The news this week of the water issues in the coal camp community of Gary in McDowell County saddened me greatly.
I lived in the Gary School District until I was almost 11 years old. I went to grade school at Thorpe Elementary and, had I not moved, I would have gone to Gary High School.
It’s the first place where I played Little League Baseball and began watching high school football and basketball. It’s where I first developed a love and passion for sports, which were a way of life in the southern coalfields in the 1960s. High school athletics were the main source of community pride in every town. Stadiums and gyms were packed. here were nine high schools in McDowell County when I live there. Now there are two.
In the coalfields in the 1960s and ‘70s there were athletes everywhere. Many fans remember some of the big stars such as the D’Antoni brothers, Maurice Robinson, Oscar Patrick, Bob Gresham and Jerome Anderson.
Here are some of “forgotten” names that I am thinking of today.
Danny Abercrombie: An incredible multi-sport athlete at Big Creek, he went on to play football for Sonny Randle at Marshall. His sister Tywanda played basketball at Marshall.
Bill Craig: A great athlete from Williamson, he won basketball and baseball state championships with the Wolfpack. His name is still respected in Mingo County.
Jerry Epling: He was a great basketball player at Matewan in 1964 and 1965. He went on to sign at Georgia and was a good player in the SEC for the Bulldogs.
C.D. Oliver: An outstanding football lineman for the Welch Maroon Wave in the fall of 1970, Oliver went on to play for Bobby Bowden at WVU. His dad, Claude, was my first Little League coach and a local pastor. One of my neighbors in State College, Pennsylvania was Chuck Fiorante, a former WVU QB. At one time, he roomed with Oliver. Small world.
Billy Pierce: He led the Bramwell Millionaires to the Class A state basketball championship in 1967, then went to Davidson to play for Lefty Driesell when the Wildcats were a national power.
Dave Ramella: At only 5-foot-5 or 5-6, Ramella was an incredible basketball and baseball player at Welch. He and “Mo” Robinson led Welch to the semifinals of the AAA state basketball tournament in 1974. Ramella went on to play third base for the 1978 Marshall baseball team that defeated Florida State and Clemson in the NCAA tournament. He is being inducted into the Marshall athletic Hall of Fame this fall.
Mike Slater: A football star at Williamson, he was a defensive back on the 1969 WVU Peach Bowl team. He had three interceptions in a 7-6 win over Kentucky in Lexington.
Steve Thornton: In the fall of 1971, he was the QB at Gary. The Coaldiggers won a AA state title in 1970 over Oceana. Interestingly, there was also a Steve Thornton who quarterbacked at Nitro in the fall of 1971. Nitro was 9-1 that season and did not make the playoffs.
Matty Watts: Now you know him as Matthew Watts, a local pastor in Charleston. In the early 1970s, he was Matty Watts, a basketball star at Mount Hope. He went on to be a guard for Goodrich “Pete” Phillips at West Virginia Tech.