The Apprentice School football program rescued Jimmy Wilson from the stock room at Sears. He repaid the favor with a 40-year shipyard career.
The Builders recruited Fred Canady when others shied away because of his injuries. He said thank you by rising to paint foreman.
Friends recommended the Apprentice School team to Jermaine Bellamy. He transferred from Gallaudet University, broke Builders records and became supervisor of facilities management.
The Apprentice School's 90th anniversary all-star squad is replete with similar stories of young men juggling the demands of job training and football before graduating to distinguished careers with the Newport News shipyard.
"It gave me a new outlook, a chance to start a new life," said Canady, a Builders linebacker from 2001-04 and their No. 2 career tackler. "The first year was pretty hard, 18, on my own, paying rent. But it taught me to be a man, how to manage my money. It taught me what actual responsibility is. It's a great program."
Under the leadership of Homer Ferguson, Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock launched the Apprentice School and the football team in July 1919. World War I had concluded months earlier; the Treaty of Versailles was less than a week old.
The Builders defeated Norfolk Tech and Langley Field in the only games of that abbreviated debut. Their only pause since was during World War II, 1944 and '45.
Competing against NCAA Division III programs such as Salisbury (Md.) and Wesley (Del.), Apprentice has enjoyed only one winning season this decade. But former NFL and Wake Forest quarterback Norm Snead, a Warwick High graduate, coached the Builders to five winning records during the 1980s, and Paul Hoffman followed with four straight from 1991-94.
This season, the school is honoring 40 players and three coaches selected to its commemorative anniversary team. They will be acknowledged during the Builders' next three home games: Saturday against Lake Erie, Oct. 17 versus Wesley and Nov. 7 against Frostburg State.
A 1992 graduate of Denbigh High, Bellamy was among the easier choices for the all-star squad. In just three seasons at the Apprentice School, he established a career rushing record of 3,144 yards that still stands.
"Believe it or not, it was easy," Bellamy said of shoehorning his machine-shop apprenticeship and football obligations into fall afternoons. "The only thing that was difficult was the homework, the academics, at night."
Funny thing is, Bellamy didn't even realize the Apprentice School had a football team until he played against the Builders in 1992.
Hearing impaired since his youth, Bellamy enrolled at Gallaudet, a Washington, D.C., school for the deaf. During a game against Apprentice, Builders such as James Beckett encouraged Bellamy to come home.
Since both of his parents worked at the yard — Mom was a welder, Dad a fitter — Bellamy jumped at the opportunity. Today he envisions following his parents' example of working at the yard until retirement.
"That's my future," Bellamy said.
His home life unsettled by divorce, his academic transcript tarnished by neglect, Wilson's future was quite uncertain when he graduated from Hampton High in 1958. At the suggestion of Crabbers coach Suey Eason, he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy near Charlottesville before returning to the Peninsula and taking a job at Sears.
Coach Gordon "Pop" Lamkin recruited Wilson to the Apprentice School, where during the early 1960s he became a star linebacker and offensive lineman. Wilson coached the Builders from 1971-74, and the Apprentice Field press box bears his name.
"I had plenty of guidance, and of course, I loved playing football," Wilson said of his Builders experience. "That's what took me to the Apprentice School and the shipyard. …
"Football brought me along more than anything. It gave me direction in life. I never went back to some of my old habits. I had a 40-year career in the shipyard, and I just remember the good times. I love the place."
So important was football to Wilson that during his senior season he asked his work supervisor to move him to the midnight shift.
"At 4:30 when football practice started, I was fresh," Wilson laughed. "The rest of those poor guys were spent."
Wilson, 69, has lived in East Hampton since 1960 and is married to his high school sweetheart, Ann, quite the fast-pitch softball player in her day. He retired in 2000 as the shipyard's director of commercial construction and repairs and survived a bout with stomach cancer two years later.
"I'm just a little skinny guy," Wilson said. "If you saw me now you'd wonder, 'How did that guy play football' "?
Canady played football well enough at South Atlanta High in Georgia during the late 1990s to draw scholarship offers from schools such as Georgia Southern and Alabama A&M. But when ankle and knee injuries short-circuited his senior season, those offers vanished.
Then coached by Aubrey Kelly, the Apprentice School sold Canady on moving north. Little did he realize the migration would be long-term.
Canady stays in touch with many former teammates and works with six: Rex Spakes, Ricky Wilkerson, Calvin Chester, Terrence Patrick, Lawrence Slaughter and Lance Ross.
Spakes and Wilkerson also were selected to the 90th anniversary team. So were Pat Phillips, who served as the company's president from 1991-95, and Willie Brown, a career shipyard man, among the Builders' first African-American athletes during the mid-1960s, and to this day an indispensable volunteer for the Special Olympics and Boo Williams Summer League.
All can echo these closing sentiments from Canady about his most enduring memory of Apprentice football.
"The bonds you have with the other players and how that translates to the work atmosphere," he said. "Not only could I count on them on the field, but now in my current position I can still count on them."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime
Apprentice all-star team The Apprentice School's 90th anniversary all-star squad:Defense: Russell Pettaway 1990-93; Franako Smith 2002, 2005-07; Ricky Wilkerson 2003-06; Ronny Stidham 1979-81; Steve Wells 1980-83; Tommy Osborne 1987-90; Arthur "Ace" Loding 1966-69; Olando Robinson 2003-06; Rodney Mays 1979-82; Robert "Pee-Wee" Evans 1979-82; Herb Fields 1985-88; Fred Canady 2001-04; Steve Sobczak 1989-91; Rex Spakes 2000-03; David Barlow 1992-95; Leroy Bracey 2003-06; Ron Flucker 1979-82; Brian Douglass 1992-94 and Jules Lambiotte 1935-37;Offense: Clem Stewart 1993-95; Jon Gladden 2004-07; Keith Christensen 1982-85; Jimmy Wilson 1961-64; Roger Eitelman 1965-68; Phil Dobler 1981-85; Jim Bundick 1966-69; Pat Phillips 1951-54; Charles Darren Graham 1991-94; Jermaine Bellamy 1993-95; Sinque Holmes 1998-2002; Bruce Freeman 2003-06; Dave Cullen 1980-83; Travis Reid 2004-07; Dr. Bob Lincoln 1951-54; Willie Brown 1964-68; and Jimmy Volkin 1936-38.Specialists: Thomas Schenk 1979-82; Tony Scott 2004-07; Tim Bean 1979-82; and Ricky Doles 2001-04.Coaches: Norm Snead, Frank Dobson and Pop Lamkin.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun