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Remembering Playing Football Against Havlicek

My big game occurred on the Bridgeport High School football field in Brookside in the fall of 1956.

I was a junior at Shadyside and began the season as a starting defensive end. A few games into the season, I also started on offense.

We had handily defeated Bridgeport in the two prior seasons; the 1954 team, led by the great John Fleming, by 30 or more points. That team was, in my not- so-humble opinion, the best team in the history of the Ohio Valley because six of its members went on to play at Division I schools. The back-up quarterback, Jon Lang, played for Penn State.

The distinguished editor of the Wetzel Chronicle claims that his alma mater in Paden City also had six players on one of its teams receive athletic scholarships from six big schools. I don’t remember what he told me, but I doubt it. By my account, Paden City has more eccentric characters per square foot than any other team in the valley. My maternal grandparents came from there.

Steve “Whitey” Magyar was the coach for my three years at Shadyside. My senior year was spent at the Reader academy. He would frequently be the coach who would drive the Dilles Bottom contingent home after practice.

One evening I was sitting in the front seat beside Coach, (Gertrude Madden, aunt of the Wheeling attorney Tom Madden, told me after one of the services at St. Paul’s in Sistersville, “If we ever have a dictator in America, his name will be Coach”) and I screwed up my courage enough to ask Coach a question… “Oh, Coach, I have been thinking about the quarterback option. Either way, what I do is wrong. What is the best way to handle this?” (For those who don’t remember the flying wedge, drop kicks, etc., the quarterback option was simplicity itself. The QB lined up under center, took the snap, and went straight down the line. The halfback makes a wide sweep and they do not even bother to block the end. If he — “he” is not sexist in the context — goes for the QB, the QB pitches out to the aiding back. If the end covers the halfback, the QB goes into the line.)

Coach was silent for what seemed a near eternity. When he answered, it was in the best Socratic tradition.

“What do you think you should do?”

I was startled. I had not yet learned the apocryphal lawyer trick: Never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. “You should let the quarterback keep the ball,” I stammered.

“Why?” was the swift reply.

Now I was really stumped. “Oh, because it’s better to have the runner coming through the line, not skirting around it.”

“Right!”

As a result of this conversation, I was on the depth chart for my junior year as the starting defensive end.

It was at some early point in the game under the lights on a Friday evening that I had a chance to put my theory to work.

Big John Havlicek looked like a freight train coming down the line. I took a couple quick steps towards him and then made an exaggerated faux move towards the running back. I took my eyes off Havlicek and when I turned around, he was on top of me. My arms were high to keep him from pitching the ball. I swiftly nailed the quarterback in a bear hug. It prevented him from tossing the ball. We were soon joined by a group of teammates to pull him down.

Now this brings to the fore a question that has plagued me for 64 years: To wit, was I on the field that night with not one, but two Hall of Famers?

“No” was the answer given me by Gordie Longshaw, former Belmont County commissioner. “Phil Niekro only played football his senior year. So you missed your double by one year.”

Which brings to mind Bill Mazeroski, who had the biggest single moment in the history of sports, a walk-off home run against the Yankees, winning the World Series at home.

For those of you who are Pirates fans — and I would hitchhike up for games at a time when if Ralph Kiner struck out, everyone would get up and go home — we can remember that moment, just as we do that fatal gunshot in Dallas.

There were probably thousands of people from the valley who went to see Maz’s last game. I missed that game, but my beloved son and I were there for the dedication of the statue.

But how many “Valley rats” were there on the 9th day of April of 1978 when the Celtics beat the Buffolo Braves? I know of four: The “Godfather” of Marshall County, the Sparchane brothers, and Magistrate Mark Kerwood in Moundsville, who were there for Havlicek’s last game.

Rogers is a resident of New Martinsville.

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