MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sitting down with Coach Shirley McCray is like sitting down with a history book, and she has one of those too.
Coach McCray, now 80 years old and retired, came up when female coaches were unheard of.
“I was the only girl in the neighborhood,” McCray said. “The only girl for two or three streets, so they had to use me to play whatever games they were playing cause they needed extra people. So that’s how I really start getting involved in athletics.”
She played on the boy’s basketball team at Hamilton High School in the 1950s and was the first black woman to land on the women’s basketball team at Memphis State in 1964.
“I was voted the most athletic and there was no girls sports,” McCray said about her years at Hamilton. “So how did I get that title? I was playing with the boys.”
She was also the first black female to graduate with a degree in Health and Physical Education at Memphis State. Then, she began searching for a place to coach.
McCray began teaching at Memphis City Schools and started girls volleyball and track teams at Riverview and later Kingsbury High.
“You didn’t have no sports,” she said. “There were no sports for women period. If you wanted a team you had to organize and you played against each other.”
In 1973, at Chickasaw Junior High, a by-chance discussion turned her to coaching the football team.
“All the teachers and I were sitting around at lunch time and they said what you gonna do? I said well I come over here to coach girls basketball,” McCray said. “The Superintendent sent me over here to coach girl’s basketball. He said if you gonna coach, you better go out there and coach those boys.”
She saw how the men were coaching and did not like how they were “hollering and screaming.” She began treating the players like she wanted to be treated, instilling teamwork and a will to win in them.
“At least I kept them out of jail,” McCray said. “You know why? Because they was too tired to go anywhere else. We ran and ran and ran and when we got through running, we got on our knees and we thanked God for that day.”
Retired MPD officer Mark Lesure and Retired U.S. Navy veteran James Hoskins were on McCray’s team in the seventh and eighth grade. They both agreed that McCray taught them about teamwork and accountability.
“She was a role model before they even start using the word because you know she always she was there,” Lesure said. “If you thought about doing something wrong, you turn a corner, she was there.”
McCray’s team made it to the championship, and other coaches eventually got behind what she was doing. She said Auburn University coach sent her his playbook, and other coaches would send her tips on what they felt would help her. However, she also had doubters, like an opponent who thought her team would lose the championship game.
“Their coach went on the news and said ‘we’re going to beat her.’ He said ‘we’re going to beat them so bad that she’s gonna go back in the kitchen and wash dishes’,” Lesure said. “And before the game she says, ‘They should not cross the 50 yard line.’ We beat them 56 to nothing and their coach didn’t even want to interview after the game.”
McCray got her first paid job at Lanier Jr. High after spending 11 years of being unpaid at Chickasaw. She later became the first woman to coach at Booker T. Washington High School and said the students there were undisciplined. McCray also said Juvenile Court even brought some of its students over for her to coach.
She was even featured in Ebony Magazine in 1978 and wrote a book documenting her life as a coach in 1997. This month, McCray was recognized at Memphis City Council for her contributions to young lives and the community.
“She is long overdue her flowers,” Hoskins said.
Now, she has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for her old schools and is hoping others will also give.
“In my will, I had placed money in my will for every school that I taught,” McCray said. “And the Lord came to me one night and said why are you doing that? Give it to them now while you are alive and you can see how the school uses the money.”
McCray said students today need just as much support now as when she trail-blazed a path for them.