I used to joke with fellow reporters years ago that I didn’t look forward to interviewing coach John Messinger after South Charleston football games because he was such a talker that it put me in a deadline pinch.
But that was all in jest. There was never a bad time to talk with Messinger, a larger-than-life figure and one of the friendliest, most likable coaches I’ve come across in 40-plus years of covering high school sports.
I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news Wednesday morning that Messinger, a two-time Class AAA championship coach, had passed away suddenly at the age of 66. Even now, I feel like I can drive over to the Holley Strength System gym that he ran off Corridor G and chew the fat with him about sports, especially West Virginia high school football.
I’d done that a lot the last four years, especially when my son Dan was working out there at Coach Mess’ gym, which is what most people called it. I’d stop in two or three times a week and we’d go on and on, chatting about all manner of sports and life’s lessons.
Guess he thought I might have the inside scoop on what was happening around the Kanawha Valley and the rest of the state, but truth is he probably told me more new information than I told him. Because he was always talking with someone, always in good humor, always willing to help someone with any sort of task, large or small, inside the gym or out. He was a great supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project.
As a coach and teacher, he helped hundreds of athletes reach their potential at SC High School, and after he retired from coaching in 2012, he helped dozens more — athletes and regular Joes and Janes alike — reach their potential in the world of weight training, an area in which he was a wealth of information, having been a 28-time state champion and five-time national champion powerlifter.
Even though Messinger had been out of coaching for several years, hardly a month went by where someone didn’t try to lure him back in. Maybe it was a head coach in or near Kanawha County, looking for a good man and a good teacher to help whip his guys into shape. Or maybe it was a parent or booster he’d see around town, begging him to come back to coaching and bring that championship aura with him. But he always smiled and politely reminded them that, no thank you, he was done with coaching.
But he wasn’t done with football. No way. He’d show up for an area high school or college game now and then and religiously watched a lot of football on television, especially those midweek MAC games on ESPN that hardly anyone watches. He was always telling me about some little-known team or player who’d impressed him, usually a lineman. Because that’s what he was back in the day at George Washington High School and Marshall University.
This season, after months of trying, GW coach Steve Edwards Jr. finally convinced Messinger to come back to The Hill and be inducted into the school’s Football Hall of Fame, which Messinger did during GW’s home game with Huntington on Sept. 13. Messinger was a captain on the 1973 Patriots team.
Messinger was always proud of what his old schools had accomplished — GW, Marshall and SC — and always had his eyes and ears on them.
And he had the biggest heart of anyone you knew. If someone at the gym had a chore that required help — moving heavy equipment, some odd job on the farm — John was among the first to step up and volunteer, even if it meant driving a long distance. He maintained a special relationship with former state pro boxing champion Tommy “Franco’’ Thomas of Clarksburg, who in recent years has battled health issues. Clarksburg was Coach Mess’ hometown — he was born there and spent much of his early years there before moving to Kanawha County.
Messinger had never met my mother, who at age 94 still gets around pretty well for someone with bad knees and two broken hips in her lifetime, but without fail, every time I showed up at the gym, he wanted to know how she was doing and always ended the inquiry by saying, “Bless her heart.’’
One of the things I’ll always recall about Coach Mess with admiration was his handling of the legal fiasco that followed the forgettable fight and player suspensions at the end of SC’s 2010 quarterfinal playoff game with Hurricane.
As the injunctions and appeals and legal red tape dragged on for two weeks, a lot of people involved on all sides of the issue cowered from media requests for updates and information, but not Messinger. He answered his phone and told you what he knew — no B.S. From my perspective, he made a terrible situation almost tolerable.
But again, that’s just one moment from a man whom I’ll remember for a lot of reasons — and all of them good. His was a life well lived.