I’ve been a sports fan for 60 years and worked in sports and athletics for over 50 years.
The longer you work in athletics, the more people that you get to know. Young fans follow certain teams, but as you work in athletics and get to know people, you become more of a fan of individuals than you do teams.
For example, in West Virginia, most fans were passionate Los Angeles Lakers fans because Jerry West played for them. When Carl Lee and Randy Moss were playing for the Vikings, many in the Kanawha Valley followed them. Once those players left Minnesota, I am guessing most of those fans could not care less about the purple and gold.
Now my two favorite NFL teams are the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. My best friend in pro football is Clyde Christensen, the quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay. He has coached Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck with the Colts, and now he has Tom Brady under his direction. The new head coach in Carolina is Matt Rhule, who played at State College High School and Penn State University when I lived and worked there. His dad, Denny, was my oldest son’s ninth-grade football coach.
Growing up in southern West Virginia and the Kanawha Valley in the 1960s, here are some of the local sports figures I admired (in chronological order).
Merrill Gainer: The Bluefield football coach was the state’s version of Vince Lombardi in the early 1960s. He won Class AAA football state championships in 1959, 1962, 1965 and 1967.
Ergie Smith: In the days of segregation, he coached Gary District to a Class A state title in 1965. After integration, he led integrated Gary to a Class AA basketball state title in 1973.
Dave Hamilton: He was a big name around the hollows and coal camps of McDowell County. He played on the Gary District team that won a state title in 1965, then became a star at West Virginia State.
Dan D’Antoni: In the 1950s and ‘60s there were lots of Italian families in Wyoming and McDowell counties. My father and other Italian men in the coalfields thought the elder D’Antoni, Lewis, was John Wooden. I first saw the current Marshall coach play when I was 9 years old and he was a player at Mullens High School.
Melvin Walker: In 1965-66, Walker led Dunbar to the Class AAA basketball state championship and a state runner-up finish in football. He is regarded as one of the best athletes in state history.
Oscar Patrick: In McDowell County, he played at segregated Excelsior High School and then at integrated Big Creek. He then went on to be a star wide receiver for Jim Carlen at WVU.
Bob Gresham: He played with Patrick at Big Creek and went on to play on WVU’s 1969 Peach Bowl team and then the NFL with the Saints, Oilers and Jets.
Life was different in the upper Kanawha Valley in the 1960s. East Bank, Montgomery, Cedar Grove, Gauley Bridge and DuPont still had their schools. Towns such as Pratt, Chelyan, Marmet and Leewood (Cabin Creek) had junior highs. Many in those communities could not wait until Friday nights to see such players as Jim Auxier, Poochie Grooms, Mike Kitchen, K.T. Minor, Lanny Steed, Jim Fout, Danny Knapp, Roger Shinn and Neil and Benny Hopkins.