SILER CITY — Back in the 1960s, long before the celebrated career that made him one of Chatham County’s most beloved leaders, advocates and public officials, Siler City Mayor John F. Grimes III …
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SILER CITY — Back in the 1960s, long before the celebrated career that made him one of Chatham County’s most beloved leaders, advocates and public officials, Siler City Mayor John F. Grimes III was a football player.
And a good one at that.
It’s been two weeks since Grimes, 77, died on Oct. 20 at his home in Siler City, after a few months of declining health and four days of hospice care. Ensuing tributes have largely, and understandably, focused on his 50 years of public service: as a businessman at Cecil Budd Tire Company, as a county and town commissioner and as a popular mayor, who was re-elected for his fourth two-year term last fall.
But there’s a story in those early years, too, when a young Grimes instead made his name on the gridiron: as a blue-chip recruit at Davie County High School, a successful wide receiver/tight end at Wake Forest and a pro prospect courted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts.
“John? Boy, he gave 110%, every game and every time,” said Mike Kelly, a Wake Forest teammate and longtime friend who served as a pallbearer at Grimes’ Oct. 24 funeral. “Of course, we didn’t throw the ball back then like we do now … but if it came his way, he’d go for it. Really, really gifted.”
Kathy Januzelli, Grimes’ younger sister, was among the first to pick up on her brother’s athleticism.
Growing up in Cooleemee, a small mill town in Davie County, she said they were “playing outside 99% of the time” with a rotating group of around 40 children who also lived in their neighborhood.
“You go out in the morning,” she said, “and you don’t come back until dark.”
There were long summer days at the Bull Hole, a nearby fishing and swimming spot, and epic basketball games, played by boys and girls alike on the wooden backboard that John Grimes Jr. (Kathy and John III’s father) built by hand and nailed up on the side of their home over a patch of dirt.
“Then, of course, John continued in high school and he excelled,” Januzelli said. “Basketball was a sport for him, too, (but) football sent him to college.”
Indeed, by Grimes’ senior year in 1960, he was a hot commodity. As the second paragraph of his obituary proudly noted, he received 22 full-ride football scholarship offers, including one from all eight teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and was the first athlete at his high school to land a Division I offer.
Grimes ultimately committed to Wake Forest, where proximity was a big factor — playing in Winston-Salem meant his family could easily make the 35-mile drive from Cooleemee for home games.
Ineligible to play as a freshman in 1961 under NCAA rules, Grimes stayed busy at Wake Forest with ROTC and Sigma Chi, his fraternity. He also struck up a friendship with Kelly, a teammate from Kingsport, Tennessee, who lived in the same suite as him and was also in ROTC and Sigma Chi.
The Demon Deacons had forgettable seasons in 1962 (0-10) and 1963 (1-9) under head coach Billy Hildebrand. And Grimes, whose official position was “split end,” got consistent playing time but few targets as a hybrid receiver/tight end; in his first 20 games, he had a combined five catches for 57 yards.
But his senior season, in 1964, proved historic.
Grimes, a lean 6-foot, 200-pound starter, doubled his previous production with a career-high 10 catches for 147 yards in 10 games. And under new head coach Bill Tate, who’d replaced the fired Hildebrand earlier that year, the entire program was reinvigorated.
Wake Forest went 5-5, and senior running back Brian Piccolo (a good friend of Grimes’) led the country with 1,004 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He was also named ACC Player of the Year and finished 10th in 1964 Heisman Trophy voting before joining the NFL’s Chicago Bears as a free agent.
Piccolo’s story took a tragic turn, though, when he died of cancer in 1970. He was just 26 years old and four years into a promising pro career. Piccolo’s life and friendship with future Hall of Fame Bears running back Gale Sayers was depicted in “Brian’s Song,” ABC’s 1971 tear-jerking TV movie.
Cecilia Grimes, John’s wife of 55 years whom he met at Wake Forest, said her husband always spoke highly of Piccolo. When ESPN revisited Piccolo’s life and the movie in a 2003 documentary series, Grimes was ecstatic to participate and spoke at length with a camera crew on the porch of his Siler City home.
Grimes, a 1965 Wake Forest alumnus, actually had a chance to join Piccolo in the professional ranks — after graduation, the Browns and Colts both offered him an undrafted free agent contract.
But Grimes declined them. He was ready to move on from the daily grind of football — workouts, playbooks, lingering injuries — and onto the next steps: joining the military and starting a family.
Cecilia remembered her husband often telling people football “got me where I wanted to go,” which was through college, for free, with a bachelor’s of science degree and an adult life ahead of him.
“He wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and serve his time” Januzelli said. “The NFL was important but not his No. 1 priority. And that was my brother. He was always that way: on to the next thing.”
Once he returned to Siler City, after an overseas stint with the U.S. Army’s 8th Infantry Division in Germany, Grimes always kept up with his Demon Deacons.
Wake Forest’s football team was a frequent topic of conversation with Kelly and other former teammates. Before his health declined, Grimes always made it up to Winston-Salem for a few home games each season. He attended school booster and alumni events, too.
“I remember Dad telling so many stories from back then,” John Thomas Grimes, one of John and Cecilia’s two sons, said with a laugh.
One of Grimes’ favorites: when he brought his Wake Forest football and basketball buddies back home to Cooleemee, everyone always had to duck their head while walking in to avoid the door frame.
He always repped his alma mater proudly, including on election night last year, when he celebrated winning his fourth term as Siler City mayor in a gold thermal vest and black Wake Forest football ballcap.
A 2007 Davie County Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, Grimes also left a tangible impact on his former teammates and coaches. Just a few days after Grimes’ obituary went online, Cecilia got a handwritten note in the mail from Tate, Grimes’ former coach at Wake Forest, who’s now in his late 80s and living in Omaha, Nebraska.
“John was the leading example of how I wanted my players to perform,” he wrote.
Kelly, Grimes’ former teammate, was vacationing in Florida when he got the news. He promptly flew back to Knoxville, drove home to Kingsport and left the following morning at 6 a.m. with his daughter to make it to the service, which was held at Chatham Charter School in Siler City at 11 a.m. that Saturday.
It wasn’t the easiest trip for Kelly, who’s also 77. But missing the funeral never once entered his mind. For Grimes — his onetime teammate and lifelong friend — it wasn’t a question of yes or no. Only how.
“I’d do anything for him,” Kelly said. “He was just the greatest guy in the world.”