Each summer, right around the end of July, West Virginia University football players used to get a giant knot in their stomachs.
That’s the time of year when the calendar flipped to August and they realized that they were going to be making a two-hour trip down to the state’s 4-H camp in Jackson’s Mill for a couple of weeks of hell.
No, it wasn’t quite the Junction Boys - Bear Bryant’s legendary first training camp at Texas A&M that was later turned into a famous book and movie - but what the Mountaineer players went through down at Jackson’s Mill wasn’t a walk in the park, either.
First of all, Jackson’s Mill is a wonderful place nestled within the natural beauty of West Virginia. The campgrounds are clean, the cottages are well kept and the staff there has always been hard working and courteous. It’s just that 19, 20 and 21-year-old males are typically more interested in seeing their girlfriends instead of being cooped up in the woods with a bunch of hairy, smelly guys for a couple of weeks during the hottest time of the year.
What takes place today during fall training camp pales in comparison to what the Mountaineer players used to endure in north-central West Virginia in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
“It was a tough two weeks,” recalled wide receiver Bob Dunlevy, a three-year letterman for the Mountaineers from 1963-65.
Ed Pastilong, former WVU quarterback and later the school’s athletic director, referred to it as a “Marine boot camp,” while New Jersey defensive back John Mallory called Jackson’s Mill a “Spartan environment.”
“When you went to Jackson’s Mill it was all about football,” said Mallory. “There was nothing else to do. They had us housed in cabins and we all had bunk beds. There weren’t any independent rooms like we got later in my career when we stayed in the dorms.”
The tradition of West Virginia training its football players in Jackson’s Mill first began in 1921 when Clarence Spears was coaching the team, and continued on an intermittent basis for four decades until Jim Carlen finally ended the practice in 1966.
Coaches Art Lewis and Gene Corum particularly liked going there because they could focus their players solely on football for two weeks before the season began.
“Pappy loved it,” retired Morgantown Dominion-Post sports editor Mickey Furfari remembered. “When he first got the job and found out that was where they were going to practice he thought it was great. He said a lot of pro teams would have loved taking their players down there to train because there were no distractions.”
Imagine being out in the middle of the woods with very little in the way of modern amenities and nothing else to do but beat on each other twice a day for two hours at a time … well, that’s basically what Jackson’s Mill was to most of the guys who went down there.
“You weren’t going anywhere,” laughed Joe Taffoni, a tough offensive lineman who lettered for WVU in 1964-65. “They had you penned up. We didn’t have TV, radios or anything, so all we really did for two weeks was football.”
A camping we will go …
Before the beginning of each school year on a Sunday afternoon in August, the team would assemble in downtown Morgantown in front of Communtzi's Restaurant on High Street before piling into four school buses and then traveling down a series of two-lane highways to Jackson’s Mill. For most of them, it was like they were going off to boot camp or something much worse.
“I’m from Western Pennsylvania and the coaches told us we were going to a resort,” said Taffoni. “A resort? I’m thinking the Marriott or something like that. We went down there and looked around and I looked at a couple of my buddies and we just started laughing out loud.”
“I had no idea where Jackson’s Mill was,” mentioned Dunlevy, who grew up in Wheeling and still lives there. “I had no idea where we were going and when we got down there we were under the demand of what they wanted you to do.”
“You’re talking about a shock … oh man,” added Mallory.
When Mallory first arrived at WVU in 1964, freshmen were no longer required to go the Jackson’s Mill for training camp, but throughout his freshman season the older players would remind him of what he had to look forward to when he got down there the following summer.
“I remember the guys talking about Jackson’s Mill and I’m saying, ‘What are you talking about?’” laughed Mallory. “It was a rude awakening for a boy from New Jersey. When I got there I was shocked. I said, ‘Where am I?’ Now, I’m a guy who grew up in northern New Jersey, was used to going into New York and stuff like that; used to being able to do different things on a Saturday night. Down at Jackson’s Mill, you focused on football 100 percent.”
“We used to trick the young guys and tell them this is a beautiful resort that they were getting ready to go to,” said Taffoni. “We’d get them all psyched up until they realized where they were going.”
The closest town to Jackson’s Mill was about six miles away in Weston, where the players would go and hang out for a few hours on Saturday evening before being whisked back to camp.
Quarterback Fred Wyant was from Weston and his father used to stop by the campgrounds in the mornings to watch practice and pick up the team’s laundry to clean it. Players after that were less fortunate.
“On the weekends we would go into Weston,” Wyant said. “There was a place called the Candy Kitchen and all of the girls from town used to come down to see the players.”
Others viewed the trip to Weston as a way of getting out of Jackson’s Mill and seeing civilization again for a couple of hours before heading back into the woods.
“They had a bus they put you on to take you down there and they picked you up at a certain time,” Dunlevy recalled. “All we did was walk around and the big thrill was to look across the river at the mental hospital (Weston State Hospital). That was the excitement of Weston.”
Dunlevy said the hospital patients would sometimes come over and watch the team scrimmage at Jackson’s Mill.
“They would sit over to the side and watch,” said Dunlevy. “Of course, I don’t think half of them knew what in the hell they were watching, but it would at least give them something to do.”
Reporters who covered the team for training camp were allowed to stay in the cabins with the rest of the staff and enjoyed unfettered access to the campgrounds.
“All those guys sat in on the coaches’ meetings; they sat in on all of our meetings,” said Wyant. “They were there the whole time because they had an arrangement. But if someone would have reported something derogatory they would have never seen the inside of that place again.”
The writers brought their own portable typewriters to type up their stories before driving into Weston to deliver their work in manila envelopes to a local bus company, which would then transport their stories back to their respective newspapers.
“We would pay a quarter each to put our stories on the bus,” said Furfari. “It went to Clarksburg and then to Fairmont and on to Morgantown where a courier was there waiting to pick them up.”
Rene Henry, the school’s sports information director who spent two summers in Jackson’s Mill in 1954-55, remembered having a difficult time getting any sleep in a cabin with sportswriter Bill Evans, team trainer Whitey Gwynne and the team physician Dr. Samuel Morris.
“In 1955, I somehow found a way to move to another cabin but was alone,” Henry recalled in an email. “I came home from a night out and my bed was missing. Even today, no one will tell me who did it but I believe it was most likely Fred Wyant, although Sam Huff could have been in on it as well.”
Once, when Pittsburgh Press sports editor Chester L. Smith was covering training camp, he told Lewis that he was considering putting either Huff or Bruce Bosley on the sportswriter’s All-America team. Smith asked Lewis if he could help him settle his predicament.
“(Smith) said, ‘I can make sure at least one of your guys will make the All-America team and I’m thinking about Bosley or Huff,’” Furfari recalled him saying. “(Lewis) said, ‘Well Chet if you come down in the morning at 5:30 you can look for yourself and you can decide. I’ll have them go one on one for you.’”
Smith was not at all interested in getting up that early in the morning to watch the two beat on each other. “Pappy, I didn’t lose anything down here,” he replied.
Lewis told Smith that he would bring Huff and Bosley up to his cabin later in the day and he could watch them go one on one right outside of his window.
Jackson’s Mill featured cabins named after various counties throughout the state and could house approximately 30 players each with cots neatly lined up in an open room. There were at most just three showers in each cabin, which meant that there usually wasn’t enough time for all of the players to get cleaned up before breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“This is a 4-H camp and you had all these big guys trying to fit into three showers,” said Pastilong. “Fortunately they had the swimming pool and everybody would get their gear off and hit that pool (after the morning practice). That was kind of your shower and what a splash that made.”
The players were issued all of their gear on the first day of practice and were required to take care of it until new stuff was given to them three or four days later. That meant that after the first practice all of the players were wearing dirty, smelly stuff.
“After practice you’d leave your clothes out on the grass so it would dry out,” said Pastilong.
“I remember we would come back to our cabins after practice and we would all take our uniforms off. We didn’t get new jerseys, so you just laid them out on the ground so they could dry up in time for the afternoon practice,” said Dunlevy.
Sometimes the players would forget to retrieve their gear, which could be quite an unpleasant experience if left out overnight, especially when they had to put on a jock strap or a pair of socks with morning dew on it.
“You were pretty ripe (by the time the second practice of the third day came around),” laughed Taffoni.
In the morning, the team was awakened at six o’clock to a loud bell that was located right next to the main assembly hall. The players would have about 10-15 minutes to get themselves out of bed before heading to breakfast.
“You got up so darned early you felt like you just went to sleep. When you woke up you were more tired than when you went to bed,” Pastilong joked.
Fed up with hearing that bell ring every morning, Wyant once flipped the rope that rung the bell on top of the roof of the assembly hall. Eventually, someone had to climb up there and retrieve it.
“Coach Lewis came running in, ‘Who did that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know coach but if I find out you’ll be the first one I tell,’” Wyant chuckled. “He said to me, ‘And you’ll owe me a couple of laps (around the airport) tomorrow.’”
After breakfast, the players would return to their cabins, get dressed for practice and then walk down to a swinging-rope bridge that crossed a stream to a grass practice field that was also used as a landing strip for small airplanes.
“That was the craziest damned thing that you ever saw,” said Taffoni. “Only two people could walk across that swinging bridge at the same time and going over was not too bad because you weren’t tired or anything. But walking back across, though, that was tough.”
Yes, guys did fall into the creek in full gear, and, yes, the players did try and shake their teammates off of the bridge from time to time. Once, Huff and Bosley got Fairmont Times sports editor Bill Evans stuck on the middle of the bridge and began swinging it back and forth until he nearly fell off. From then on, Evans demanded that he be driven around to the airport to watch all of the practices.
“It just scared the hell out of him,” laughed Furfari. “The result of that was that he talked (Gov. Wally) Barron into building a permanent bridge across that creek. I think the bridge was named after Barron.”
The older players would always cross the bridge first and then wait for the younger players to follow. Pastilong can still remember the first time he crossed the swinging bridge as a freshman in 1961.
“We crossed it to get to the airfield and I can remember them all chanting, ‘Bring those rookies over here!’” Pastilong laughed.
It only got worse from there.
“At that time they valued toughness and if you were injured they didn’t have what we have today in terms of doctors and our trainers and all of that,” recalled offensive lineman and retired Mountaineer coach Donnie Young. “Basically, we were in pads every day and there was hitting every day.”
“I can remember they had a fullback named John Bosley,” Pastilong said. “Well, the first time we scrimmaged I was playing safety and a big hole opened up in the middle, nobody laid a hand on him, and he came running right at me and I went to tackle him and he just ran right over me.”
Although Pastilong was recruited to play quarterback, back then substitution rules were much different and the players were required to play both offense and defense. That meant that the quarterbacks usually doubled as safeties because that was the one position on defense least likely to encounter a lot of collisions.
“(Quarterbacks) did get a little bit of a breather (from hitting),” said Pastilong. “I can remember those guys always riding the quarterbacks while we were over there throwing passes and they were over there banging on each other.”
Unfortunately, Fred Wyant wasn’t so lucky.
“We were scrimmaging and I came up and tackled Max Kosper, who was about 5-foot-8 tall and about 5-foot-8 wide and we hit head on,” said Wyant. “I’m on my knees and he bounced backwards and we lunged at each other and when we lunged he hit my facemask and my helmet was unfastened. It knocked it back against my teeth and knocked my teeth out.”
Because the team scrimmaged on the airport landing strip there were times when they had to stop practice and wait for a plane to land.
“They would hold up everything until it got to the ground safely,” said Dunlevy.
Other than that, the guys could count on just one break for water halfway through practice. Trainer Whitey Gwynne would pull around what looked to the players like a fertilizer canister that was filled with water for them to drink.
“They would blow the whistle and you’d get down on one knee and Whitey would come around and spray water in your mouth,” said Young. “Back then it was only that one time during practice.”
“That’s all you got,” added Dunlevy.
Unlike today, where frequent water breaks are required and the practice field is crawling with medical personnel, the players back then frequently refused water because they didn’t want to be considered soft. The players were also not allowed to remove their helmets and usually practiced through minor ailments. Perhaps the biggest sin for a player was to be seen standing on the sideline nursing an injury.
“It was an unreal thing and when you see the kids today and they think they are working hard – and they are working hard – but not quite like we did back in the old days,” said Young.
Before and after practice the team would run laps around the airfield, which, according to Wyant, seemed like it was at least “two or three days long.”
“You felt like you were a cross-country runner,” laughed Pastilong.
“The best meals anywhere”
When practice ended, the team returned to their cabins to get ready for dinner in the main assembly hall. The evening feast was easily the highlight of the day for the players.
“You couldn’t beat the food – it was the best in the country,” said Pastilong.
After the dinner bell rang the players would file in and sit at tables where the food was brought to them. The tables and seating arrangements were organized by the specific needs of the players. For instance, the guys who needed to lose some weight sat at tables where food was rationed, while the thinner players sat at tables where there were much larger portions to eat.
The older players were smart enough to sit near the front of the table because those seats were the closest to the food.
“They would put a great big bowl of mashed potatoes down in front of you and if you were at the end of the table you might not get any,” said Taffoni. “There might be 15 pork chops they’d put down and you grabbed your pork chops before they were all gone. The rooks were at the end of the table and they didn’t get a hell of a lot – and there was no taking back apples and peaches to your cabins afterward.”
Pastilong said he was fortunate enough to sit at the skinny man’s table because the coaches wanted him to gain weight, but somehow he always seemingly ended up getting less food to eat than his much bigger teammates.
“Unfortunately it was right beside the fat-man’s table and you can picture what was taking place,” he laughed. “We were getting thinner while they were getting bigger because they were always taking our helpings.”
After dinner, the tables were cleared out and the entire team gathered around a projector where they watched old game films until dark.
In the mid-1950s when Wyant played, the guys used to wait until the coaches left the assembly hall to clear out enough space to play hockey with makeshift broom handles as hockey sticks and taped up toilet paper as the hockey puck.
“There was a chimney at one end and that was where the goal was and we had a table turned up on its side on the other end,” Wyant recalled. “(Halfback) Eddie Dugan, we stuffed him up in the chimney. He was off the ground up that chimney playing goal.”
Later, most of the players were too tired to do anything else and they just wanted to get back to their cabins and get some sleep.
“Those meetings seemed like they lasted forever because you were tired and you had to work to keep your eyes open,” said Pastilong. “When it was over we went back to our little bunk with about 30 other guys who were all in there snoring. You’re about two feet away from your partner and you tried to get a good night’s sleep with all that snoring and moaning going on. It could be tough.”
Needless to say, nerves were pretty frayed by the end of the first week. And after the second week, the players were counting down the minutes until they got the hell out of there.
“When the governor flew in to talk to you on Sunday he got the biggest cheer because we all knew we were getting the hell out of there the next morning,” laughed Taffoni.
Even if someone was homesick and wanted to leave camp, the chances of that happening were very slim, although not entirely impossible.
“I remember a couple of guys, their parents came up to visit or something on Sunday when we were allowed to have visitors and they just got into the back of the car and took off,” said Taffoni.
All-American tackle Bruce Bosley was one of the few who left camp briefly to help his young wife move into their apartment in Morgantown. Bosley left without the permission of the coaching staff on a Sunday, was kicked off the team for Monday’s practice, but was reinstated the following day.
Lewis may have been a tough coach, but he certainly wasn’t a dumb one.
“The mental framework was different then,” explained Young, who also sequestered his Salem College teams at preseason training camps in the late 1960s. “If they thought you were a player and you got homesick and wanted to go home, they wouldn’t let you leave.”
The training camp experience at Jackson’s Mill clearly made the players tougher, and that always showed up on the field whenever the season began.
“People knew when we played them that we’d always beat them up,” said Taffoni. “We played Penn State, Kentucky, Syracuse and I knew people on those teams and they talk to you afterward, ‘Damn, you guys are tough!’”
“Jackson’s Mill prepared you for the football season,” added Pastilong. “It was tough, but when you came out of there you had an appreciation for your buddies.”
An appreciation for their buddies, for sure, but those knots in their stomachs always seemed to return right around the end of July when they knew they had to do it all over again.
They loaded the buses up Morgantown way
We were off to camp to make other teams pay
The name of the place is Old Jackson’s Mill
Let me tell ya’ll, it’s not far from hell
When we arrived in August it was about 105
With tons of bugs, which most could fly
We looked at each other and started to laugh out loud
The coaches told us the Mill was a resort that could hold a crowd
We carry our bags down to the shacks
Put them down and picked out a rack
Everyone checked the floors looking for rats
To make sure there are no night attacks
Team meeting starts at 4 o’clock
You go to your coaches for some chalk talks
Broke the meeting about 6:45
Eat dinner, walked back to the shacks still feeling alive
Breakfast bell rings at 6:30 a.m.
You’d better be there no matter what condition you’re in
Walk back to the shacks and put on your pads
Then walk to the airfield that can hold many lads
After running and hitting for two hours or more
The coach blows the whistle and says, “That’s it!’ – thank the Lord!
After running 40s and up and down the ridge
We take off the uppers to cross that damned swinging bridge
Many guys fell off it into that black water
After they’d been used for cannon fodder
We hang our equipment on the bushes to dry
Then walk to lunch and that is no lie
After lunch we walk back to the shacks
Jumping into our racks to catch a quick nap
At two o’clock the coaches come around and yet, “Get out of the racks!”
It’s time for meetings and our second round of attacks
On the field at three p.m.
Looking for 5:30 hoping practice will end
Back across that bridge to the shacks
Putting equipment on the bushes and getting inside before the bugs attack
When the bell rings it’s dinner time
With everyone standing and waiting in line
This time of the day fuses get a little hot
Rookies don’t linger as you might get a shot
Have meeting with your coaches and it’s back to the shacks
Man, we can hardly wait to get back into our racks
Lying in our racks, everyone’s talking about home
And how their girls will be all alone
Lights are off at 10 o’clock
Many are asleep, too tired to talk
The length of the stay is 15 days
Which the most of it ended in a haze
Governor flies in to end this camp
We finish practice all hoping to be champs
As we board the buses to start up the road
They’re moving slowly as they have quite a load
Many people say Jackson’s Mill is a lot like hell
So we say we’ve been there and done very well
The Mill has made us tough through the years
Ask the teams we played and that will be very clear!
By Joe Taffoni
Check out Antonik's book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores and online at your favorite retailers. 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.
Big 12 Tournament Preview
Big 12 Tournament Behind the Scenes
Mike Carey: Big 12 Tournament Preview
Bob Huggins: Kansas Preview
Players: Spring Football Update
Craig Turnbull: Big 12 Championships Preview