Fans, players share special moment
MORGANTOWN - After West Virginia University's 59-10 whitewash of Kansas, Ryan Nehlen made the statement that all senior days are special.
With all due respect, he was incorrect. Not all are special.
But the one at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday certainly was.
Most of the 51,112 in attendance stayed until the end, extraordinary when one considers the Mountaineers began the game with a 6-5 record.
The home fans, though, weren't celebrating the season, which began like a house afire and, mostly, went down in flames.
They were celebrating some extraordinary talent that wore the old gold and blue and, sometimes, gray. They were celebrating the careers of quarterback Geno Smith and Tavon Austin. They were celebrating the joy delivered by the pair, as well as junior Stedman Bailey, expected to turn professional. They were celebrating the seniors, some of which will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
And they were treated for staying to celebrate.
Before the game, during introductions, Smith came out of the tunnel blowing kisses and waving his arms to the crowd. Afterward, he went a step beyond.
Smith jumped into the student section and, swaying with the crowd, sang "Country Roads." It was most memorable.
Finally, Smith jumped back to the field and joined his teammates to a thunderous cheer.
Sometimes college football is about wins and losses and statistics and conference races. On Saturday, though, it was about the scene afterward. The video board showed seniors on the sidelines. Signs like "Tavon Awesome" dotted the sea of people. The players slapped hands with the fans to The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" rock song.
"I was just happy the 21 [senior] guys were able to experience it," said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. "The guys mean a lot to me, but a lot to the fans as well."
And if the fans were rewarded, so too were the Mountaineer players.
"It means everything," said running back Shawne Alston. "The fans were the main reason I came to WVU. To be able to celebrate with them means everything. It was a life-changing moment."
There were the in-the-trenches guys like Josh Jenkins, a highly recruited lineman from Parkersburg who persevered through injuries and coaching and conference changes.
"As soon as I saw my brother crying, I knew it was a wrap," Jenkins said. "It seems like yesterday when I was signing [a letter-of-intent], took off that Michigan hat and threw it to the ground. Seems like yesterday. I gave my all while I was here."
But while Jenkins and the other seniors will be appreciated, the day belonged to Smith, Austin and Bailey. The trio will be remembered in the same vein as former players like Danny Buggs, Major Harris, Pat White and Steve Slaton.
"Many things went through my mind," Smith said after completing an incredible 23-of-24 passes for 407 yards and three scores. "It hasn't hit me yet, but I'm appreciative of the fans and everyone. The ability to represent them was special."
"Geno is a great player," Nehlen said. "But he's also a great leader and a great person. I think the fans see that and connect with that."
"I see it in practice every day," Alston said. "Geno walks around the Mountainlair with an iPad watching film for the next week."
"I don't even have an iPad," he said.
Smith said he wanted the season to be special as well, heading into the Big 12. But after a five-game slide, "we didn't want to hang our heads. This is a blue-collar state and we wanted to represent them the same way."
As for his jump into the stands, Smith smiled.
"It was a spur of the moment thing to go in the stands and sing 'Country Roads'," he said. "I hope it becomes a tradition."
Perhaps it will to others. Smith, though, one of the finest, if not the finest, quarterback to ever hit Touchdown City, won't get that chance at Puskar Stadium again. He'll be a high NFL draft pick. He should, but probably won't, get Heisman Trophy voting love.
Which leads us directly to Austin, the country's most dynamic player. Like Smith, he probably won't get invited to New York and the ceremonies. The television networks have pounded the names of Johnny Manziel, Manti Te'o and Marqise Lee into the brains of voters.
But Mountaineer fans know. They understand how very special that 5-foot-9, 171-pound senior is when a ball is given to him. And they showed Austin on Saturday.
"I felt a lot of love," Austin, a soft-spoken man, said.
He finished with 187 total yards and a one-yard touchdown with the crowd chanting, "Tavon, Tavon, Tavon." Out of the backfield, he'd just rushed 15 yards to reach the Kansas 1-yard line. He was rewarded, much to the crowd's delight.
"It's something I always dreamed of when I was a little kid," Austin said. "To hear people screaming your name. It's nice to live it."
"It felt good walking around the stadium, shaking hands," he said. "That's my second family."
And on Saturday, the family gathered for one final celebration with the seniors.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.