Monday, January 12, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Abraham Stadium to Pentagon

Leader sportswriter

Two decades have passed since Lt. Col. Charles “Spanky” Gilliam led the Lonoke Jackrabbits to their only state football championship in 1994. Even though the accomplishment was huge for that team and the Lonoke community, it was just one of many accomplishments to come for Gilliam, who now goes to work every day at the Pentagon for the United States Air Force C-5 Program.

Lonoke went 12-1-1 that season in 1994, Gilliam’s senior year, and won the Class AA state championship with a 17-13 win over the Gus Malzahn-led Hughes Blue Devils at War Memorial Stadium.

Gilliam was a two-way player on that 1994 championship team, and was the feature tailback on the offensive side of the ball. His stellar play on the field that magical season earned him the respect and admiration of those in and around the community, but he wasn’t just a standout athlete.

What made Gilliam different from other standout athletes to come out of Lonoke is the fact that he excelled in the classroom as well.

Gilliam graduated LHS in 1995 in the top five of his class, and his play on the football field earned him scholarship offers from all of the smaller schools in the state, as well as Louisiana Tech the year before they made the jump to Division 1.

The University of Arkansas offered Gilliam an academic scholarship and the opportunity to walk-on to the Razorback football team.

However, his stellar work in the classroom earned him the opportunity to enroll at the prestigious Air Force Academy, which pays the way for all students that are admitted, and that opportunity included a chance to continue his football career with the Air Force Falcons. It was an opportunity Gilliam felt suited him best.

“Nothing was as promising or as what I saw as just the best opportunity in the world, going to the Air Force Academy,” said Gilliam. “It was pretty easy to make my mind up there.

“Yeah, the opportunity to play Division-1 football was cool, but it was not a big decision point in me choosing to go to the Air Force Academy as opposed to anywhere else. To be honest with you, it was all about the money. They paid us money every month to go to school. So I was like, yeah, I’ll go get that.”

Gilliam played all four years for the Falcons’ football team, at fullback, and led the team in rushing his junior and senior years.

His senior season in 1998, the Falcons finished the year with a 12-1 record and won the Western Athletic Conference championship as well as the 1998 Oahu Bowl in Hawaii against the Washington Huskies.

The 45-25 win over Washington completed one of the best seasons in school history, and was a year that was special to Gilliam and the rest of his senior teammates.

“That was our last year playing football together,” Gilliam said. “A great group of guys that came up together at the Academy – stuck with football. That’s a tough place academically. To be able to put the time you have to put in on the practice field and still make your grades and do your best there, I mean, it took a pretty good balancing act. A lot of guys started off doing both and eventually one had to get sacrificed. There was a nice, strong group of guys that stuck it out, and we had a very successful senior year. I think that’s the year where I really enjoyed playing football.

“It was a very successful year on the field, but I think we had a pretty good group off the field as well.”

Even though Gilliam enjoyed his playing days at the Academy, he said he really missed playing football at Lonoke when he first got there, in part because of the tremendous amount of dedication needed to be a student-athlete at the Academy.

“That was absolutely some of the best times of my life,” Gilliam said of his days as a Jackrabbit. “I was really impressed with how good of a team we had. We played together very well as a team. I actually missed high school football after I got to the Academy because it was more work. 

“I couldn’t just show up and do my thing on the field. You actually had to put in work in the weight room. I missed that whole, just pureness of high school football, and then bringing a bunch of country boys together to win the state championship, that was pretty cool, too. We definitely had a good team.”

Despite his busy career in the Air Force, where he’s served for nearly 16 years since his graduation from the Academy in 1999, Gilliam says he tries to stay in touch with his teammates from high school, and every time he visits Lonoke, he makes it a point to get out and see the area where he was raised.

“It’s great to look back, and every time we visit, I always make it a point to go jogging around town to just get a workout in,” Gilliam said. “I always try to jog by the stadium and just take it all in, because that’s where I grew up and where life started. It’s all pretty nostalgic to go back and just see everything and see everyone.”

Although he’s unable to visit as often as he’d like, Lonoke still means a lot to Gilliam. It’s the place where he met his wife, Jennifer, and it’s the place he gives a lot of credit for helping him to become the man he is today. 

Gilliam says a lot of that credit is due to the various people that have helped guide him on his journey through life, and as he said, that journey started in Lonoke.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard the saying it takes a village to raise a child,” Gilliam said. “I think I’m living proof of that, because my parents did the absolute best they could do. They raised us to be hard-working and to not take anything for granted and to do the best in everything that you do. But, financially, there just weren’t a lot of opportunities there.

“When I look back at my life, even from when I was little, a 6, 7 year old running around town, I stayed out of trouble, which I had a good reputation there. But I know people that would just, because I was a good kid, would just do stuff for me.

“They didn’t want anything in return. They just saw a good kid, and it was just neat to grow up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. I was just blessed to be in Lonoke growing up. Had I lived in Little Rock, who knows where I’d be, but I think it was a blessing being in Lonoke.”

Despite receiving help and guidance from those within the community along the way, it took time, hard work and dedication from Gilliam himself to get to where he ultimately got, but all that hard work and dedication is what helped people take notice of the kid that just wanted to do good and to do things the right way. 

“The teachers – if they saw you were working hard they actually put a little extra time and effort into you,” Gilliam said. “It really set the foundation for my entire life as far as education and just having the right ethical foundation.

“You knew what you needed to do and what you were supposed to do, and like I said, it took everyone – from folks at church to folks in the school, people that would just see you walking down the road, people that my mom and dad worked with, family members.

“It really took everyone taking a small interest in this kid who was trying to do the right thing, and I know I’m a direct product of all those people taking a little bit of time to just help a kid out whenever I needed it.

“From the houses and stuff that I grew up in to where I am now, I mean, I’m blown away every day.”

Gilliam started and has spent most of his career in the Air Force as a pilot and flight instructor. He’s logged over 3,800 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, including more than 630 in combat.

Today, Gilliam works in the acquisitions department at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, where he serves as a C-5 Program Element Monitor, or PEM, which is essentially an acquisitions officer that works all things related to C-5 acquisitions.

However, Gilliam said in the summer he’ll be go back to flying at the Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Miss. – something he says he’s excited to get back to doing.

“I’m excited about that,” Gilliam said. “This summer I’m going back to the T-1 (aircraft) and I’ll be an instructor. Every day I get a chance to work with true patriots, people who would do anything for this country – people that do their jobs to the best of their ability, and don’t want a lot of praise and are very humble.

“Just to be in a group like that and be associated with a group like the military every day, you can’t put into words how great it is to come to work every day. Days I’m deployed and away from my family, I’m deployed with some really good people so it makes it OK.

“We’re all in it together. Now that I’m getting older in the Air Force, just to have the opportunity to lead some of those people I think is going to be one of the coolest things in the world.”