Scott Tinsley still remembers the first time he ever saw J.R. House throw a football. So shocking, it’s something he almost can’t forget.
Tinsley, then the head coach at West Virginia State in 1994, received a request from Rodger House, J.R.’s father, to give a lesson to his eighth-grade son, an aspiring quarterback. As it turned out, Tinsley learned as much as he taught from that session.
“It was kind of a nasty day on a Saturday morning,’’ Tinsley recalled, “so we went into the gym at State. It was supposed to be an hour lesson. But after 15 minutes, I stopped the drills and walked over to Rodger. I told him, ‘Buddy, you’ve got you one right here. He is different. This kid can come take the starting job at State right now.’
“I had never seen that kind of kid before. It took me 15 minutes to figure out that J.R. House was something very special.’’
Even at Hayes Junior High, House was generating buzz as a gifted athlete, and that promise was fulfilled a few years later a few miles across Kanawha County.
Twenty years ago this month, Nitro High School set sail on a season where it did the unthinkable: As one of the smallest schools in Class AAA, it captured West Virginia’s football championship, along the way beating most of the state’s big boys.
Only it didn’t beat them at their own game — pounding the ball between the tackles. No, what the Wildcats did in 1998 was launch Kanawha Valley football into the stratosphere. Under the direction of unconventional head coach Robert “Little’’ Burdette and a staff that included Tinsley, an acknowledged QB guru, they rode House’s strong right arm and a dizzying shotgun offense to scores of state and national records, a perfect 14-0 season and the school’s only state football title in memorable and wildly entertaining fashion.
To verify all of that, you only need check the championship game. Nitro saved its best for last — an incredible 69-52 rout of Morgantown, a game in which the Wildcats set or matched 33 state and national records, with House throwing a then-national-record-tying 10 touchdown passes in front of an overflow crowd at Wheeling Island Stadium.
“We enjoyed the showtime aspect of it, being able to have this unit that was fun to watch,’’ said House, now 38 and a coordinator/coach in the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league baseball system. “People enjoyed watching us play. Whether you agreed with the spread offense or not, people enjoyed watching it and came out to see it.’’
Countdown to takeoff
House and Nitro started slowly in 1995, going 4-6 under Greg Cyrus, who had both Burdette and Tinsley as assistants on his coaching staff. House, averaging about 28 passes per game, threw for 2,015 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Wildcats matched their win total from the previous season and doubled their two-win output from 1993.
The following year, things started to crank up when Burdette took over as head coach and Tinsley started developing the game plans.
Nitro went 7-3 in the 1996 regular season, earning its first playoff berth in 36 years. It put the Wildcats up against Capital in the opening round, and the Cougars administered a 56-20 whipping at Laidley Field, but House didn’t back down, throwing for 376 yards and three TDs against the defending state champions.
“Capital beat us bad, but I saw something special that day,’’ said Burdette, now in his 16th year as a teacher at Waccamaw High in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
“When we came back into our locker room, our kids felt pretty good about what they’d done. And there were a lot of Capital kids coming in there, congratulating our kids and congratulating me. They said, ‘You guys are going to be really good.’ I thought that was a class act on their part.’’
House passed for 3,641 yards and 31 touchdowns that season, winning the first of his two Kennedy Awards as the state’s top player, and with virtually all of the team’s key athletes returning the following year, optimism was sky high. At least until House and his family left Kanawha County three days after the season ended and he enrolled at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Rodger House, who owned car dealerships in both West Virginia and Florida, had homes in each place and for several years, as J.R. grew up, his family spent summers and falls in West Virginia, and winters and springs in Florida, claiming the moves were for business purposes. The arrangement also allowed J.R., a budding baseball star and eventual major leaguer, to hone his game on the diamond in warmer Florida weather.
However, the Houses didn’t uproot J.R. following his freshman season at Nitro, as he also played both basketball and baseball for the Wildcats that school year. But figuring that better competition in Florida would enhance J.R.’s athletic career, they opted to make the move again after his sophomore football season at Nitro — only this time they didn’t return the following summer. J.R. started his junior school year at Seabreeze, playing quarterback there the first three games of the 1997 season.
Dissatisfaction over the direction of the Seabreeze football program — after a 1-2 start — ultimately led the Houses to return to Nitro, where J.R. immediately regained his starting spot four games into the 1997 season. Nitro finished 9-2, losing to DuPont 49-40 in the playoff quarterfinals, and House threw for 2,646 yards and 33 TDs in just seven games for the Wildcats.
With J.R. now nearing some national high school records, most notably the career passing total of 12,104 yards held by Tim Couch, the former Kentucky and soon-to-be Cleveland Browns QB, the battle lines were drawn. Nitro’s coaches and players — along with the Houses — were intent on making 1998 a year to remember with regard to chasing a championship and chasing records, in that order. They didn’t disappoint.
Doing it their way
For Nitro, the road to Wheeling and the Super Six championship game was paved a bit differently than most teams with title aspirations.
You had a coaching staff that, frankly, liked to take risks. A high-flying, no-huddle offense, a penchant for disdaining punts and going on fourth down and a belief in letting the players hold each other accountable as potential problems arose, with the upperclassmen generally policing the team.
“We had a pretty tight-knit group all around,’’ House said. “We didn’t like anyone just coming into our group and messing things up. When someone said something in the newspaper and disrespected someone or kind of took a shot at one of our guys, our guys took it personal. We didn’t let anyone mess up. We took care of things.’’
Burdette threw kudos to the late Cyrus for bringing him onto the Nitro coaching staff in 1994, and especially to Paul McClanahan and Pat Vance, Nitro’s principal and athletic director at that time, respectively, for their part in the program’s natural progression to the 1998 season.
“I have to give them a lot of credit,’’ Burdette said. “They hired us and let us be. They put my guys together [on the coaching staff] and stuck with it through thick and thin, which is not easy. There’s the good and the bad. It’s not easy to change a culture and get everybody to buy in. I learned a lot about loyalty.
“It sounds like coachspeak, but if you’re going to have any athletic success at a school, you have to have great leadership, and that’s what we had. Without Paul and Pat, none of this happens. It allowed the whole school and community to come together. On Fridays, all the faculty and staff wore the same coaches shirts. That means a lot to a high school kid to come to school on game day and everyone’s dressed the same. It’s game day, and it’s on.’’
On game days, Burdette developed the reputation of living like a riverboat gambler. An opposing coach in a tight game once counted nine times Nitro went for it on fourth down. When your base offense calls for passing the ball 40 or 50 times a game — something unheard of at the time in West Virginia — you get used to taking chances.
“We had our skeptics,’’ Burdette said. “My friends in coaching told me, ‘Your way is cute, but it’s not gonna work. People are going to blitz you, and you can’t protect him. Yeah, [House] can throw it but they won’t catch it.’ But because [House] was good, we stuck to our guns and made it work. Sometimes I thought we put him in a tough spot, but he was the best guy we had to try to win.’’
Obstacles to overcome
Yes, Nitro began the 1998 season with a dynamic offense and a record-smashing pitch-and-catch combination in House and senior receiver Chris Martin, who later played at Marshall. But the Wildcats had a few obstacles, too.
In their opener, a 49-32 victory against Winfield, the Wildcats — intent on getting Couch’s yardage record — didn’t run the ball even once as House threw 47 passes. The only two “carries’’ were a sack of House and a mishandled snap that House covered. Senior Zack Collins, the team’s lead running back who eventually became a first-team all-stater, considered quitting right then but was given assurances that the play-calling would mix in more runs, so he stayed.
Early in the season, starting offensive tackle James Cash suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season. Fortunately for the Wildcats, Brian Martin replaced Cash at strong-side tackle and filled in admirably. But attrition kept eating away at the roster. Tinsley said that by the end of the season, Nitro was dressing just 33 players — about half or a third of what other Class AAA contenders were suiting up.
“There were not very many kids,’’ Tinsley said. “We just had the right ones. That’s kind of the way we did it any year I was at Nitro — we played 15 or 16 kids on offense and defense, and some other kids contributed on special teams.’’
Rolling toward 10-0
Nitro football, already a phenomenon in the Kanawha Valley, became a traveling circus in the 1998 season, playing to large crowds nearly everywhere it went — an estimated 6,500 at John Marshall, a three-hour trip to the Northern Panhandle, and later 7,000 for a home game at Underwood Field against nemesis DuPont.
There were also plenty of big moments to go along with those big crowds, as the Wildcats endured some close calls to a cap just their second-ever 10-0 regular season, matching the one from 1960.
n In Game 2 against Hurricane, the Redskins missed an extra-point kick in the fourth quarter and Nitro held on for a 27-26 victory.
n At John Marshall in Game 7, the Monarchs misfired on a 2-point conversion with 1:01 left and the Wildcats emerged with a 34-32 win.
n Then DuPont, the team that knocked Nitro out of the postseason a year earlier, led 24-21 in the second half of Game 8 in a matchup of unbeatens. The Wildcats, however, again stormed back for a 42-24 win in a game where House broke Couch’s national record for career passing yards. DuPont managed only one first down and 30 net yards over the final 21 minutes of the game.
n In the regular-season finale against South Charleston, Nitro nearly trailed by three touchdowns in the first half as SC led 14-0 and was inside the Wildcats 10, but Martin intercepted a pass and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown. Nitro rallied for a 45-35 victory, cementing its 10-0 mark.
Primed for the postseason
It wasn’t just that Nitro navigated its playoff path without a stumble, but whom it got past in doing so. The Wildcats beat four of the state’s largest-enrollment schools — in order, Wheeling Park (56-3), Huntington (27-14), Parkersburg (24-15) and Morgantown. And all the while, the eye-popping numbers kept adding up for House, Martin, Collins and company.
The middle two games were the toughest of the bunch, and each saw Burdette taking huge chances with the game up for grabs.
Against Huntington, the Wildcats led by only five points in the final minute of the first half and had the ball deep in their own end. Instead of taking the safe route, Burdette called for House to throw a dangerous screen pass out of his own end zone, and Collins made it pay off by taking the ball to midfield. Then, with just seconds left, Burdette threw caution to the wind once more and had House heave a long pass to Martin for a TD that gave the Cats a ton of momentum heading into halftime.
That set up perhaps the showdown of the year the following weekend at Stadium Field in Parkersburg — Nitro’s overwhelming offense against the Big Reds’ vaunted defense. Parkersburg had shut out nine of the 10 teams it faced in the regular season and its first-string defense had allowed just three TDs all year. The game attracted a standing-room-only crowd estimated at 13,000 — said to be the largest at Stadium Field in 30 years.
Again, the game turned on a curious decision by Burdette. With the Big Reds ahead 13-7 in the second quarter, he opted to go on fourth-and-6 at his own 24. House threw a 10-yard out to Martin for the first down, and that adrenaline surge sparked the Wildcats.
“I’d told Scott earlier in the game that if we had to kick the ball, they could blow us out,’’ Burdette said. “When [Martin] caught that ball and got a first down, it felt like we sent a little message there, and our guys got really excited. I can’t stand kicking when I know I’ve got that guy back there. It was probably the dumbest call in the history of high school sports, but we got away with it.’’
Nitro’s defense, maligned all season for giving up oodles of yards and points to lesser teams — primarily because it played backups in order to keep the score relatively close, thus keeping House in the game — actually outplayed Parkersburg’s defense during its landmark 24-15 triumph. The Wildcats allowed no offensive TDs to the Big Reds and their bevy of playmakers, including aspiring major leaguer Nick Swisher, the team’s top rusher. PHS managed a defensive TD, two field goals and a gift safety as Nitro forced five turnovers, two of them fumbles caused by hard hits from House.
“I said all along that J.R. was a Kennedy Award winner,’’ Burdette said, “but he might have been the best linebacker in the state as well. He was a football player. He could hit people.’’
An interception by Jeff Clark at the end of the game sealed it for the Wildcats, who earned their first trip to the Wheeling Super Six to face Morgantown.
“I give Nick Swisher crap about that every time I see him,’’ House said.
That Wheeling feeling
The weather in Wheeling isn’t always favorable on the first weekend of December, and 20 years ago Island Stadium had yet to be fitted with artificial turf. But Nitro caught a break when the AAA finals against Morgantown were played on a dry, 60-degree day. And in their biggest game, the Wildcats were at the top of their game.
With an overflow crowd of 11,500 watching, House threw seven touchdown passes in the first half as Nitro vaulted into a 41-6 lead. That grew to 48-6 on the Cats’ first possession of the second half and, despite the Mohigans’ late onslaught, the outcome was never in doubt. In order to keep House in the game (and throwing), Nitro played its backup defense nearly the entire way.
“At halftime,’’ Tinsley said, “our thing was, ‘How can we keep everyone interested and have a good time with this, but not embarrass Morgantown?’ Obviously, we took all of our [defensive] starters out after the first series and most all of them [sat] the second half. We didn’t have a problem with [Morgantown] scoring because when they scored, it allowed us to score. I don’t want to sound [boastful], but we felt like every time we had the ball, we had a really good chance to score.’’
House ended his dream day 43 of 60 passing for 594 yards and 10 TDs with one interception. That pick was returned by the Mohigans to the Nitro 1, setting up a Chris Yura touchdown — just the fifth TD allowed by Nitro’s No. 1 defense in its four playoff games. Not bad for a small school with so few players.
For the season, House hit on 425 of 610 attempts for 5,526 yards and 65 TDs — all national passing records at the time. He ended up with 14,457 career yards, also a national mark. As time passed, however, that figure has now fallen to seventh-best. He still stands fourth in career completions and attempts, his highest ranking in any one category.
And that high-risk offense that so many naysayers criticized? In 1998, House was sacked only eight times all season with close to 650 dropbacks, and he threw only 12 interceptions, including a streak of 289 straight passes without being picked. Martin’s 132 receptions for the season also represented a national record.
Four Nitro players earned first-team all-state honors — House, Martin, Collins and offensive lineman Jesse Wisnewski. Defensive lineman Joey Murphy was a second-team selection. Other key contributors were Clark, lineman Matt Brewer, defensive backs Chris Higginbotham and Clarence Joyner and kicker Barry Dickerson.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal to be part of something like that,’’ said Tinsley, who is currently serving as an assistant coach at George Washington.
Burdette, who spent 10 years as an assistant football coach in South Carolina (2002-11) and also coached girls basketball there, got out of coaching entirely in 2014.
Martin now sells insurance in the Parkersburg area. House is presently a roving field coordinator/catching coordinator in the Diamondbacks system, touring the parent team’s nine minor-league affiliates, seven in the United States and two in the Dominican Republic.
House marvels at how it all came together 20 years ago.
“It was kind of a unique circumstance to have that many good players on one team,’’ he said. “We couldn’t wait to get better each and every day, and we enjoyed practice. It never felt like work.
“I think as a team, we liked contact, We got a lot of it in practice, and that’s a big thing these days in football, avoiding contact and being careful and head collisions. All that stuff is important, but we liked to hit, and we did a lot of it. We tried to bring that physical aspect to each game.’’
The bigger picture
Tinsley was asked if Nitro’s remarkable journey changed the face of football in West Virginia. These days, it’s hard to drive 50 miles in any direction on a Friday night in the fall and not run into a wide-open, shotgun-type offense.
“Football has definitely changed,’’ Tinsley said. “Everybody’s going in that direction. But I don’t know if we were the ones who changed it.
“Where we had the advantage is that we were one of the first ones. That made it hard for defensive coordinators. It was kind of like defending the triple option. Because one time a year, you had to defend against 50 pass attempts in a game. It was just so different than defending stuff from other teams, so much different for defensive linemen who weren’t used to pass rushing 45, 50 times in a ballgame. Did we change it? I don’t know about that, but we had a heck of an advantage because we were one of the first ones at the time we did it.’’
House, meanwhile, oddly enough credits all the travels during his formative years as instrumental for his eventual career in major and minor league baseball.
“That was kind of the norm for me and my family,’’ he said, “because we did it all the way through my childhood years. It didn’t seem all that drastic. Spending time in one place wouldn’t have prepared me nearly as well for a lifetime in professional baseball. Moving through the minor leagues, I became a little bit more diversified and was able to move around and meet people.
“I was put in some tough situations as a kid, and it really helped me further along in life. We talk about changing the culture all the time within professional baseball, and our organization trying to make a winner. [Like at Nitro], sometimes you try to win with a little less.’’