Monday, October 15, 2012

The Death of a Real Football Coach, Eddie Joyce

Eddie Joyce (far right) with his "Remember the Titans" coaching staff in 1971.
I don't suppose anybody will ever claim that Eddie Joyce Sr. invented football in Salem, but there are those of us who believe he took it to a level of religion, from which it has never descended. Joyce, whom I knew pretty well when I was a young sportswriter, was never a man I would have called "friend." He wasn't warm and fuzzy, didn't care much for the press and could be confrontational and argumentative even when it wasn't necessary. He could be a bully. But he was about as good a football coach as I ever knew.

He died yesterday in Mayodan, N.C., the result of complications of an automobile accident.

Joyce won one state title and finished as runnerup three times, including one game that later became part of a movie--without him or his Andrew Lewis High School team (led by his hotshot quarterback son Eddie Jr.) ever being mentioned. It was almost as if "Remember the Titans" consciously avoided Salem, Andrew Lewis High and Joyce because, well, maybe their story was actually better than the one being told in the movie.

Joyce was at Lewis from the early 1960s to the early 1970s when he was, in effect, run off, the result of some illegal dealings that I don't recall ever being proved and which remain suspicious to this day. That's another long, complex story that probably can't even be told without the threat of a lawsuit, so I won't. In any case, I never felt Joyce did anything wrong and that he was taking the wrap for somebody who did. He simply was not the kind of man to go in the face of of the law. He was a Salem city councilman, mayor, pillar of the community. Absolutely no reason for him to do anything wrong.

Joyce's teams were not like the teams one would normally associate with his era (1960-'74 at Lewis). They were flashy, fun to watch and dynamic. He won a state title in 1964 with an unbeaten team, but the team everybody remembers is the 1971 group that featured his 6-foot-5-inch, gangly, bazooka-armed son at quarterback, Billy Sample (a future major league baseball player) at wide receiver, and a collection of memorable players at a number of positions (including 5-foot-5 Grant Sprinkle, a salem dentist now, at runningback, and short, light, tough David Paxton, a Roanoke lawyer, at linebacker).

I watched this team scramble from behind all through the playoffs--including one legendary game in Lynchburg at E.C. Glass when the younger Joyce brought Lewis back from the brink with three late touchdowns. Andrew Lewis was matched in the final against what is to this day the most imposing high school team I ever saw: T.C. Williams of Alexandria, a team with 44 players who had been starters the previous year at one of three consolidated schools. Every position was big, strong and deep. Lewis' student body, as I recall, was less than a third the size of Williams'.

In the movie about that T.C. Williams team, much was made of the difficulty in merging those teams because of racial tensions. The better story, I think, was that Andrew Lewis and G.W. Carver High Schools in Salem--the racially separated high schools--had merged with no problem and Sample had become a hero instantly at what had been the "white" school. I never detected a moment's racial disharmony with the football team. In the movie, though, Lewis was replaced by a northern Virginia team in the state final, much to the detriment of the story.

Eddie Jr. entered that game (which I covered for a local daily) with a bad cold and did not play well. Lewis lost 27-0 in a game that was closer than the score says and my guess is that if Joyce had been healthy, the score would have been much closer. The Lewis team was that gritty and it was full of that kind resolve because of Eddie Joyce Sr., a man who was born to coach. His loss was a loss to coaching, to Salem and to many, many future football players. He wound up coaching at a private school in North Carolina later, but I don't think his heart would have been in it the way it was when he was in Salem.

Life deals some strange blows to some people and sometimes, they don't deserve that. I don't think Joyce deserved what he got, but my guess is he never complained, either.

(Photo owned by Coach Dale Foster, left in photo)


  1. PAMELA MARTIN LUCASOctober 15, 2012 at 4:38 PM

    I was a student at ALHS from 62 - 66 and remember the football program fondly. Coach Dale Foster was my General Business teacher. I rarely ever missed a game. Those were the last years I remember really getting caught in football.
    Coach Joyce was a force to be reckoned with and will be remembered and missed by all of us "old" Wolverines.

  2. I was a sophomore in 1960 when Eddie Joyce became head football coach at Andrew Lewis. Football really wasn’t fun, but in Salem it was an important part of growing up. Over the next three years coach Joyce taught us the value of preparation, effort and team work. In 1962 Andrew Lewis was undefeated, ending the season with a 6-0 win over E.C. Glass before a standing room only crowd in Salem and winning a state championship that was later lost to a technicality. Reflecting on the success of my teammates over the past fifty years makes me appreciate how much we benefitted from the experience and the debt we owe coach Joyce.

    Roy Kinsey
    Pensacola, Florida

    1. Oh my, Roy Kinsey. I can't believe this...I have been trying to track down your brother, Scott, for some time. Spent many an afternoon and several nights at your place. Your Mom and Dad were very kind.

      I was in that crowd as an underclassman at the game you mentioned. You played center as I remember.

      Mel Perry
      Raleigh, NC

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  4. Hi Dan - I am collecting information on Joyce Families from around the World and have linked back to this post - I hope you don't mind.

  5. ALHS vs. E.C.Glass. Victory Stadium. Roanoke, VA. Most exciting game I have ever witnessed.