Warning: WVU Football Content Ahead!

While talking to a dear friend a few weeks ago about a recent Pat Forde column on ESPN.com, I mentioned that what he’d done (in detailing the instant classic Boise St./Oklahoma game) was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about sports with the same passion that engulfs the scribes of nearly any other topic. All too often the humanity of the sports world is lost in a barrage of statistics and strategy, we write about who will win which game, by what margin and why. All the while, we manage to completely forget the very reason that we love these games… the game itself.

No six year-old kid ever said, “I want to grow up to over-analyze a college football matchup to the point of bitter tediousness,” at least I sincerely hope not. We all started following these games for the same reason… it was fun. It was fun to cheer for the home team, it was fun to be dazzled by giants, it was fun to, even for a few minutes and without completely understanding it, be so passionate about something that nothing else in the world mattered. Now we’ve grown old, and although we still love so many of the same things, the jaded worldview that’s forced upon us leads us not to live for the moment, but to demand more. We’re no longer impressed with a touchdown or an amazing dunk, we want to know how those things will shape the larger picture. Although it’s certainly still fun, we quickly lose the wonder that hooked us from the start.

So I’d like to take a minute of your time, as we approach the season, to talk about West Virginia football, and why I care.

When I was a kid, WVU football was the great equalizer. When you come from a state that really doesn’t have much to offer the world, the things that you have are near and dear to your heart. In West Virginia, we had three things going for us… coal, Robert Byrd and Mountaineer Football. My parents divorced when I was young, so young that I can’t actually remember a time when they were married. I have no sob stories about their separation, as both of my parents were excellent, albeit different parts of my life. I never felt the strains that so many other kids from my type of family felt, but there was still a lingering difference between the two sides of the family.

Except during football season.

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My dad loved football, my mom kept up with it when someone brought it up. However, no matter what part of the state I happened to find myself in during game time, it was on. You didn’t miss a game… you just didn’t.

Around the time that I genuinely became aware of sports, WVU was standing as tall as it ever had. Led by Heismann candidate, Major Harris, The Mountaineers weren’t just good, they were championship good. In 1988, that was put to the test. In my mind, WVU had simply been the best team in the world forever. Major Harris had always been the quarterback, Don Nehlen had always been the coach, they had always been contenders. I can remember being shocked to hear that this wasn’t just “the way it was.” That season was truly special for me in so many ways.

I can remember watching games with my father, my uncle, my mother, I can even remember my grandmother clapping and cheering at the television… the latter of which was truly a remarkable achievement. It wasn’t about a game, it was about that state on the map that most grade-school kids can only identify by its proximity to a more famous neighbor to the east making a name for itself. Everyone knew who we were, and for the first time in a long time, we meant something.

Of course, I was entirely too young to understand that at the time.

Around the Kentucky area, basketball is a big deal. As a fellow traveler to WV once said, “I’ve lived in Kentucky all of my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Granted, this was on the heels of the one-day-old loss to the University of Louisville in 2006… that still stings. But that’s the point. Kentucky basketball is an obsession, but not on the level of West Virginia football. In Kentucky, you’re expected to be good. No matter how poorly you perform, people are watching. In West Virginia, a good football season may be the only thing that your state does to be noticed in that year. Trust me, it’s a big deal.

For those of you that may not remember… here’s some Major Harris.

As a teenager, I fell out of love with WVU. It was what the old folks liked, so naturally I had to revolt. Not only did I pledge my loyalty to another team, I specifically chose to align myself with Penn State University… a long time rival (imagine a life-long UK fan jumping ship and showing up the next day in a Duke t-shirt). I proudly wore my Ki-Jana Carter jersey to family gatherings, I preached the gospel of Joe Pa, I pissed people off.

When conference issues made the Penn State/WVU rivalry a thing of the past, my brazen attitude (while still shocking) became more comic relief than anything else. I was a man without a team, bouncing around from town to town until I finally realized something. As a gesture of goodwill, my father gave me a WVU flag for my birthday, November 1, 2001. I stared at it, thought about what it meant to be a fan, how I loved the state, how my family felt when the blue and gold took the field, and fell back in love with something I’d been missing for entirely too long… I was, once again, a Mountaineer.

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A few seasons, and a few missteps later, a new leader emerged in Morgantown. Rich Rodriguez had taken the helm one year earlier, shaping the team and the future of an organization. From that moment, stars were born. The team was back, but more importantly that kind of pride had, nearly 20 years later, returned to West Virginia. Earlier I mentioned my trip to Charleston in the wake of the Lousiville loss. I sat with my friend at dinner in a local establishment, as we spoke to our waitress (Betty) about the game, the world around us, and the game. She took a deep breath as she spoke, clearly rattled, sighing, “Well, we just have to go on…”

Yep, it’s that important.

As the season closes in, and WVU is picked to win the Big East (if not the National Championship), a whole new world is unfolding. For older fans, this may be the last hurrah… that last shot at the trophy in their lifetime. For folks like me, it’s an excuse to relive our youth, thinking of what could have been in 1988, and what surely must be this year. For younger fans, this is the birth of a love affair with a team and a game from which they’ll never fall out… after all, they can’t recall a time when Pat White and Steve Slaton weren’t sitting together on the bench. It’s a time when pride really is on the line, when families will find a common bond and when countless couches will be met with their demise.

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“… that’s what good writers do.”

That was the response to the statement I made in the first line of this piece. It’s true, it couldn’t be more true. Good writers make you love something that you never knew you loved, and I hope that you now have at least a small soft-spot in your heart for small town football in a small town state. I hope that you see that football, or sports in general, isn’t about the game… it’s about what the game represents. It’s a bond with friends and family that you never forget, it’s pride, it’s emotion, it’s an excuse to hug someone that you don’t normally hug (to that guy at BW3’s during the Colts/Patriots AFC Championship Game, thanks for the hug).

It’s the chance to experience something together. Something that I look forward to sharing with a child, with a Major Harris highlight reel in my hand.

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3 Responses to “Warning: WVU Football Content Ahead!”

  1. Monsignor Henry Clay Says:

    #2…#2?!?! The liberal media has once again shown it’s true colors and picked the BLUE team. That’s just what I’d expect from such commie rat bastards. November 8th, 2007 will be a day long remembered in Morgantown, but not with fondness!!! Rutgers? We don’t need no stinking Rutgers! On November 8th two things will happen. Senator Mitch McConnell will lay a UFC-like beatdown upon the Honorable Senator Robert Byrd on the floor of the senate and the University of Louisville Cardinals will spank the Mountaineers of West Virginia in a fashion reminiscent of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

    I wager a 750ml bottle of Woodford Reserve to a West Virginian item of similar value. Do you accept?

  2. Cory Says:

    I hereby accept. In response, I will wager a sack of biscuits from Tudor’s Biscuit World, a West Virginia tradition. I will personally drive to WV, purchase a variety of delicious biscuits (stuffed with a variety of delicious meats and cheeses) and return them to Kentucky for your consumption.

    Quite a task, involving lots of driving (with gas by then undoubtedly reaching five thousand dollars per gallon), but that is how confident I happen to be.

  3. Kevin Says:

    I gotta side with Cory on ths one, Mr. Clay. Sorry. WVU is stacked this year.

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