FLORENCE — Grady Liles, the man responsible for bringing the NCAA Division II National Championship Game to the Shoals 27 years ago, died late Tuesday.
Liles, 81, also created the Harlon Hill Trophy, which honors the most valuable football player in Division II.
"He did so many things for so many people," said his wife, Shirley. "There were a lot of things no one knew about. He was the most unselfish person I've ever known."
In 1985, Liles helped organize a community effort to persuade NCAA officials to move the Division II game from McAllen, Texas, to the Shoals. The past 27 championship games have been played at Braly Municipal Stadium.
The presentation of the Harlon Hill Trophy on the Friday night preceding the game has become part of its tradition and has generated national attention to the Shoals. The trophy is named after former Florence State and NFL standout receiver Harlon Hill.
"He was a great man, that's for sure," said Steve Pierce, a member of the University of North Alabama Board of Trustees who worked closely with Liles on the Shoals National Championship Committee. "You see a lot people who have vision and don't carry through with it, but Grady had vision and worked hard to have it happen. He found sponsors and volunteers. It was 24/7 job for him. That just shows you how much he loved the community."
Dick Yoder was director of athletics at West Chester University and a member of the NCAA game committee when the first Division II championship game was played in the Shoals. He and Liles formed a friendship during that week in 1986, and it grew through the years.
"My heart is broken," said Yoder, a former mayor of West Chester, Pa. "I already miss him dearly. This is a great loss for me personally, and I know this is a huge loss for the community and everyone who knew him. This is such a sad day."
Yoder and Liles stayed in close contact with each other through the years.
Because of Liles, Yoder now calls Florence "my southern home."
He said Liles' work with the championship game made the event "more than a football game. It was a happening."
"The game became Florence, Alabama, as a result of Grady's ability to bring people together and create a special time for everyone involved," Yoder said. "He's going to be remembered for a long, long time."
Liles is a native of Florence and was a 1947 state Golden Gloves boxing champion. He earned the middleweight boxing champion title in 1950 in the U.S. Marines.
In 1957, he helped organize the Florence Rescue Squad, which was the first volunteer squad in north Alabama. Liles served as a firefighter for 13 years in Florence and was selected Alabama's Fireman of the Year in 1965.
He received a Distinguished Service Award for administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a 19-month-old child throughout a 21-mile ambulance ride to a hospital, saving the child's life.
In 1963, he successfully lobbied for approval of the State Fireman's Bill, which regulates and controls the maximum working hours for city firefighters. The bill was the first to help firefighters on a statewide basis.
He was named Outstanding Young Man by the Jaycees in 1965 and 1967 and was selected for Outstanding Personalities of the South in 1967.
In 1996, the community expressed its appreciation for Liles by hosting a special event called "A Tribute to Grady Liles." During the event, they surprised Liles with a new Jeep Cherokee. The city also renamed a street near Braly Stadium in his honor.
Liles, who was an insurance agent, also was involved in numerous charity events in Florence. He was chosen Shoals Citizen of the Year in 1987. He also was president of the UNA Sportsman's Club for more than 30 years.
His civic work also included membership in the Florence Civitan Club, Shoals Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, Knights of Pythias and Shrine Club.
Walter Ingle was a close friend of Liles' and member of a breakfast group that gathered every morning at a McDonald's restaurant.
"Grady was a great disciple for the city," Ingle said. "I visited with him last week. He knew me, and he was all smiles. He loved life and would do anything in the world for you. If you had any kind of problem, he was right there, Johnny on the spot, to help."
Another of Liles' close friends, Don McBrayer, said Liles was a father figure.
"He was one of the most generous, helpful people I've ever been around," McBrayer said. "He was always concerned about how everybody else was doing instead of his own comfort."
McBrayer, who often joined the McDonald's breakfast group, remembers Liles as a good-natured prankster who at the same time would go out of his way to help anyone.
"If he noticed somebody needed a refill on their coffee, Grady would get up, grab their cup and go get it," he said. "That was just Grady. He was just a great man, that's all I can say. He was a friend to everybody because he cared about everybody."
Former UNA head football coach Bill Hyde also is part of the McDonald's morning group. Hyde said it will be strange to see Liles' normal seat at the restaurant empty in the mornings.
"The Shoals National Championship Committee is going to miss him, our coffee group is going to miss him, that empty seat will be missed, and it will be a gap in our lives," he said.
Hyde said Liles put Florence and UNA ahead of everything.
"He was one of a kind, very easygoing and outgoing, but he could be tough when he needed to," Hyde said. "And he loved UNA. There was nothing that happened there that he wasn't there for. He was the most civic-minded man I have ever known."
Florence Mayor Mickey Haddock said Liles tirelessly raised money for the championship game throughout the years.
"He just continued to have the vision to grow that game and make it something the city and the whole Shoals area could really be proud of," Haddock said. "He taught a lot of us a valuable lesson about commitment and disciplining yourself and staying the course. He was passionate about anything he got involved with.
"In the end, Grady was a dear friend. We all lost a good friend. He was a giver."
Managing Editor Mike Goens contributed to this report
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.