PILOT MOUNTAIN – Nearly two decades before East Surry football’s high-flying style set all kinds of school and state records, the Cardinal offense was feared statewide as a dominant rushing team.
It was those teams, led by Surry County Hall of Fame coach David H. Diamont, that set seemingly unbreakable records and experienced unprecedented success for the red and white. The Cardinals’ success put East Surry on the map in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
At the center of the East Surry offense was a young man by the name of Chris Griggs: a versatile tailback who has a genuine case for being one of the top football players in school, county and perhaps state history.
Griggs graduated in 2003 with 6,897 career rushing yards, the third-most in state history at the time and currently No. 10 on the list. He scored 85 rushing touchdowns in four years. If throw in his receiving TDs, pick-sixes, kickoff and punt returns that number grows to more than 100 total TDs.
Griggs’ journey in football, both during and after high school, didn’t always have the storybook ending he hoped for. There were times in his football career that Griggs looked to be closing in on the mountaintop only for an obstacle to send him back down.
Now, Griggs is an entrepreneur, a coach and, most importantly, a father.
To fully understand where Griggs is now, it’s important to highlight how he reached his current position. Part one of this three-part installation will cover Chris’ life through high school. Part two details his football career from the moment he left East Surry up through his retirement as a player. Finally, part three will illustrate how his experiences in football shaped Griggs into the man he is today.
‘Oh, we’ve really got something special here.’
Chris Griggs moved with his parents, Marie and Winston Griggs, and sister Krisey from Texas to Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1989. His family, now a little bit bigger with the addition of his baby sister Porsché, later moved from Winston-Salem to Pilot Mountain in 1994.
Chris got involved with the Pilot Mountain Cardinals youth football team shortly after the move to Surry County. This is where he met many of the guys that would eventually be his middle school and high school teammates.
One of these teammates was Drew Eanes, who was a grade above Griggs. Drew’s father, Tom Eanes, coached at East Surry from 1992 to 1998. Tom never officially coached Griggs, but played a tremendous role in fueling young Chris’ love for football.
“I learned a lot about the game of football from Tom Eanes,” Griggs said.
The Eanes’ got Griggs in the habit of watching game film when he was in sixth grade. Not many 11 and 12-year-olds would have the patience to study film, but it’s something that helped Griggs gain a mental edge in games.
“That was just something that we did and that was the reason I was really good at football,” Griggs said. “I kind of knew what the opponents were going to do beforehand.”
Griggs recalls leaving school early as an eighth grader to travel with Eanes to East Surry’s first round playoff game in 1998. The 8-3 Cardinals were the No. 10 seed in the Class 1A State Playoffs and faced No. 7 Albemarle (9-2). Albemarle won the game 52-14 behind a strong performance from freshman sensation T.A. McLendon.
McLendon and Griggs would eventually cross paths three years later.
Eanes ended up leaving East Surry before Griggs’ freshman year. East Surry’s Athletic Director at the time, Barry Hall, reached out to middle school coach David Diamont and asked if he would like to return to the high school to teach and coach.
Diamont had previously coached at East Surry from 1977 through 1989. He then coached at Mount Airy High from 1991-1995, leaving before the 1996 season to run for State Superintendent. Diamont accepted a position at Pilot Mountain Middle after falling in the Democratic Primary, later returning to East Surry prior to the 1999-2000 school year
Success started early as Griggs lost just three games in junior high. This included an undefeated eighth-grade campaign. Diamont knew he was a talented player in middle school, but it wasn’t until his freshman year that Griggs truly morphed into an unstoppable force.
“Our running back actually, if I remember correctly, had an appendectomy or something and had to miss some time,” Diamont said. “I remember in practice giving the ball to this ninth grader, Chris Griggs, [that was] about 160/165 pounds. He gained a few yards and got hit pretty well. He got up and said, ‘is that all you’ve got?’ and walked back to the huddle. I thought, ‘oh, we’ve really got something here.’”
‘He could play anything he wanted to play’
Griggs was part of a group Diamont simply referred to as “phenomenal,” that included players such as Andrew Stone, Chase Smith, Jeffrey Stein, Ricky Love, John Francis, Nathan Reddick, Dustin Baker and Daniel Lynch to name a few.
The class of 2003 finished with a four-year overall record of 48-6. Griggs and his classmates lost just two regular season games in four years at East Surry and both took place his freshman year.
The first was a 28-21 game against North Surry, that finished 9-3 that year, and the other was a 28-7 game against Starmount, that went 12-1 on the season. The loss to Starmount was Griggs’ only conference loss in high school. He won the next 25 conference games to win three undefeated conference titles.
“I would just say he was a coach’s dream,” Diamont said. “Especially if you’re going to run the football because he flat out could do that. He’d stiff arm you like crazy or he’d just run over you. He did not dodge contact. As a matter of fact, he thrived on contact. He was a competitor.”
From 1961 to 1998, East Surry had three seasons of 10 wins or more and one with at least a .900 win percentage: 1962, when the Cardinals finished 10-1-1); 1963, when East finished 10-2 and won the NCHSAA Regional Championship; and 1983, when Diamont had his first season of double-digit wins by going 10-1.
Griggs’ group had the most career wins (48) of any East Surry class. This includes the class of 2020 that went to back-to-back state championship games. The class of 2003 finished 10-3 in 1999, 11-1 in 2000, 14-1 in 2001 and 13-1 in 2002.
“I look back on kids I’ve had playing for me and that group of young men, that was a special group,” Diamont said. “They got pissed off when a team got a first down. They really had a lot of pride and they were tough, tough kids. They all got along together, which I think was the key.”
Griggs primarily played running back but also spent time at safety, wide receiver and on the return team.
“Anybody that played against Chris Griggs or tried to defend him knew that it was practically impossible,” Diamont said. “He could play anything he wanted to play. I remember he had such humongous hands. He could carry the ball with one hand away from his body. That would always tick me off; I couldn’t get him to hold it high and tight.”
Diamont pointed out that he thought Chris would have made an excellent defender because of his fearlessness. When asked why he didn’t play more on defense, Griggs laughed and gave a rather straightforward answer that spoke to the overall talent on the team:
“I didn’t really need to. Besides, I didn’t play in the second half of most games.”
His freshman year, nine of the team’s 10 wins came by at least two scores. The next year, East Surry increased its points per game average from 26.92 to 27.25 while decreasing points allowed from 17.08 to 8.25.
“I remember there was a highlight one night on one of the TV stations,” Diamont said. “I forget which year, but he just ran over a kid in the secondary and literally stepped on his chest and went and walked right into the end zone. He handed the ball to the officials just like it was how he’s supposed to do it.”
‘I think right now we can win the state championship’
The Cardinals came into the 2001 season prepared to play through December.
The year prior, East Surry was the top-ranked team in the West at 11-0. The Cards looked to have a legitimate chance to reach the title game, but were upset in the first round by No. 16 Polk County by a score of 16-14.
East Surry only allowed an opponent to score more than eight points in a game once in the 2001 regular season. This includes six shutouts ranging from 20-0 to 41-0. No team since has recorded more than three shutouts in a season. East did this all while averaging 31 points per game.
East Surry’s regular season played out like this in 2001: 29-0 vs. West Stokes, 27-0 vs. West Montgomery, 25-7 vs. Mount Airy, 43-7 vs. Alleghany, 27-0 vs. South Stokes, 30-0 vs. Starmount, 30-6 vs. Elkin, 41-0 vs. East Wilkes, 36-21 vs. Surry Central, 20-0 vs. North Stokes, and 33-7 vs. North Surry.
Griggs finished the regular season with 1,868 yards rushing, which ranked No. 6 in the state at the time.
The Cards continued to pick apart opponents in the first three rounds of the playoffs, which had been separated into 1A and 1AA for the first time ever. As a No. 3 seed, East Surry defeated No. 14 Cherryville 56-7 in the first round.
Before the second-round game against No. 6 Hendersonville, Andrew Pearson of the Times-News, a community newspaper located in Hendersonville, said the following in a November 22 article:
“Hendersonville hopes East Surry tailback Chris Griggs and his team’s water cooler are best friends by Saturday morning. That’s because if things [go] as planned for the Bearcats, the East Surry junior will guzzle plenty of fluids Friday on the sidelines as the Bearcats upset their way through the second round of the 1-AA playoffs.
Hendersonville’s coach at the time, B.J. Laughter, added to the article by saying:
“If we play like we did in midseason we could get in trouble, we’re going to have to control the football and keep (Griggs) on the sidelines sipping water. Even though they haven’t given up a lot of points this season, we still feel like we can move the ball.”
When Griggs was informed of the comments made 19 years ago, he simply laughed. He had reason to laugh them off as East Surry would defeat Hendersonville 21-7 at home.
East Surry went on to defeat No. 2 Murphy on the road, 17-13, to advance to the West Regional Final. Murphy made it inside the Cardinals’ five-yard live twice in the second half, but was stopped both times. Griggs led the Cardinals with 129 yards rushing and a touchdown on 21 carries.
In the December 1, 2001 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, Griggs expressed his extreme desire to defeat the Smoky Mountain Conference powerhouse. From 1973 to 2000, the Smoky Mountain Conference captured 18 1A Football State Championships. No other conference had more than three in that span. The Northwest Conference only had one state champion during that time: Starmount in 1998.
“We just wanted to say to respect the Northwest 1-A conference, because everybody doubted us because the Smoky Mountain Conference has a strong tradition. I think right now we can win the state championship.”
‘That’s about the only accomplishment I didn’t achieve on the football field’
The No. 1 seed in the West, Maiden, was upset in the regional semifinal round by No. 5 Albemarle, meaning East Surry would host the regional championship.
“It may have been the biggest crowd for a high school event in Surry County ever,” said Diamont, looking back at the 2001 Regional Final. “At least I thought it was. It was just ungodly packed.”
Diamont said he remembers Albemarle bringing five buses full of fans on a roughly 90-mile journey to Pilot Mountain. Fans poured into East Surry’s stadium, that would be named after Diamont 17 years later, to see the battle of two schools that had never competed for an outright state championship.
On any other night, Chris Griggs was considered to be the most talented tailback on either team. Most teams wouldn’t even try to debate that fact. But on the biggest stage of his career, Griggs came face-to-face with one of the only men in state history that would beg to differ. This was the same player that Griggs saw eliminate East Surry three years prior: T.A. McLendon.
The immense popularity of the 10-part documentary The Last Dance has sports fanatics of all ages reminiscing on the insane career of the one and only Michael Jordan. Specifically, it reminds fans of a direct effect Jordan’s dynasty of championships with the Chicago Bulls had on the league: the number of all-time greats His Airness prevented from winning the ultimate prize in the 1990s.
Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Shawn Kemp, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price and Penny Hardaway are just a few members of the long list of star players that wished MJ would’ve played at any other time in history.
For Griggs, T.A. McLendon was his Michael Jordan.
McLendon was a freshman on the Albemarle team that Griggs saw eliminate East Surry in the ’98 playoffs. Griggs graduated with the third-most rushing yards in NCHSAA history, while McLendon’s 9,038 yards rushing was a state record through 2004 and now ranks third all-time.
McLendon’s senior season was otherworldly: 3,070 yards rushing, 15 games of at least 100 yards rushing, the NCHSAA record for points in a single-season with 428 and 71 total touchdowns. Albemarle scored an NCHSAA record 898 points in 16 games that season (56.13 per game). For comparison, East Surry’s 2019 championship team scored 799 in 15 games (53.27 per game) and Mount Airy’s 2008 championship team scored 845 in 16 games (52.81 per game).
Albemarle finished the West Regional Final with 542 yards of total offense in a 54-19 win over East Surry. McLendon had 21 carries for 233 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
Albemarle went on to win the 2001 state championship, defeating Wallace-Rose Hill 66-28, as well as the 2002 and 2003 championships.
“I was convinced after seeing Wallace-Rose Hill that we could’ve beaten them pretty well too,” Diamont said.
Griggs’ senior year saw the Cardinals continue to dominate competition, just not to the level of the previous year. Diamont’s squad finished undefeated for the third-straight season, defeated opponents by an average of more than 20 points and posted three shut outs.
The Cardinals came into the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the 1AA West behind only Albemarle. East Surry defeated No. 15 East Montgomery 37-14 in the first round and No. 7 Hendersonville 35-12. No. 3 Maiden came to Pilot Mountain for the third round. A win would’ve given East Surry a rematch with Albemarle in the Regional Final, but the Cardinals were upset by Maiden, 31-6.
“I didn’t win a state championship – that’s about the only accomplishment I didn’t achieve on the football field,” Griggs said. “But I was blessed to be a part of the good group of kids that I played with when I moved to Pilot Mountain.”