Gaston & Catawba

Gastonia’s Little Orangemen to remember glory days of football

Dozens of men will gather Feb. 21 at Gastonia Conference Center to commemorate their glory days.

They are celebrating the 1958-1969 Pop Warner football teams that won nine state and three national championships – and to honor their head coach, mentor and financial backer Earl Groves as the Hometown Hero who made it happen.

Amassing the string of winning seasons enjoyed by the teams known as the Little Orangemen was a historic era in local youth sports, said Art Shoemaker. “It was something that probably isn’t likely to happen again,” he said.

Shoemaker is one of the coaches who helped Groves show the youngsters what they needed to do, and how to do it, to achieve success on the gridiron and in life. He is one of some 18 coaches and former team members who spent months organizing the teams and Groves’ commemoration.

Groves, now 87, had been a two-sport athlete in high school and at Davidson College where he was a summa cum laude graduate and valedictorian of his class. In his 20s, he became president and treasurer of the old Groves Thread textile firm and built a state-of the-art gymnasium for a recreation program for employees and their children. He later founded and was president of Dallas Sport Knitting Co., Mason Athletic Co. and New South Athletic Co.

His 12-year involvement with the Pop Warner football program came about “sort of by accident” in 1956, he said.

“My younger brother was a member of a Pop Warner team sponsored by the Young Business Men’s Club (of which Groves served as president at the time), and I went a couple of times to watch the team practices,” he said. It became obvious that the players were disorganized and knew little about the strategy needed to move the football across the field.

As a result, he volunteered to help coach the team and devised a playbook to chart strategic plays needed to gain yardage and score touchdowns. When the team’s head coach missed practices, he filled in to mentor the team, then took the coaching reins when the former coach resigned.

Because of his coaching skills, Groves enlisted Cramerton’s athletic director Bennie Cunningham to help build the team. He also recruited executives with athletic backgrounds to work at his business firms and join the effort.

The coaches taught the youngsters more than football strategy. They insisted that players should be as sharp in life as on the football field. Having neatly trimmed hair, wearing clean clothes, behaving in school and making good grades in the classroom was as much a requirement to make the team as skill on the gridiron, said Steve Culbertson, a member of the 1960 team that won the national championship in Anaheim, Calif.

Being a part of the team changed his life, he added.

Culbertson, now nearing 70, grew up in a West Gastonia neighborhood where many youngsters figured their futures were in one of the low-wage, blue collar jobs available in the textile mills that were the backbone of Gaston County’s economy.

“My mindset was simply to turn 16, quit school, get a job, get a driver’s license and buy myself a car,” he said. “I was lucky to have met this guy.” Groves became one of his best friends later in life.

What Culbertson learned convinced him to graduate from high school, enroll at Gaston College for a year and then join the Marine Corps, where he served from 1967 to 1969 in Vietnam. After military service, he became successful in the business world and became a football coach himself. Since 1974 he has also served as a referee, officiating at high school and college games.

Appeal to youngsters

As word spread, 12- and 13-year-old boys decided they wanted to be a part of it. And when it came time to try out for the team each year, more than 100 youngsters turned out to compete for a slot.

Payton Warren, now a retired Wilmington insurance agency owner, was one of them. He was a member of the team that won the 1964 national championship by defeating the Valley Stream, N.Y., Pop Warner squad.

“Coach Groves made us feel like we were professionals,” he said in a telephone interview. “We had a locker room at the Groves gym where we all dressed together, went to games together as a team and returned to the locker room to change and shower. We had an equipment and a training room and the coaches did our laundry. We felt like we were in the NFL. All the teams we played arrived at the game one by one, already dressed and with their parents. We always arrived together as a team – and that made a great difference.”

Because Groves owned Mason Athletic Co., which manufactured uniforms, Warren said the Orangemen were provided misprints and seconds to wear for practice sessions.

“We may have a jersey that had number 18 on the front but number 81 on the back. We always had mismatched practice uniforms,” Warren said. “When we went to Valley Stream to play our final game, we practiced the day before and the Valley Stream team came out to watch. The New York boys made fun of us. They said those poor dumb boys from the South don’t even have uniforms that match.”

That changed, though when the team rolled out on game day. “We had on Little Orangemen uniforms that were as nice as any college uniforms, complete with warm up jackets for the cold weather,” Warren said. “And, of course, us dumb old Southern boys beat them 48-12 to lock up the national championship. They didn’t laugh at us anymore at the banquet we had that night after the game.”

Rufus Crawford, 59, was a member of Groves’ final team. He used what he learned with the Pop Warner, Hunter Huss High and Virginia State football squads to play a season with the Seattle Seahawks in 1978, then eight season with Canada’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. As a Tiger-Cat running back in 1984, he set an all-time Canadian record by amassing 2,896 yards.

Crawford now is a trainer with a Canadian health club and TV and movie actor. His played a minor role in the movie “Cinderella Man,” which stars Russell Crowe.

As a kid, he dreamed of becoming a pro and playing with the Green Bay Packers, he said, but the odds seemed stacked against him.

“I was a sickly kid, I had asthma when I was a child, so I was kept inside a lot by my parents when I was young,” he said in a recent telephone interview. But as he aged, he decided to confront the ailment. When he left school each day, he began running home, and eventually building the stamina to do additional laps – with the kind of speed a football player needed.

His learned about the Little Orangmen when he was a student at Gastonia East Elementary School.

During football season, a Groves Thread stake-bed truck driven by maintenance department worker Shirley Sweezy, would come by to pick up youngsters who’d made it on the team and transport them to the company’s gym for practice sessions.

“The boys were always singing ‘We are the Orangemen, the mighty Orangemen.’ ” he said. So he and classmates Kevin Summey, Clemmie Jackson, Sandy Jackson and Rufus Glenn decided to try out for the team.

“I didn’t even know if I weighed enough to make it, but when Bennie Cunningham saw me run faster than anybody else, he chose me as a running back,” Crawford said.

Being part of the Orangemen was a “big building block toward what I always wanted to do,” Crawford said. “We learned that if you do the right thing, then things will turn out right. Coach Groves taught us that and it certainly worked for me.”