MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Steve Newberry had just finished a little scouting up in Tucker County for the Peterstown High football team and was on his way home one fall Saturday afternoon in 1991.
At Davis, W.Va., Newberry headed south on Route 32, passing through Canaan Heights, Dryfork, Harman and other small villages while enjoying the state's Technicolor fall foliage and listening to his West Virginia Mountaineers play Penn State on the radio.
But as he snaked his way through the mountains it became impossible to maintain clear reception of the game, so in order to keep up with things, he began stopping at every little gas station and country store he could find along the way to get updated scores.
“I think it probably took me about six hours to get home,” he laughed.
What Newberry discovered every place he stopped was a small crowd of people huddled around a radio oblivious to almost everything else happening around them. It was as if time had remained suspended in these small towns and communities while the WVU football game was on.
“It was so neat to stop into those places and see all of the local folks sitting around, listening to the game and talking about it,” Newberry recalled.
It was then that he fully understood the true meaning of how special it was to play football at West Virginia University.
This October, Newberry will once again be reminded how special his four-year experience at WVU was when he is officially inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame.
“I’m so taken back,” said Newberry. “I’m just real grateful.”
Newberry came to Morgantown in 1980 as part of Don Nehlen’s first recruiting class that also included players such as Tim Agee, Jeff Deem, Steve Hathaway, Rich Hollins, Kurt Kehl, Billy Legg, Lind Murray, Dave Preston and Rich Walters.
“Not too bad for a couple months on the job, huh,” Newberry said of Nehlen's initial recruiting haul.
Growing up in Peterstown, Newberry lived just 40 miles from Virginia Tech’s campus and although he was never a Hokie fan, he was a big fan of sticking close to home.
“I was a bit of a homebody and they showed interest over here and I thought, well, it’s close to home,” Newberry said. “I can get back to Peterstown just about any time I want. In the early 80s it was a little tougher to get to Morgantown.”
Plus, West Virginia had just gone through a coaching change and Newberry wasn’t sure he was going to fit into Nehlen’s plans.
“I remember when (Frank) Cignetti resigned, or whatever happened, and I went to a high school basketball game down at Hinton to see my girlfriend - now my wife - and we were sitting in the Pizza Hut and I heard on the radio that Coach Nehlen was hired,” said Newberry. “I thought, ‘who?’”
The next day Newberry went digging through his stuff and he found a form letter Nehlen had sent him from Michigan, and later, retained football staff members Donnie Young and Steve Dunlap continued to recruit him. Eventually Dunlap and Young were able to convince Newberry that he could play for the Mountaineers.
“I can’t thank Steve Dunlap enough,” Newberry said. “He believed in me and I’m not sure everybody else was sold on me. He was just so straight-forward with me.”
According to Newberry, when he first made it to campus as a freshman he was probably the weakest player on the football team.
“In a small school like ours our weight training facility consisted of a Universal machine,” Newberry said. “Weight training for us really wasn’t popular and we played every sport coming and going. It just never crossed my mind that I needed to be a lot stronger than I was.
“So when I arrived on campus that first August, and that first weight training session came around, I was scared to death – I was so embarrassed,” he recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘I don’t even know how to lift weights.’”
The first time he slid under the bench with two 45-pound plates on each side of the bar (135 pounds total) and his spotter placed the weight in his hands, Newberry’s arms grew unsteady.
“I let that bar down on my chest and I thought it was going to kill me,” he joked.
Yet when he got on the football field it was a much different story. Nehlen had hired aggressive, young coaches, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and secondary coach Bill McConnell quickly took a liking to Newberry.
Newberry and wide receiver Darrell Miller were about the same height (6 foot 3) and the two seemed to be paired just about every time McConnell lined them up for blocking drills.
“Darrell Miller was the most physical receiver I ever played against and I would have to go against him in those drills,” Newberry said. “We would have two lines of guys and I would always be looking over and counting back to see who I would be going against and it always seemed like I was going against Darrell.
“He would just wear on me and beat on me and after so many repetitions of those drills, I eventually got to where I could handle him every now and then,” Newberry said.
Newberry made his first start at corner as a true freshman against Hawaii, although he recalls very little about that game because he played most of it with a concussion.
“I got dinged up pretty good and I really didn’t know what was going on and I think I started to walk toward Hawaii’s huddle a time or two,” Newberry chuckled. “I’m out on the corner next to Darryl Talley and I was supposed to be in the deep third and for some reason I just kind of stood there and didn’t backpedal too much and my guy just ran right past me.
“They overthrew the pass, but the guy was wide open and I didn’t know what was going on,” Newberry said.
That’s when Mr. Talley intervened.
Talley grabbed Newberry’s facemask and lit into the freshman with a barrage of unprintable words that brought him back to his senses – much, much faster than any smelling salts or ammonia capsules the trainers could have given him.
“That guy’s looks back then were enough to make anybody snap out of whatever state they were in,” Newberry laughed.
It didn’t take Newberry long to fit in with some of the most hard-hitting and aggressive defenses West Virginia University has ever fielded. With players such as Talley, Dennis Fowlkes, Steve Hathaway, Todd Campbell, Dave Oblak, Timmy Agee, Whitey Daniels and Reggie Armstead running around, the practices were like 15-round boxing matches.
Today, those covering football practices with their flip video cameras and camera phones to update their Facebook and Twitter accounts, would have been shocked to watch what Mountaineer practices were like when Newberry played. Back then, it wasn’t considered a good practice unless four or five fights were broken up.
“I think we took on the personality of our coaches,” said Newberry. “Our coaches were aggressive and they taught an aggressive style of defense – flying around and hitting everything that moved,” he said.
And while Agee and Daniels were the headhunters in the secondary, Newberry was the guy always in the right spot to make plays. He picked off six passes his freshman season, had four as a sophomore, and five each his junior and senior years to accumulate 20 career picks – still a WVU record 28 years later.
That’s a remarkable achievement when you consider guys such as Aaron Beasley, Mike Logan and Pacman Jones came after him. Also, Newberry didn’t exactly play during a passing era in college football.
“Yeah, I’m proud of it,” he said of his interception record. “But some day, somebody will come along …”
Yet even more important to him than his interception record were the records his teams accomplished: 6-6 in 1980, 9-3 in 1981, 9-3 in 1982 and 9-3 in 1983 - those coming after records of 5-6 in 1976, 5-6 in 1977, 2-9 in 1978 and 5-6 in 1979.
Newberry could sense the joy and the satisfaction the older players got when they finally began winning football games.
“I remember my freshman year, we won the first game against Cincinnati and then we beat Colorado State the second game. We’re 2-0 and I remember some of the older guys that had been around for a while, they were so excited that we were undefeated,” Newberry said. “We were 2-0 and that had not happened here in a long time.”
Then, West Virginia beat Florida in the Peach Bowl and nine months after that the Mountaineers knocked off nationally-ranked Oklahoma in Norman. That was the beinning of what West Virginia football has become today throughout the state.
“Finishing the ’81 season with the Peach Bowl win and everybody thought we weren’t supposed to win, and then coming back and carrying that momentum into the start of the ’82 year and playing Oklahoma … that was a special time in our program’s history,” he said.
And Steve Newberry was a special player in West Virginia University’s football history.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik