back from 1956-59, said in 2007. “John had big hands and he was an excellent receiver. John was an outstanding forward on the basketball team. He was like running into a brick wall. You didn’t mess under the basket. John was as tough as they come under that board.”

“We lived two houses from each other (on Duke Street),” said Roger Pierce, a basketball/baseball player from 1960-64. “John was always one of the biggest guys in town. You didn’t have the recruiting then like you do now. We had so many good athletes that came out of Cooleemee, but a lot of them didn’t get noticed. But John was one of those that did because of his football talents. So when he went to Wake, it was a big thing. Everybody was excited because we had somebody from Cooleemee playing college football.”

In 1961 at Wake, Grimes made the all-state freshman team as a 6-2, 201-pound split end. He was among five Deacons honored on a team comprised from the Big Four (Wake, N.C. State, Duke and UNC). A 55-yard TD pass from John Mackovic to Grimes was frozen in Grimes’ mind nearly a half-century later.

“We were playing Clemson, and we had been doing some down-and-out routes,” he said. “I said: ‘Mack, any time you’re ready for a down, out and go, it’s there. The defensive back is coming up real fast.’ He didn’t say anything. I didn’t know whether it registered with Mack or not. About a quarter later, he said: ‘Well, let’s see if you know what you’re talking about.’ So we ran the down, out and go and it was a 55-yard completion.”

Grimes became a starter midway through his sophomore year and he never looked back. The Deacons wallowed through lots of misery, going 0-10 in 1962 and 1-9 in 1963 and breaking a 19-game losing streak with a 20-19 win over South Carolina.

“The campus went crazy,” Grimes said.

Spry attended a game against Maryland during the long losing streak. Spry and Grimes were as close as brothers, and Spry wasn’t happy with coach Bill Hildebrand’s game plan. So he got up, marched down the steps and made sure the coaches heard his displeasure.

“John got us good seats (at Bowman Gray Stadium),” Spry said. “(Wake basketball coach) Bones McKinney was sitting right behind us. John had made two or three great catches. I yelled: ‘Put Grimes in!’ They didn’t pay any attention to me. So I got up out of my seat, walked down, opened the gate, went to the bench and said: ‘What the hell’s going on down here? You had a man leading you down the field and then you take him out!’ Doc Martin was the head trainer. He came over and said: ‘Who are you and how did you get through here?’ So they ushered me back up to my seat. I don’t think John was too thrilled with me.”

“I’m sitting on the bench resting,” Grimes said. “Then I feel somebody pat me on the back and say: ‘You’re playing good, big boy.’ I look back and there’s Mole.”

Hildebrand left after the 1963 season and Bill Tate took over  in 1964, the senior seasons for Piccalo, Mackovic and Grimes. Tate was 32 and had been an assistant at Illinois. He inherited morale at an all-time low, but it didn’t take Grimes long to catch Tate’s eye.

“I remember John vividly,” Tate said from his Nebraska home in 2007. “The players had been beaten down the previous years, and we tried to get some pride built back into the players. So we instituted what we called the red helmet for practice, which meant if you wore one of those it was very meaningful. It meant you were one of those individuals that gave effort on every play, every minute of practice. And John was either the first or second one to get one of those red helmets.”

Tate dropped 10 players during preseason, rejuvenated a moribund team and Wake shocked everybody with a 5-5 record that included a 4-3 mark in the ACC. Dick Anderson, the Wake offensive coordinator in 1964 who later moved to Davie County, said Grimes was an indispensable cog.

“John was one of our premier athletes, one of the best athletes we inherited when we came to Wake,” he said in 2007. “He was a good, hard-nosed player. He was a good pass-catching tight end. He had an excellent attitude. We considered him one of our team leaders.”

No one could believe it when Wake opened the 1964 season with a 31-21 win at Virginia. Students rolled the campus with toilet paper.

“John and Piccalo helped lead the most wonderful song-fest all the way back on the bus,” Tate said. “It almost brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. They had worked so hard. We worked very, very hard in the spring of ‘64. There were a lot of kids that quit because we wanted to weed some of them out. We wanted kids that were going to get knocked down and get back up, and John was one of those guys. You just couldn’t keep him down. The guys sang all the way back from Charlottesville, and it’s one of the most memorable occasions I had in college football. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you take a team that’s lost 19 in a row and they go up and beat a team that’s outmanned them, you can imagine what that does to them.”

More mayhem was set off when Wake followed with a 38-21 upset of Virginia Tech and its All-American quarterback, Bob Schweickert. Six weeks later, the jubilation peaked when Wake stunned first-place Duke 20-7 before a Bowman Gray capacity crowd of 17,000. Not only had Wake not defeated Duke since 1951, the Blue Devils were a three-TD favorite. It was one of the most memorable moments in Wake history. Duke had dogged the Deacons by a combined score of 112-10 the previous three years. Even though there was another game to be played at Bowman Gray a few hours later, students tore down the goal posts.

“It was my greatest thrill,” Grimes said in 1964. “The very greatest in high school, college or any time. We took the ball and rammed it down their throats.”

In the Duke game, Grimes caught a 10-yard pass from Mackovic. He caught a TD that was erased by a penalty.

You would never guess how Pierce got a seat for the Duke game.

“I was a freshman at (North) Carolina,” he said. “I thumbed from Carolina. I didn’t have any money. The band marched in. Well, I marched right in with the band. It was thrilling to see somebody I know playing in a college football game.”

The Deacons rallied past Maryland 21-17. They closed in style, beating N.C. State 27-13, killing the Wolfpack’s title hopes and giving Tate and Anderson a victory ride on their shoulders. It gave Wake its best record in five years.

People who don’t care a thing about football know about Piccalo, the All-American fullback who led the nation in rushing (1,044 yards) and points (111). He set ACC season records for rushing yards, points and TDs (15). A few years later, when “Pic” was playing for the Chicago Bears, he lost a battle with cancer. The 1971 movie “Brian’s Song” recalled Piccalo’s friendship with Chicago star Gale Sayers and tugged at everyone’s hearts.

“I used to go see him play at Wake,” Cassidy said. “Being younger players, we really looked up to John. We were proud. I was with a group that went over to see him one Sunday and we met Brian Piccalo. That was quite an experience.”

Tate was the unanimous ACC Coach of the Year. The only mistake he made was not naming Grimes the game captain for each game. Wake was 5-0 when Grimes served as captain.

“I’d like to have a whole team of players like John Grimes,” Feathers, the ends coach, said in 1964.

Yes, Piccalo was one-man wrecking crew. But Tate said Grimes was vital to Piccalo’s success.

“John always played tight end,” said Tate, who ran a Wing-T offense. “We had another fella that played the split end, so John was always the blocker. He was one of the best blocking ends that I never had. Whenever we did throw a pass, he was always there. He never dropped a pass. He helped make Brian Piccalo, because he was on the end of our option series that carried us through the year. He had to make critical blocks. As you know, Brian led the nation in rushing and scoring. John was one of the main reasons for that. He had a critical block that had to be made.

“The other thing I remember is John was an intense, intense player. He never made any mistakes. He was always in the right place at the right time. He gave 100 percent all the time. You’d like to have players like that all the time. When we got there we didn’t know what we were going to get. John was a real pleasure to have. He came back (in 1965) and helped us as a graduate assistant. He did a wonderful job with us then, too.”

Grimes was inducted in the Davie High Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007. His sister, Kathy Januzelli, was inducted in 2019.