And then there were 21. For those of you who went to college, I’m sure you can remember that first day of summer orientation when some person of authority spoke to you about the things that you needed to do to remain a college student for, say, four, five, six, or, in the case of you Tommy Callahans out there, seven or eight years.
Yes, they also call those eight-year guys doctors, too.
Nevertheless, I recall pretty clearly the lady standing up in front of us and asking all of us to look around the huge auditorium in which we were sitting while casually mentioning that about half the people in the room wouldn’t be around for graduation. Now more than 25 years later, thinking back to the cast of characters that were running around the hallways of Dadisman Hall my freshman year at WVU in 1986, her assessment was right on the money.
Well, there are 21 West Virginia University football players who will be running through the tunnel one final time this Saturday afternoon so that we can continue to have our tailgates and our watch parties while enjoying the weekly fall ritual we call Mountaineer football.
These are the guys who stuck it out – through the good times and the bad, the coaching changes, the conference switches, the bowl victories, the disappointing losses and whatever else popped up during four or five of the most important years of their lives.
“I tell recruits all the time and just different people that college is where you transition from being a boy to a man,” explained senior running back Shawne Alston
. “You’re on your own. You start living in your own apartment. You’ve got to pay your bills and start setting up different time management schedules. Your mom is not waking you up for school in the morning, so it’s where you start your transition into being a grown up.”
So who are these guys?
Well, they come from everywhere – West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Texas … you name it. Some come here shy and introverted; others arrived attempting to be brash, outspoken and seemingly tough – at least as brash and as tough as any 18-year-old can be.
They are tall, short, thin, plump, well-chiseled, chubby, gangly ... but most assuredly all of them were unsure of themselves, just like we were when we were 18.
Some arrived with bad hair and bad clothes and are leaving with bad hair and bad clothes; others with less hair than they would like. They wear their headphones like jewelry and carry around their smartphones like it is the most important possession in the world to them, which they are, considering how little money they have in their pockets and how much of a link to the outside world those devices are.
Conversations with them oftentimes include long, awkward pauses while they check their phones for messages, texts, tweets, Facebook posts and other notifications. The video games they play are much more intimate and personal than the ones we grew up with. Our generation had to patiently wait among a group of kids lined up behind a refrigerator-sized contraption like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong to unload a pocket full of quarters and unburden our minds. Today, they just fire up their phones and start clicking away.
Yet in many ways, these kids today are much smarter and more sophisticated than we were, much more aware of their surroundings and more in tune with the world around them. They are also keenly more aware of themselves and what other people are thinking (and saying) about them – thanks, of course, to modern technology.
And anonymity has never been more anonymous than it is today. Years ago when I was in school, if somebody wanted to call out a player they had to at least be man enough to do it in front of him. If the editor of the student newspaper wrote something derogatory about the football team, he or she was likely to expect a knock on their dorm room door the next day to have a discussion with half the team about it.
Now, many fans can hide behind their computer screens and serve up their opinions – mostly based on half-truths and opinions - at will and without consequence to the Internet message boards and chat rooms.
That is the environment these guys are required to grow up in today, oftentimes under the same scrutiny we dole out to our political leaders and elected officials, and most of them managing to carry on with such class and dignity that it really is uplifting to those of us who observe them on a daily basis and wonder how we would have reacted under similar circumstances and at a similar age.
Read this bit of wisdom from senior quarterback Geno Smith
: “Mentally, as a person I’ve grown with years and age, and I think that’s something we all do, we all mature,” he said. “I’ve been able to do it in front of the Mountaineer media, fans, coaches and staff. It’s been good for me, it’s life-changing; it has helped me grow into a better, older, wiser man. And I’m thankful for it.”
Smith also understands that what he does and how he performs on Saturdays has great meaning to Mountaineer football fans everywhere.
“Being here has helped me realize just how important it is to the community, to everyone around here, to the players, to the staff – from the cooks in the back to the people who help us with academics – it’s just an important program to everyone, and everyone needs to come together to make it work,” he said. “That’s a blessing, and a good thing about the program here.”
Those read like words coming from a 44-year-old man, not someone 21 or 22 with most of his life in front of him.
So when these 21 guys run out of the tunnel for the final time on Saturday afternoon, be sure to give them a big hand for all of the touchdowns they’ve scored, all of the records they’ve broken and all of the wonderful things that they have accomplished during their West Virginia University careers.
But also be sure to give them a tip of the cap for seeing it through and finishing what they started. That’s one of life’s great lessons that all of us can appreciate - no matter how old or young we are.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.