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.
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."