By Trey Williams
Graham Clark’s will to win in the wake of a tragic loss is a triumph of spirit that his buddy Benny Tolley will take to his grave.
Tolley, an assistant football coach at Science Hill, and Clark, the head coach at Dobyns-Bennett, spend one Friday each autumn, as Tolley says, “trying to scratch each other’s eyes out.” But during the rivals’ 94th meeting Friday in Kingsport the former Emory & Henry teammates were trying not to cry their eyes out.
The Hilltoppers’ 27-24 comeback victory epitomized “bittersweet” for Tolley, who was concluding a 16-day stretch when fate was more fickle than football fanatics.
Clark’s 32-year-old daughter Megan died from cancer the week prior to the game. Cancer free for most of a decade, she initially was diagnosed with cancer around the same time Tolley battled it some nine years ago – when Daniel Norris was playing eighth-grade football for Tolley.
The week before Megan died Norris stunned the sports world when the Detroit Tigers pitcher announced he had a treatable form of thyroid cancer. And the day before Norris made the announcement he’d gone to Franklin Woods Hospital to visit Tolley, who’d flirted with death the day before due to a neglected ruptured appendix that required emergency surgery around around 3 a.m. on Oct. 14.
Tolley’s surgery was done by Mike Hodge, who’d performed his cancer surgery nine years earlier, and he was hospitalized most of the week’s remainder.
“It’s amazing how quickly everything can change,” said Tolley, who started at receiver when Clark was a starting guard at Emory & Henry in the mid-70s.
Clark called to check on Tolley a few days before Megan died after Science Hill head coach Stacy Carter had told Clark that Tolley was hospitalized. No one knew Megan’s dire status at the time.
“The thing that’s crazy is he’d called me after he called Stacy and Stacy told him, ‘Benny’s in the hospital. He about checked out of here. That thing had ruptured on him and he was eat up with infection,’” Tolley said. “So Graham called me. … And two days later (Oct. 20) was when she died. At that point he wasn’t aware of how serious her situation was. She originally had a brain tumor – but it wasn’t malignant – back when I went through that thing with colon cancer.
“She was gonna go in for a checkup in the next couple of weeks and started having real bad headaches. … She’d just adopted some kids. It breaks your heart.”
Clark didn’t coach when D-B lost at Jefferson County on Oct. 23. But he coached like few around here can while preparing and going against Science Hill.
“I had a number of my family members say, ‘You know Megan would’ve wanted you to coach against Jefferson County,’” Clark said. “I said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ And then somebody else said, ‘That ballgame Friday night (against Science Hill) is not real important right now.’ And I said, ‘Well now, my daughter would say that’s bullcrap.’ She would’ve wanted me back out there. … She was a pretty special young lady.”
Tolley, Carter and Science Hill defensive coordinator Ralph Nelson all marveled at how Clark had the Indians executing schemes on both sides of scrimmage that D-B hadn’t shown all season. And it looked like it might be enough to land the Indians an upset victory until two late Adam Moorleghen field goals bailed out the ‘Toppers.
“Graham has always, always been a student of the game,” Tolley said. “He does a great job of scheming. At Emory we’d be sitting up there at night – and of course that’s back when we didn’t have cable TV – and we’d sit there and draw up football plays and talk about it. …
“Graham is going to stay in there until the wee hours of the morning looking at every film trying to come up with best game plan he can. We weren’t expecting them to be in a three-man front and the way he walked those guys (linebackers) up and did some things. … And our outside ‘backer, Zach Kanady, had just an all-world night last year against Dobyns-Bennett. And Graham, I bet he went back and schemed and looked at that and said, ‘Gosh, I’m not gonna let this kid beat us again this year.’ And he did a great job of pulling a guy and getting him in Kanady’s face and stuff like that.”
Tolley presumed the preparation gave Clark a brief diversion from grief.
“In my opinion,” Tolley said, “that helped him get closer to her that week, because you can sense her like, ‘Hey dad, this is who you are. Get back out there. Don’t sit around here and not be with your team because of me.’”
Clark was exhausted after the grueling loss to Science Hill.
By contrast, battered and gassed running back Blake Rodgers suddenly seemed almost refreshed at second glance. He’d parlayed Clark’s surprise shotgun, two-back formation into 209 yards rushing and two TDs against the Hilltoppers’ formidable front seven.
Rodgers said he’d gladly trade all of his stats to have gotten Clark the victory, which didn’t surprise Tolley.
“Graham and I had a conversation about relationships,” Tolley said. “We talked about winning and losing – and everything is judged on that – but the relationships you build with those players, it better be about those bonds that you build with them. I think that as much as anything helped him get back out there.”
Relationships fuel Tolley. Everyone from Science Hill Hall of Famer Nick Crowe to future Hall of Famers Will Adams and Norris have stressed affection and admiration via unsolicited praise for the beloved guidance counselor.
“If you talk to anyone and ask them about Coach Tolley,” Adams said, “they will tell you how great of a person he is, very passionate and encouraging. One of my favorite memories with him was praying before every game with him and Reed Hayes.”
Science Hill Hall of Fame quarterback John Rippetoe said Adams was the only Kermit Tipton Scholarship recipient in 13 years that he’d seen receive a standing ovation.
“To know I rank up there as one of Will’s favorites is special,” Tolley said.
Norris bolstered Tolley’s spirit when he was an eighth-grade football player and Tolley had cancer. Tolley would occasionally miss practice because the chemotherapy made him nauseous. A concerned Norris would visit with Tolley and gave him a book by MLB All-Star Gary Sheffield.
“’Inside Power’ was the name of it,” Tolley said. “I’d read that thing until I fell asleep in my chair sometimes when I was having treatment. And sometimes (in critical situations on the baseball field) I’d look at Daniel and say ‘Inside Power.’”
“He texted me right before his surgery,” Tolley said. “And you know what he said? ‘Inside power.’ That morning before he goes in for surgery he said you’re the last person I texted. And when he came out he said, ‘Coach, I just want to let you know I’m in recovery.’
“I thought, wow, that’s more special than, ‘Hey, I went six innings and didn’t give up any hits and struck out 10.’ Without this, that stuff doesn’t really matter. I’m so relieved Daniel’s gonna be okay.”
Tolley’s appendectomy might’ve thrown Norris a curveball.
“I think he had the intent of telling me what was going on before he found out about me,” Tolley said, “because that night when he left the hospital he sent me a couple of texts just telling me how much he loved and respected me and said, ‘You have no idea how much you have taught me how to be a fighter.’ And then the next day was when it came out and I thought, ‘That’s what he was talking about.’”
Norris’ latest praise for Tolley came via text Monday night: “Benny has been a rock for me. It’s funny how things work but ‘Inside Power’ has really stuck with us over the years. No matter where I am, he is always there for me.”
And vice-versa. Tolley invariably smiles if you mention a 2011 tornado uprooting trees on his mother’s property in Glade Spring, Va. It happened during Norris’ senior season and Tolley decided he should skip Norris’ start on the mound against Siegel to clear trees.
“So Daniel offered to go to my mom’s with me to help me cut down pine trees if I’d stay and watch him pitch,” Tolley said. “I said, ‘Daniel, I don’t think that’s a good idea for you.’ … I could just see it on SportsCenter: ‘The top left-handed high school prospect hurts arm grinding stumps.’
“I thought if it was that important to him I’d better go see him play.”
And Norris responded by no-hitting a 19-6 team in a 15-strikeout performance – his second straight no-hitter. Jason Witten was there that day; Siegel coach Craig Reavis is the brother-in-law of Witten’s brother Shawn.
Recalling clearing trees at his mother’s took Tolley back to his playing days at Emory & Henry. His mother would often host 6-8 players for “big home-cooked meals.” So would others.
“The first time I ever saw Dobyns-Bennett was when I went to Kingsport with Graham back then,” Tolley said. “We saw a basketball game in the Buck Van Huss Dome. … Gosh, we’re like brothers. He and I were two of those that never pledged fraternities. Of course, football was our fraternity.”
Kingsport was the big city compared to Emory, where you could essentially go up to the filling station to get a bottle of pop for entertainment.
“When you went to Emory there wasn’t a whole lot to do, okay,” Clark said. “You could go down to the Hut and get a Wasp burger. I liked hanging out with Tolley because he was a pretty good-looking guy and occasionally, you know, he might have two girls around him and I might get to talk to the other one.
“I remember going out to Benny’s house and his mama was a pretty good cook, too. We watched a lot of Andy Griffiths together – sometimes back to back – on about a 13-inch TV. It was black and white and you actually had to stand up to change the channel.”
A Carson-Newman linebacker that eventually played on TV ended Tolley’s college career prematurely. Sanders Shiver, a 6-foot-2, 227-pounder, hit Tolley on a pass play and injured his back.
“When I jumped for the ball it was like I could hear him coming,” Tolley said.
Shiver went on to play 10 years in the NFL.
“He hit a lot of us that day,” Clark said. “Benny was a great guy to play with. …
He’s been a great friend for a long time. I tried to hire him a couple of times myself.”
Tolley said he initially couldn’t be a guidance counselor and coach at D-B. And he didn’t think teaching history was his calling.
“We’d stayed in touch when I was at Tazewell and Graham was at Chilhowie (in the early ‘80s),” Benny said. “Of course, I would’ve loved to work with Graham. … But I knew that (guidance counselor at Science Hill) is part of who I am.”
Science Hill senior receiver Elijah Mathes, whose long reverse run against D-B on Friday was the play Clark was left lamenting, is thankful for Tolley.
“Coach Tolley is a good man,” Mathes said. “Coach Carter always says, ‘If we had a lot more Coach Tolleys in the world it’d be a better place.’”
That goes double, Carter says, for Clark.
“Graham and Benny do so much for others, and they don’t want anything in return,” Carter said. “Ever since I played ball and can remember back in the 1980s, he (Graham) has helped kids. He even helped kids from (Sullivan) South when we wanted to go play ball (in college). …
“We look up to him a lot. Everybody knows what he’s done on a football field, but what he’s done for kids in general and what kind of person he is – you just hate to see him have to deal with this. He needs prayers.”
Tolley is still processing the nightmarish last half of October – how he dodged death and got a call from Clark and a visit from Norris days before cancer took Clark’s daughter to a better place and Norris to an operating room.
“My gosh, it puts a lot of things in perspective,’” said Tolley, who popped a couple of his surgery staples loose in the tense clash with Clark’s Indians. “When Graham called me (about the appendectomy) I’m lying there and he called and he said, ‘How many times does it take you to learn? You take it right to the edge of death.’”
A week later Tolley was calling Clark to give his condolences.
“It was quite emotional for both of us,” Tolley said. “As soon as he saw my number he said, ‘Buddy’ … and we just talked about how back when you’re in college and you’re having fun and talking about your dreams and your goals, and all of the sudden a lot of things in life that really get you bent out of shape don’t matter.”
What a legacy Megan left, by adopting children when she already had a child.
“I think she and her husband had just moved into an older home in Kingsport and Graham had taken her a couple of loads of firewood,” Tolley said. “I think Graham was like, ‘Honey, don’t you want to wait a little bit and make sure your health’s okay?’ And she said, ‘No dad, I don’t want to wait any longer. I want to do it now.’”