For Lawson, working on Burton chain gang a labor of love

Kevin Mays • Apr 10, 2020 at 12:00 PM

NORTON — For nearly a half-century, there has been one constant with J.I. Burton football.

Over the past 47 years at Lawson-Fitchko Stadium, plenty of Raiders have taken the field and lots of coaches have walked up and down the sideline. Different public address announcers have introduced the players and described the action. Band members and cheerleaders supporting the team have come and gone.

During all that time, Gerald Lawson has been on the sidelines.

The 67-year-old has been a member of the Burton chain gang since the 1973 season.

Lawson, a 1970 Burton graduate, considers his work a labor of love for his alma mater.

“It’s not a job. It’s a privilege,” Lawson said. “It’s been a tremendous ride. I wouldn’t take anything for the experience. Meeting all the people and watching the kids play ball. It’s a fun thing to do on Friday nights.”


Lawson, who recently retired from Old Dominion Power Company, has been involved in community service all of his life.

In 1972, he joined the Norton Volunteer Fire Department.

“I joined the fire department and Glen Sturgill was on the fire department and worked the chains. The next year, they needed help, and Glen asked me if I wanted to work on the chain gang. I’ve been hooked ever since.

“It’s just something that gets in your blood. It’s hard to go to a game and just sit in the stands.”

Since the 1973 season, Lawson has worked every Burton home game but three. He missed one game when his daughter was born on a Friday night.

The other two games he missed were in 2018 because of illness.

Other than that, Lawson has been as dependable as the U.S. Postal Service. Through rain, sleet or snow, he’s been on the sideline making sure everything runs smoothly with the 10-yard chains.

He’s also worked through plenty of heat and humidity.

“It got pretty tough when they had those six-team jamborees in August,” Lawson said. “They’d start about 4 p.m. and finished usually after 11 p.m. It would wear you out.”

But he said tiring hours and bad weather were worth all of the good memories.

Since the gang runs the chains on the visitors’ side of the field, Lawson said he has enjoyed meeting and talking with players and coaches from other teams.

“There have been so many good teams and good players and good coaches. So many good games, it’s just hard to narrow it down to one or two games,” Lawson said.

He said he has enjoyed meeting and talking with several coaches over the years, like Virginia High School Hall of Fame coaches Phil Robbins of Powell Valley, the late Ralph Cummins of Clintwood, and the late Tom Turner of Appalachia.

“I’ve just met a lot of good people over the years,” Lawson said.


Lawson has had to get out of the way quickly on more than a couple of occasions when the momentum of a play brought players past the sideline.

But a game in the late 1990s sticks out in his mind.

It was a playoff game with arch-rival Appalachia.

Burton’s star player was ejected on the opening kickoff.

Things went downhill from there.

“A big brawl broke out with a couple of minutes left in the game and they stopped the game,” Lawson recalled.

That, however, was the exception to the rule.

“Most of the time things go great and everybody has a good time,” Lawson said. “Every now and then you get a fan that says something to you over the fence. But usually when that happens, a coach will come over and say, ‘Don’t worry about that guy. He’s crazy anyway.’ ”

Lawson said he has developed friendships with referees, as well.

“Most of us have some age on us now. So we usually joke with the referees and tell them this is a union chain gang and we don’t run,” he said with a chuckle.


Lawson has been honored for his continuous service to Burton athletics.

He was awarded a game ball and recognized for his support when he reached 40 years on the sideline.

In 2018, he was inducted into the J.I. Burton Hall of Fame as an athletic contributor.

Last year, the Virginia General Assembly issued a proclamation recognizing Lawson and his service to the Raider football program.

Lawson is quickly approaching 50 years of service on the chain gang, and he plans to keep on moving toward the silver anniversary.

“As long as I’m able, I plan on being there and keep on doing it,” he said. “It’s been a whole lot of fun.”

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