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Champion Bricklayers


North Carolina leads the nation in brick production. The clay and shale here make the Carolinas the ideal place for brick making. It's also where champion bricklayers are honing their skills, particularly at one company in Union County. Garret Hood is fast. He doesn't run, he doesn't swim, but he can lay 861 bricks in an hour. "I've had people say, 'You mean they really have bricklaying competitions?'" Yes, they do. The biggest is the Bricklayer 500 in Las Vegas and it comes with a lot of industry hype. "Feel the heat. See the drama. See the trowels and mud fly when 4,000 people see the top masons in the world battle for over $100,000 in cash and prizes," thunders an announcer in a marketing video. In 2008 Hood claimed the title of World's Best Bricklayer by winning the Bricklayer 500. The event combines speed and skill as masons lay walls that are 26 feet long, two bricks wide. How high are they? Well, that depends. Hood's 791 brick wall stood about 4 feet. But that was last year. In February, Hood lost his title to co-worker Tyke Mangum. His wall had 890 bricks, 29 more than Hood had this year. Mangum stayed humble during his post-victory interview carried live via webcast. "We want to hear from the champion. What's it feel like?" asks the competition's MC. "It feels good. I want to thank my wife and all my fans," replies Mangum. Mangum won $5,000, a Ford F-250 pick-up truck plus some high-end tools. And he got company bragging rights. Both Mangum and Hood work for McGee Brothers, a company that employs about 600 masons in the Carolinas. Owner Sam McGee likes to tout his profession. "Construction's a dangerous occupation. People fall off scaffolds and get hurt," says McGee. "Think about it. In a football game, in a practice, someone's trying to break your leg on every play. So there's really not that much difference in being a professional athlete and a bricklayer. As a matter fact, as I've made presentations around the country I often introduce myself as a professional athlete and I hang a $100 bill on the podium and ask the students which one can first guess what my sport is gets $100. And, of course, my sport is bricklaying." His two superstars are Hood and Mangum. Here's Mangum demonstrating his technique: "I lay the first brick and get it right. And then I put my mortar on there. And I bring another one down here. Lay my whole hand on the wall, just glancing at the line, setting it down there like that." Most of their practice is on the job. A one hour practice session creates three hours of extra work to take down the wall. Mangum's been laying brick since he was fourteen. He started bricklaying full-time right after graduating from high school. The same goes for Hood. "I was supposed to go to college. I got accepted at NC State and turned it down to lay bricks. It does pay good and that's why I didn't go to college," says Hood. Does he regret it? "Every once in a while," replies Hood, laughing. At 25, Hood is already a supervisor and says he can make about a $100,000 a year when business is good. Mangum is also twenty-five and hopes to do a similar job down the line. "I plan on doing brick work until I'm 45," explains Mangum. "I'm not going to try to go any longer than that. Basically what it does is wear out your joints. It wears out your knees, your back, your hands. You can get carpal tunnel." But for now he likes what he does and the daily grind does give him an edge. As the reigning champion, Mangum already has a spot at next year's Bricklayer 500. Hood must qualify by winning a regional competition. Mangum isn't counting him out. "He knows what I did so he's going to give me a run for my money I'm sure. Ain't that right, Garrett?" asks Mangum. But Mangum says the fastest mason in the world is his coach, 34-year-old Travis McGee. For thirteen years, he's held the Guinness Book of World Record for bricklaying. He's another product of the McGee Brothers masonry dynasty.