Weir Lions are no more, but they were kings
(Writer’s note: A proud tradition is ending. The Weir Attendance Center Lions, one of Mississippi’s great small-town football powerhouses, are no more. Weir is consolidating with Ackerman High. In October 2004, I spent a day in Weir, trying to learn why the team always won. What I found still amazes me. The town identified with Weir football. I wonder what happens now. Here was that column.)
WEIR − At first glance, the Weir Lions look like high school football’s version of Hollywood’s The Replacements.
The quarterback stands a shade over 5 feet, 6 inches, weighs in at 225 pounds, has meaty calves the size of gallon jugs and is by far the strongest player on the team. Meet left−handed Jermaine Woodard, who also makes the deep snaps and was his team’s leading tackler as the middle linebacker last year. Now, opponents must tackle him and it’s like tackling a great big bowling ball.
One starting inside linebacker is a 15−year−old, who stands 5−3 and weighs, maybe,120 pounds. Meet too−quick−to−block Markey McBride, who is all muscle and want−to.
The nose tackle, who wears No. 14, stands 5−5 and weighs in at a whopping 136 pounds. Meet Jeffrey Holman, who also plays running back in a pinch. But don’t try to pinch him. There’s nothing to pinch.
The team’s hardest hitter, the enforcer, is an outside linebacker, who sometimes lines up at cornerback and weighs all of 150. Meet B.J. Holloway, who will knock you into next week.
The Weir Attendance Center Lions, 43 players strong, are a collection of tough−as−pine−knot country kids, who with few exceptions appear too little, too short or too lean to play football.
Don’t let their looks fool you. This proud, gritty bunch has won its first eight games this season, 23 straight over two years and 37 of its last 38 games. What the Lions lack in size, they make up for in equal parts grit and character.
They are part of an incredibly rich Weir football tradition that has won nine North Mississippi and six Class 1A state championships since 1984. At Weir − pronounced Where − the W also stands for winners. Seventy percent of Weir’s male student body plays football. Think about it: If, say, Meridian had the same ratio of participation, its football squad would number more than 600.
“One reason we win is because our guys believe they are supposed to win,” says coach Junior Graham. “That’s pretty much all they’ve ever known.”
Oh yeah, meet Junior Graham, the bearded coach, who stands about 5−6 and wears glasses so thick you just have to guess there are eyes back in there somewhere. Please, please, don’t let his looks fool you. This man can ever more coach.
And Junior Graham might be the perfect coach for Weir, where ballboy−sized kids are converted into nose guards and linebackers.
Once upon a time, Graham was a 5−3, 117−pound quarterback, who had a hard time seeing over his center’s butt at nearby Ethel. Actually, Junior Graham always has had a hard time seeing, period.
“My eyes have always been bad,” Graham says when asked. “They just never developed like they were supposed to. One eye corrects to 20−30 and one doesn’t correct at all. I don’t have any peripheral vision. Not a bit.”
Still, he ran the Wishbone offense at Ethel. How, you ask, does some one who can’t see what’s coming from the sides play quarterback?
Graham laughs at the question. “You get beat up,” he says. “That’s how.”
Once, when Ethel was playing Weir, Graham took a blow to head, shattering his glasses. So, there he was, 5−3 and 117, with glass stuck in his nose and blood streaming down his face, barely able to see. Yes, and while he was getting ready to call the next play, the referee made him go to the sidelines.
“I hated Weir then,” Graham says. “They always won and we usually lost. I was jealous. They had something I didn’t have.”
That was in 1982. Eleven years later, when Graham got the chance to join Joe Lynn Gant’s staff at Weir, it wasn’t a hard decision.
“I knew what I wanted to do in the seventh grade,” Graham said. “I wanted to coach and I wanted to be the best coach I could possibly be. When I got a chance to coach with Joe Lynn, I jumped at it.”
Gant was by then something of a legend here. His teams always won 10, 11 or more games a year. They had won two state championships.
Gant remembered the determined, little quarterback from Ethel. And he had watched Graham coach elsewhere and was impressed. He not only hired Graham, he made him his defensive coordinator and began grooming him as his replacement.
“Junior is one of the best coaches you’ll find at any level; he’s better than I ever was,” says Gant, who still lives about 100 yards from Weir’s stadium.
Says Graham, “Ninety percent of what I know comes from Joe Lynn. I’ll just tell you this, nobody trained or prepared a football team better. All I can tell you is that if I had to enter a mule in the Kentucky Derby, I’d want Joe Lynn to train him for me.”
With Gant as head coach and Graham running the defense, Weir won state titles in 1994, 1996 and 1997. Graham took over in 2000 and won his first state championship last year after losing in overtime of the title game the year before.
Graham, a delegator, deflects more credit to his staff, which includes four full−time assistants who double as teachers: defensive coordinator Joey Tompkins, offensive line coach Jim Wood, wide receivers coach Chad Garner and Danyon Turner, a former Weir standout, who coaches tight ends and defensive linemen.
All the coaches give credit to the community of Weir for its passion for football. Everywhere you go in town, there’s a football connection, including Mayor Glen Beard, the school’s assistant principal and a former assistant to Gant. His youngest son, Jonathan, is the team’s place−kicker.
Alderman Glen Blaine films the games. Another alderman, Marion Kelley, is a former head coach and principal. Pam Bradberry, the town clerk, is president of the Booster Club.
“In Weir, people talk about football all week and then on Friday nights we roll up the streets,” Bradberry says. “This is a town of good, blue−collar people, who care an awful lot about our school, our kids and our football.”
Only 420 people actually live in the city limits, Bradberry says, “but we usually give the dog−and−cat version of 500.”
Nevertheless, football games routinely draw crowds of between 1,200 to 1,500.
Says Angie Stevenson at Angie’s Beauty Shop, “Football’s in the blood here. Everybody wants to be a part.”
That is especially true of the boys. Jermaine Woodard, the bowling ball of a quarterback, loves his new role, but badly misses playing middle linebacker. He likes to throw, but he loves to hit. Weir coaches love to show the film of him running over an East Webster player at the goal line. The other guy’s helmet flew off and rolled all the way through the end zone.
Woodard, a quiet, polite young man, doesn’t say much but does say he can remember wanting to be a Weir Lion since he can remember anything at all.
The same is true of senior Kaylen Hester, who doubles as a wide receiver and defensive back at a rail−thin145 pounds.
“I ain’t big, but I play as big as I can,” Hester said. “Coach Graham says it doesn’t matter how big, it’s how many. Bees attack as a swarm, so do we.”
Football, Hester says, is what Weir is all about. It is his community’s identity. Some would say Roy Oswalt,the Houston Astros pitching star, has put Weir on the map, but Oswalt, it should be pointed out, was once an all−star wide receiver and safety for the Weir Lions.
Asked to sum up what football means in Weir, Hester pauses.
“There’s not much here, but we got football,” he says. “Football’s mighty important here. If it wasn’t for football, we wouldn’t have much of anything.”
In Weir, football is plenty.