EDITOR’S NOTE: Ninth in a series. Staff writer Rick Ryan has seen a lot come and go in his newspaper career. Following are recollections from his days at the Wheeling Intelligencer (1978-90), Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times (1990-94) and Charleston Gazette-Mail (1994-2020).
One of the perks of hanging around the business long enough is that you get to see several athletes in their formative years, before they strike it big on a national stage.
Here are remembrances of some of those players I got to meet before they were stars, beginning with the most recent and going backward in time:
Ryan Switzer: Think Switzer’s not a “star?’’ Think again. He’s one of just six players to win a pair of Kennedy Awards, which goes to the top high school football player in West Virginia.
He also tied an NCAA single-season record with five punt return touchdowns for North Carolina as a mere freshman in 2013, and ended up as the Tar Heels’ career leader in receptions and receiving yards. Switzer is now in his fourth NFL season, serving as a receiver and kick returner for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But back in the day, he made his name at George Washington as a dynamic running back, the position that got him most of his touchdowns and most of the glory that led to his two Kennedy Awards. After serving as a supplementary running back during his freshman season in 2009, Switzer was moved to receiver the following year because the Patriots already had an accomplished ball-carrier in Felix Mollett, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2010.
Even though Switzer racked up 103 touchdowns at George Washington, two moments — well, actually three — stick out for me as I recall his prep career, and only one involves a score.
The first came on the penultimate play of his junior season, as GW was backed up deep in its own end, trailing Martinsburg 35-27 late in the 2011 Class AAA title game in Wheeling. Patriots quarterback Trevor Bell unleashed a Hail Mary pass down the middle of the field and a streaking Switzer had beaten a pair of defenders, but the ball was inches long and he could only get one hand on it and it fell incomplete with five seconds left. A touchdown there, and who knows?
The second (and third) recollection comes from GW’s opener the following season at South Charleston. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Switzer took a simple toss to the right and scooted into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown. Perhaps the Patriots had become so accustomed to his explosive plays that it hardly registered. I watched Switzer’s path from the end zone back to the GW bench through my binoculars and only one person — a freshman backup standing on the sideline — came over to congratulate him.
Before the first quarter was over, however, Switzer was dealt a significant setback. While chasing an incomplete pass near the visitors sideline, he fell head-first onto the then rock-hard ground at Oakes Field, suffering a concussion and bruised shoulder. He missed the next two games, but was able to bounce back in a big way and capture another Kennedy Award, finishing the season with 40 TDs.
Jason Williams: I pretty much missed out on the heydays of the DuPont trio of Randy Moss, Bobbie Howard and Williams, all of whom went on to big-league fanfare. I arrived in Charleston in May of 1994 when Williams was already graduating from high school. Moss and Howard had one more football season left with the Panthers at that point, but I was stuck in the office for about a year designing pages and taking phone calls, so I never got to see them play, though I did talk to Howard following the North-South football game that I covered in the summer of 1995.
I did get to see Williams later, however, as he played one season at Marshall in 1995-96 after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. That was during my two years as a beat writer for the Thundering Herd in the mid-1990s. Williams averaged 13.4 points and 6.4 assists for an MU team that went 17-11 under Billy Donovan. Following that season, Williams followed Donovan to Florida, sat out a year as a transfer and played one season for the Gators before being taken with the No. 7 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
Williams had a lot of flash and substance to his game, which made him fun to watch. As far as giving interviews to reporters, well, let’s just say he was mostly disinterested. The one lingering memory I have is going to Western Carolina in February of 1996 to cover the Herd’s 125-104 loss to the Catamounts, a game in which Williams broke loose with 31 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
He looked so good that my former sports editor at the Asheville Citizen-Times, Doug Mead, raved about Williams’ performance, and Mead was (by his own admission) not a guy to give any love to the Herd back in its days competing in the Southern Conference.
O.J. Mayo: Mayo, a Huntington native, had certainly generated a lot of interest before he came back to his hometown to play his senior season of high school ball with the Highlanders in 2006-07. He led Rose Hill Christian in Ashland to the Kentucky state tournament in 2003 and later won back-to-back Ohio Division III state titles at North College Hill outside Cincinnati, twice being awarded Ohio’s Mr. Basketball honor.
By the time he began playing with the Highlanders, Mayo had already signed with Southern Cal in a one-and-done college arrangement, as he intended to declare for the 2008 NBA Draft. In Mayo’s lone season in West Virginia, Huntington wasn’t just playing for a Mountain State Athletic Conference or Class AAA state championship, but had designs on an unofficial national title and played in front of sellout crowds all across the state and the Southeast. Two of the Highlanders’ games were on ESPN networks and they also played at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky, and twice at Marshall’s Henderson Center.
Huntington wound up ranked as high as third in some national prep polls at season’s end and Mayo was the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, but was later dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies.
I probably saw 10 to 12 Highlanders games that season as they garnered more media attention than any high school team I can ever recall. College coaches from national powers flocked to the games to watch the talented team, which included past state player of the year Patrick Patterson, who would also graduate to the NBA after competing at Kentucky.
Mayo caught me by surprise following his team’s wildly successful opening 94-46 win against Nitro at University of Charleston’s Eddie King Gym, which included 31 points and six dunks by Mayo. A couple of days before the game, I’d written a column wondering how the Highlanders — who already had a good thing going as two-time defending AAA champs, and returned four starters — would accept Mayo and the attention he would certainly attract as the nation’s No. 1 recruit.
As I got ready to leave the locker room after picking up a few postgame comments from Huntington players, Mayo said half-kiddingly: “Maybe I should ask you what you thought about [how they accepted me].’’ I turned and smiled. I couldn’t believe he actually recognized me.
After eight seasons in the NBA, Mayo was dismissed from the league in 2016 for violating terms of the anti-drug program. He currently plays in the Chinese Basketball Association after pro stints in Puerto Rico and Taiwan.
Eddie Drummond: In 1997, I was able to clear my schedule on a fall Saturday and headed to Wheeling to watch Linsly’s Drummond do his thing on the football field. I came away impressed and wrote a lengthy feature the following week on the senior running back and Pittsburgh native who was getting recruited by the likes of Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame and Penn State.
There was a lot to like about Drummond’s game, especially his speed — clocked at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 10.52 seconds in the 100-meter dash, at the time faster than James Jett’s state-meet record of 10.62 seconds in the 100. In the game I saw, Drummond carried five times for 113 yards and three touchdowns in a 60-20 win against Summit Academy, Pennsylvania, and also returned a kickoff 88 yards for a score.
Drummond was so spectacular that season that he finished second to Morgantown’s Chris Yura in voting for the Kennedy Award, a feat practically unheard of for a player from a program that wasn’t part of the Secondary School Activities Commission. Since Linsly, a boarding school, has no defined boundaries for drawing its student population, it is ineligible for SSAC membership.
The thing I’ll remember most about watching Drummond play was how defenses reacted to his blinding speed. When the Cadets tossed the ball to him on a pitch play around end, the linebackers almost instantaneously pulled up because he already had the angle to get past them and was running free down the sideline. A millisecond later, the defensive backs were also doing the same.
Drummond eventually opted for Penn State, taking the same path that Pineville’s Curt Warner had followed a generation before — a West Virginia running back carving out a productive career for Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. Drummond got his shot in the NFL, too, playing five seasons for the Detroit Lions and one for the Kansas City Chiefs, mostly as a kick return specialist. In 2004, he was voted to the Pro Bowl for his return skills, which included two punt runbacks for TDs and two kickoff returns for scores.
Joey Galloway: One of the regrets during my days with The Intelligencer in Wheeling is that I never got to interact with Galloway, who was a four-sport athlete at nearby Bellaire (Ohio) High School. I covered a few of his basketball games with the Big Reds of coach Gene Ammirante, and he was a fantastic point guard, but we didn’t do many player interviews back then, so nothing ever materialized.
Another factor was that his main sport — football, which led to a starring role at Ohio State and a 16-year NFL career — was played mostly on Saturday afternoons. Bellaire’s Nelson Field has never been fitted with lights, so the Big Reds never played Friday night home games. At the time, The Intell staff didn’t work on Saturdays since its sister paper, the Wheeling News-Register, put out the Sunday edition, so I missed out on several opportunities there.
By the time Galloway had his big senior season at Bellaire in 1990, I was already living and working in North Carolina, so there’s another swing and a miss at a possible player feature.
Willie Clay: Like Drummond, Clay attended Linsly School in Wheeling, which at the time of his enrollment in the late 1980s was a military institution. Clay was a three-sport standout in football, basketball and baseball for the Cadets. I covered his games in basketball more than any other sport.
He got the name “Big Play’’ Clay for coming up clutch in key moments. He had a school-record 16 career interceptions at Georgia Tech, playing for the 1990 national champion Yellow Jackets, then moved on to an eight-year NFL career, which included starting in the 1997 Super Bowl for the Patriots. His end zone interception of Mark Brunell in the final minutes helped ensure New England’s victory against Jacksonville in the AFC championship game, landing the Patriots that Super Bowl berth.
That trait seemed to run in his family. An uncle, Dwight Clay, played basketball at Notre Dame, hitting the winning shot that snapped UCLA’s 88-game unbeaten streak in 1974.
I didn’t get to talk much with Willie during his days at Linsly, but I distinctly remember a pleasant conversation we had in the Cadets’ locker room following one of their Saturday afternoon home games.