MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Walter Easley, a fullback on Don Nehlen’s first West Virginia football team and the first player to score a touchdown at New Mountaineer Field, has died.
Easley passed away in his native Charleston, W.Va., earlier today.
“Walt was a heck of a player,” said Nehlen. “I only had him for one year, but I got to know him really well over the last 15 years and those last 10 years were really tough for him.”
Easley, 55, was a Parade All-American as the state’s top prep prospect in 1976 and was West Virginia’s No. 1 recruiting target after rushing for more than 3,500 career yards at Stonewall Jackson High. He was the first in a run of exceptional Mountain State players who chose WVU during Frank Cignetti’s four-year coaching tenure with the Mountaineers that ended in 1979.
The others included two-time Kennedy Award winner Robert Alexander from South Charleston, Fulton Walker from Martinsburg, Mike Dawson from New Martinsville and Calvin Turner from West Fairmont (also hailing from West Virginia during that period was Pineville’s Curt Warner, who chose Penn State, Wheeling Park’s Rico Cox, who picked Pitt, and Dave and Larry Phillips from Parkersburg, who went to Ohio State). Four of the five guys who went to West Virginia ended up playing professional football.
“The state was still producing some really good football players back then,” recalled Walker, who once held the Super Bowl record for the longest kickoff return for a touchdown as a member of the Miami Dolphins. “Those had to be some of the best classes the state has produced.”
“Everyone wanted (Easley),” said former WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong, then serving as West Virginia’s football recruiting coordinator. “Garrett Ford and Frank Cignetti closed the deal, but the whole state recruited him.”
Ford, a longtime assistant coach and athletic department administrator, was in charge of recruiting the state’s top players back then and he was responsible for landing both Easley and Alexander.
“Walt was such a big kid and a good athlete,” Ford recalled. “My assignment back then was to recruit the best kids in West Virginia and Walt was the best player in West Virginia (in 1976).”
The recruiting rules were much different than they are today and Ford said he often spent a good portion of each week down in Charleston leading up to signing day just to land Easley. He did the same thing a year later with Alexander, considered the nation’s No. 1 high school running back in 1977.
“I didn’t have 15 or 16 kids to recruit; I took the best kid in the state and I recruited only him,” said Ford. “I would leave Morgantown on Monday and would stay down there until Thursday when I would come back and meet with the staff for our recruiting meetings. I would go to the house and his mom would fix food for us. I used to play Walt one-on-one in basketball and I told him if I beat him he had to come to West Virginia.”
At that time, signing day was May 10 and coaches were allowed to be present when prospects signed their grants. Ford recalled sitting in Easley’s living room with five other college coaches anxiously waiting for him to make his decision.
“Walt was upstairs and all of us were just sitting there waiting for him to come down and tell us which school he was going to sign with before he went to school that morning,” said Ford. “After he made up his mind, you tried to play it off like it was nothing, sitting there wishing everybody good luck and all, but you were sweating it out.”
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Easley spent his first two years in the Mountaineer program at fullback, and then after sitting out the ’78 season, he was moved to linebacker during his junior year in ’79 to help an ailing WVU defense.
“He could play anywhere,” said Pastilong. “He was big, fast, strong and smart. He was a heck of a player.”
In 1980, when Nehlen arrived, Easley returned to fullback lined up in front of Alexander in the I-formation.
“Walt was a fullback,” said Nehlen. “And Robert Alexander in that split-back veer was not the right spot for him because he had such great vision. With those two guys back there we had a heck of a backfield. I just wished I had them both longer than I did.”
Alexander ran for more than 1,000 yards his senior season and Easley contributed 833 additional yards while scoring a team-best eight touchdowns, including a 4-yard plunge against Cincinnati in the first-ever game at Mountaineer Field. His name will forever be a part of Mountaineer lore for that TD because it was the first one scored in the history of the stadium. Easley finished the game with 89 yards rushing and two touchdowns in WVU’s memorable 41-27 victory.
“With Walt, we ran the fullback,” said Nehlen.
Easley ended his Mountaineer career with 1,773 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns before catching on with the San Francisco 49ers when Coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana were transforming the 49ers into one of pro football’s most dominant teams.
Easley played on San Francisco’s Super Bowl XVI championship team in 1981 and spent another year with the 49ers before signing a much more lucrative contract with the Chicago Blitz of the USFL for the 1983 season. Easley played another year in the new pro league with the Pittsburgh Maulers in 1984.
“I wished he would have stayed with the 49ers instead of going with the big money,” said Walker. “If he would have stayed he would have received a pension because he would have had a long career at San Francisco. That pension would have helped him a lot with his health issues.”
Walker said he had lost track of Easley until several years ago when the two ran into each other in Washington, D.C. Walker said they periodically hung out together until Easley became ill and was forced to return to Charleston.
“Once he got sick and had to go back home I kind of lost track of him again because back then we didn’t have cell phones and numbers always changed,” said Walker. “Walt was having trouble with his kidneys and (former Mountaineer teammate) Reggie (McLee) took him down to Atlanta to get a transplant and stay with him and take care of him. He really helped out Walt a lot.”
So did many of Easley’s former Mountaineer teammates and coaches. About 10 years ago, the team held a series of fundraisers and benefits to offset some of the costs for the transplant, which helped sustain him until his health began to deteriorate recently.
“Walt was having some issues with his heart and he was sort of keeping us away whenever we would call to see how he was doing,” said Walker. “He just didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
Walker said Easley was discovered in his house this morning sitting in his La-Z-Boy chair with the television remote still in his hand.
“He was our big brother,” Walker said. “He picked us up and led us. He was such a great leader.”
“It just makes me sick,” added Nehlen. “He was a guy everybody liked and we’re going to miss him.”Log on to Mountaineer football's Official Facebook page to post your favorite Walt Easley memory.