It took a case of food poisoning for Wayne Gatewood to get his big break with the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The year was 1975 and the setting was Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. West Virginia was facing NC State in the Peach Bowl and Gatewood, a sophomore backup tackle, figured to spend the game watching from the sidelines.
“I never played the whole year and the day that we walked into the Peach Bowl Tom Brandner got food poisoning and I had to play,” recalled Gatewood. “Thank God I didn’t screw up because that was my shot. I was ready to sit and watch and I ended up playing 80 percent of the Peach Bowl.”
West Virginia wound up defeating the favored Wolfpack, 13-10, in what turned out to be Coach Bobby Bowden’s final game at WVU. Days later Bowden left to take over Florida State’s struggling program and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti was hired to replace him.
“When we won that Peach Bowl everybody was looking for things to change,” said Gatewood. “Whoever was right there had to keep it moving and if you didn’t keep it moving it wasn’t going to happen.”
Unfortunately for Cignetti, he wasn’t able to keep it moving in the right direction for a variety of reasons. West Virginia had losing campaigns all four years Cignetti coached the Mountaineers from 1976-79, including Gatewood’s two seasons as the team’s starting split tackle in 1976 and 1977.
“I wasn’t a real power blocker, but I was real good with cutoff blocks,” Gatewood admitted. “My guy would never cut across my face and get a backside tackle. The other thing is with the pass protection, I always blocked the speed rushers.”
Gatewood came to WVU from the Midwest where he was a touted prospect at Columbus (Ohio) West High School. Former assistant coach George “Duke” Henshaw was the Mountaineer recruiter who beat out a number of schools for Gatewood’s services in the spring of 1974.
“I could have gone anywhere in the country,” Gatewood said. “I could have gone to Michigan State, Colorado … I was a 60-foot shot putter and I could have gone to Tennessee, but when I was visiting those places the people I met weren’t real. Everything was fake.
“When I was in school I was very sensitized to people who liked me and people who didn’t, and when I came to Morgantown and I visited I could tell the people who liked you spoke to you and looked at you and the ones who didn’t, didn’t, and I was comfortable everywhere I went here,” said Gatewood.
At first, Gatewood said the plan was for him was to play defensive tackle for the Mountaineers.
“Bobby Bowden recruited me as a defensive lineman but I didn’t want to play defense,” he said. “Defense is an instinctive position. My guy was Bob ‘The Boomer’ Brown. That’s why I wore number 76 because of him. He was not only a great offensive tackle, but he was a great student, too.”
Gatewood became a full-time starter in ’76 at split tackle in Cignetti’s veer offense and was elected offensive team captain in ’77. The defensive captain that year was Tommy Pridemore.
“My favorite guy was Tom Pridemore because that guy always found the ball,” said Gatewood. “I don’t care if it was in a pile of hay he could find it and that’s why he picked off all those passes.”
Gatewood played on offensive lines at WVU that weren’t very big or very deep. Offensive guard Steve Earley was West Virginia’s biggest offensive lineman in 1976, weighing 242 pounds, while tight tackle Tom Creeden was the Mountaineers’ biggest O-lineman in 1977 weighing 250 pounds. The heaviest Gatewood said he ever got was 235. Today, that would be considered just an average weight for a fullback or a linebacker.
“That was my best weight,” he said. “Anything over that and I felt like I was fat. I always tell people the Pittsburgh Steelers were averaging about 260 across the front at that time.”
West Virginia’s starting center, Clay Singletary, weighed less than 225 pounds and actually was a quarter-miler in high school.
“Clay wasn’t nothing to play with, though,” marveled Gatewood.
Back then, West Virginia always seemed to struggle blocking the much bigger defensive fronts that Pitt and Penn State threw at them, but Gatewood said his roughest games were always against Maryland. The Terps then were using that Wide Tackle Six defense that Coach Jerry Claiborne used to play.
“It was confusing because even though we studied it, it just didn’t make sense,” said Gatewood. “When we got into a game it was like Greek, especially the first time we faced those guys. They just beat us like we stole something. My junior year (1976), Joe Campbell, their All-American defensive end, I remember just laying on top of (running back) Dwayne Woods. He just took it to me.”
The next year in the ’77 opener, however, Gatewood got his revenge in College Park. West Virginia’s 24-21 upset victory over the 11th-rated Terps was one of the best triumphs of that era.
“I played with a broken foot that day,” said Gatewood. “My foot was already fractured and I was so mad I said there is no way I can’t play some. It was like a guy coming into your neighborhood and beating your butt – you just can’t wait to find him. When we got out there … Duck Riley, Walt (Easley) … we would have run away from them but (wide receiver) Steve Lewis got his collarbone broken, (Ken) Braswell got his knee blown out and after about a quarter I had to pack it in.”
West Virginia may have won the battle that afternoon against the Terps, but it lost the war. The Mountaineers didn’t have the depth to overcome the injuries they sustained in that game and went on to post another losing season – the third of four straight for Cignetti.
“I think that we didn’t have a strong enough bench,” said Gatewood. “The thing that helped us win in ’75 is we had seniors backing up juniors. For example, that Maryland game, when the three of us got hurt the rest of the year we were struggling. I’ll tell you this, too, ’76 would have been a stronger year if we had gotten to play. Our offensive line my junior year - none of us had really any game experience except for Clay.”
Gatewood admitted that he didn’t really understand the game of college football until the end of his junior season. He also said Cignetti was a good football coach with a good football mind - he just lacked the experience some of the other coaches had that the Mountaineers were facing during that period of time.
“He talked football and he knew what he was doing, but I just think he was young in his career,” said Gatewood. “It happened to Coach Bowden when he was there, too; these guys were just young. I used to listen to (Cignetti) and Coach (Joe) Pendry talk football. They really understood football – the application of football.”
Gatewood said he came to understand their predicament when he first joined the business world after receiving his degree from WVU in 1979.
“When I came out of college I was 23 and I was running like a Denny’s and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said. “Somebody gave me an opportunity and I learned as I went along and that was what happened with Coach Bowden and Coach Cignetti. You can criticize somebody, but when you look back on it, when you get a position before you are ready, you are going to struggle.”
Today, Gatewood is helping young people in the Columbus area with his The Builder Program
that involves students in carpentry by teaching them the practical applications of math and science in their everyday lives.
“I do workshops with students,” said Gatewood. “A lot of kids are fearful of math so we work with them on measurements and immediately applying that to building something. We always have them build something that they can take with them and then we work with them, just trying to help them find out who they are and the gifts God gave them so we can get them thinking about their careers.”
Gatewood said he works with kids as young as six or seven all the way up through high school. He has also been invited to speak at workshops at WVU through the Health Sciences and Technology Academy.
“It’s a jewel in the crown of WVU,” Gatewood says.
Back in his West Virginia days, Gatewood said he used to go to class in his bib overalls and shower shoes and today he dresses the same way when he works with young kids.
“When you’re a teenager you feel kind of odd and weird, so I kind of come in looking weird and it kind of connects with them,” he chuckled.
Gatewood is happy to return to his alma mater whenever he gets the chance, imparting his wisdom on others, including the fellas who are now playing college football today. He was once in their shoes.
“All colleges need to do this … bring back guys who didn’t make the pros, aren’t millionaires, but did OK and made a decent living for themselves,” Gatewood said. “A lot of us have."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.