MORGANTOWN — It isn’t just about playing football.
Not for Neal Brown.
West Virginia University’s first-year football coach wants his players to realize they’re doing more than merely playing for the Mountaineers. Brown also wants them to understand they are representing the state of West Virginia.
So, Brown is educating WVU’s players on just exactly what this state is about.
That’s why Brown loaded up his players in buses recently and traveled to Grafton to show them an actual working coal mine.
“It was a longwall mine,” explained Dylan Tonkery, junior linebacker from Bridgeport. “It’s a functional mine. Right before we left, they were sending their crew underground.
“So, it’s not like they just shut down operations because we were there. No. The guys that were about to go underground were up there with us. And, then, the guys came up from underground. The next crew went down in. And we talked to the guys that were just in there on the way out. So, they didn’t shut down operations just because we were there.”
That means the Mountaineers got to see the coal miners go down clean and come up dirty. It’s a coal-mining way of life.
“All the guys were really excited,” said Tonkery. “They thought we were going to go down in the mine. A lot of guys were asking about going down in the mine. They wanted to take the elevator shaft and go down.
“I mean, I wanted to go down and see what it was like. They really wouldn’t realize what it’s like until they got down there and walk out into that shaft.”
Rules and regulations prevented that, of course.
“They’re a lot safer now,” said Tonkery, “but still ...”
It’s better to err on the side of discretion and take WVU players on a somewhat safer bonding excursion like … well, like axe throwing.
“We went axe throwing,” said Tonkery, 6-foot, 228-pound redshirt junior who is expected to start at middle linebacker. “And we went paintballing. We’ve done at least five or six things since Coach Brown has been here. We’ve done a lot of stuff.”
So, who was the best axe thrower on the team?
“Mike Brown,” answered Tonkery quickly, referring to the 6-3, 345-pound offensive guard who has Samoan heritage. “Mike Brown, by far ... by far.
“You don’t want him throwing an axe at you, trust me. He’s really accurate, too. Mike Brown puts it right there — bull’s-eye every time. And he’s slinging that thing, too. He’s not throwing it easy. I mean, he’s chopping the wood when he throws it.”
Sounds like the other Brown — Neal — has been chopping some bonding wood himself.
“Yeah, definitely,” said Tonkery. “The most noticeable difference is we’re doing team activities with each other and we’re having fun out there without any coaches or anything. We’re just out there together having fun.”
And it’s already translating into a different atmosphere in the locker room.
“Oh, you can see it in the locker room,” said Tonkery. “Everyone is talking. I mean, Coach Brown is really big on being social with your teammates. That is what Coach Brown is trying to get done here ... get that bonding between the offense and defense and different position groups.
“So, you can see it’s a lot different from last year.”
Whether it’s visiting coal mines or throwing axes, it’s definitely a move in the right direction.