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Remembering southern coalfield sports figures

By Frank Giardina
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I HAVE HAD a chance to visit the southern coalfield counties the last three weeks. Traveling through various communities brought back several thoughts regarding our state's sports history.  
  • Is there a better high school football stadium or venue in our state than Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield? I don't think so. In terms of tradition and passionate fans, Mitchell Stadium is the Yankee Stadium of high school football in our state. In basketball, the Brushfork Armory isn't bad, either. Many of the great Northfork teams of the 1970s played there, including a young Russell Todd.
  • As a young play-by-play broadcaster, one of the best high school games I worked was played in Mitchell Stadium. It was the 1973 AA state championship football game won by Northfork over Ceredo-Kenova, 14-13. Neither school exists today. On this day, the stadium was overflowing. Northfork had running back David "Duck" Riley who played at WVU and in the USFL with the Philadelphia Stars. C-K was quarterbacked by Donnie Robinson, who, as Don Robinson, pitched in the major leagues for 15 seasons and won a World Series with the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • One of our state's most underrated athletes of that era was former Northfork football star Tom Beasley. Beasley went on to be a star defensive lineman at Virginia Tech from 1973-77. He then played in the NFL with the Steelers from 1978-83 and the Redskins from 1984-86.
  • If you attend a McDowell County Commissioners meeting, you will run into one of the southern coalfield's most intriguing sports figures. At 6-foot-5 plus, Gordon "Pig" Lambert was a star for the old Gary High School, graduating in 1963. He grew up on a mountain in Leckie, near Anawalt, and was offered a scholarship to play for Gene Corum at WVU and was a member of the 1964 Liberty Bowl team. He was the toughest of the tough guys in Morgantown and stories of his exploits in Morgantown became legendary in the coalfields.
  • During his junior season, the story goes that there was a "discussion" over his ability to sing Christmas carols with a group of carolers. Legend has it that the discussion ended with one of the carolers in a trash can. A new coaching staff came in led by Jim Carlen and it was suggested that Lambert continue his college career elsewhere.
  • Mountaineer assistant coaches helped Lambert transfer to Tennessee-Martin. It was a life-changing move. He red-shirted a season, got married, settled down, got bigger and stronger, and became an outstanding pass-rushing defensive end. He was selected to play in the best college football all-star game of that time, the North-South Game.
  • Lambert was drafted in the 1968 AFL draft by the Denver Broncos. He played two seasons with the Broncos as a self-described "head-slappin', pass-rushing" defensive end. In the '68 season, the Broncos upset the eventual world champion New York Jets and Lambert had a key sack of Joe Namath in that game.  These days, Lambert is a true public servant and has served for many years trying to improve the quality of life for the people of McDowell County. He no longer goes by "Pig". It is strictly Gordon. The residents in McDowell are lucky to have him.
  • In Logan County, two sports legends are also serving the citizens as county commissioners. Former Chapmanville, Bowling Green and major league baseball player Danny Godby is one commissioner. Former WVU basketball star and legendary Logan basketball coach Willie Akers is another.
  • Here's hoping that the WVU athletic department will take a home basketball game this season and designate it as a day to honor Willie Akers. He is one of the most popular players in school history, a member of the 1959 NCAA runner-up team, and just recovered from a horrific accident. The entire sports community in our state prayed for his recovery.Here's hoping WVU will take a day and bring back many of Akers' former teammates, as well as invite the hundreds of young men he coached at Logan High School over the years. He won four Class AAA state titles from 1964-83. It is time to have a day to honor the man everyone simply calls "Willie." He deserves it.You can e-mail Frank Giardina at  
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