There was a game that once was quite popular with me and a great number of other “boys” who were growing up at the time. The only name I knew the game by was “Throw the Ball Up and Tackle.”
It did not require great skills, very many players, or any equipment. In fact, all we needed was a piece of land with at least some grass on it to cushion our fall. As far as equipment went, we just needed a football, but that wasn’t always easily found.
Before going any further, I suppose the game we played should be explained. It was played by any number of participants, but the more players involved, the more fun you had. To begin the game, one person simply tossed the football into the air and the player who caught the ball or wound up picking up the pigskin from the ground was subject to being tackled by any or all of the remaining players.
Sounds pretty rough, doesn’t it? Well, it was, especially for the person who wound up at the bottom of the pile. What made it even more daring was that we often played the game at a small grassy parcel of land located right between two railroad tracks.
Although we played nearly every day during football season and most of the day on Saturdays and Sundays, I honestly cannot remember one injury; at least none of real significance. I simply mean there were no broken bones or other major injuries — just the usual scrapes, cuts and bruises. Amazingly, not once did anyone crack their skull on the railroad tracks. And, the more I think about it, the more amazing that is because we really played the game hard.
The good thing about this type of contest was that you didn’t have to catch the ball. In other words, one didn’t have to be tackled. This allowed skinny kids like myself to play alongside much bigger and older fellows. Because some of these much bigger guys would catch the football, there were times that resembled scenes from African documentaries I’d watched on television. You know, where a half dozen or more lions are attacking a helpless water buffalo, relentlessly piling on — one by one — until the animal just wears out and falls to the ground.
There also were times, for instance, when there were so many players that we formed separate teams that played in larger areas we called football fields, such as beside Verdunville Grade School, Woodland Park at the head of Mud Fork, or at the seemingly boundless grassy field that now encompasses an institution known as Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
If it was a basic sandlot game between community friends, usually two of the better players would have to choose sides. The pre-game process was simple. First, you found a very flat and small rock and a bystander would spit on just one side of the rock, before flipping the stone into the air.
One of the two guys who were choosing sides — I suppose you could refer to them as captains — would call “wet’ or “dry.” If the captain called wet and the rock landed with the spit side facing up, then he got first choice in picking who he wanted on his team. Of course, nobody wanted to look up into the air when the “slobbered-on rock” was spiraling its way back to earth. I mean, nobody likes spit in your eyes, right, even if it is your own.
By the time many of us were in our middle teens, we had formed an unofficial league, or at least something that in parts of the county somewhat resembled a league — no officials and no set rules.
For instance, teams from Holden played Mud Fork, Whitman played Monaville, Henlawson took on Rossmore, Stollings players battled McConnell, etc., and all would usually compete against each other at some point during the official, yet unofficial, coal camp season. These contests were very competitive, often ending in fighting between players, none of whom wore helmets or pads. And, naturally, only sissies wore cleats.
Somewhere between the years of about 1973 and 1978, these games and most every sandlot football game virtually disappeared. I have my own reasons as to why this happened, but it would take too long to explain.
But one big reason is because almost suddenly there was nowhere to play. Trailer courts, new businesses, new homes, the college and other things began to take most of the land that was once our battlegrounds. It was about that time that school officials started forbidding people on its grounds after school hours, etc.
As we got older, Midget League football came into existence. It provided youngsters an opportunity to play football, usually with pretty decent coaching and officiating, too. Supposedly, youngsters, who were provided with uniforms, helmets and pads would learn proper football techniques and rules that go with the game. The idea was that Midget League would provide better junior high and high school players. I cannot say for sure that is what happened.
Too often, kids, weighed down by the heavy equipment, and practicing sometimes in early autumn heat, became tired of being “coached” and some lost interest and quit the game. Others, propelled by their parents’ insistence, played on. Some of them, though, at least by the time they reached the high school level, also became disinterested.
I remember that as sandlot football ended and Midget League ball was hatched, there was not enough places for Midget Leaguers to practice the game. At Omar, parents and interested persons of that area bound together and with the help of individuals, coal companies and other businesses, built their own football field; a field that still stands today as a testament to community efforts that blossomed in 1981.
Controversy brewed in the 1980s when some Midget League coaches chose a level and grassy area of Mitchell Heights to practice their young players. Mel Triolo, widely known for his tidings with the Logan County Coal Operators Association, and a good man by most accounts, was the mayor of Mitchell Heights at the time.
Citing a 1940s ordinance, Triolo declared that practices at what was known as Sayer Circle would have to cease due to the ordinance that did not allow any type amusement on vacant lots in the town. The mayor cited complaints by locals in the town for his decision.
Needless to say, preventing kids from participating in “good” activities anywhere was not popular with many people, including this writer who was sports editor of The Banner at that time.
I remember Justice Addition resident Richard Elkins, who had a son on one of the teams, blasting Triolo. “What we the parents of the team do not understand is how one man can tell other people what to do with their own property,” Elkins said. “We have had permission from the owner to use that lot for years.”
The controversy grew daily. AEP employee David Stillwell of Stollings in a Letter to the Editor back then questioned whether the town itself was in jeopardy when it held its annual picnic there and suggested that the Town Council either repeal or revise the ordinance.
The hot topic was the subject matter for a good while on WVOW’ radio’s “What’s Your Opinion” as the controversy escalated.
Tom George, then a resident of Mitchell Heights, and who was publisher of The Logan Banner in 1981, rarely made written editorial comments. However, he penned the following: “First, when dealing with a law or ordinance that is probably bad, the answer is not to disobey the law, but to change it.”
Over 100 signatures of Mitchel Heights residents had been obtained to change the law, but the mayor said he had to enforce the ordinance. George, citing that he had the dubious honor of living there, noted the distinct advantages of building codes and restrictions in the town that kept property values high, as it was obvious that when the community was incorporated the residents wanted a restricted residential area.
Just a few years earlier, the town had gained notoriety when it was learned through government statistics that it had the highest per capita income in the State of West Virginia. Indeed, Mitchell Heights was and continues to be a fine place to live.
Tom George wrote that sewage systems and solid waste disposal problems “are what we really ought to be trying to solve.”
“If the potentially beautiful rivers, streams and hills were cleaned up, then the children would have a lot more to look forward to than just Little League football or baseball,” George wrote.
Things certainly have changed since the early days of Midget League football all across the county. Nowadays, you don’t have nearly the number of teams that used to exist, but teams do now have three astro-turfed fields to practice and play upon.
As for Mitchell Heights? Well, I suppose we could tear down the home of former Logan basketball coach Willie Akers and that of popular local DJ Bill France, since their homes now occupy much of what once was just a controversial practice football field.
Should our brilliant leaders somehow choose to raze those two fine homes, shucks, just go ahead and tear down the college property, too — for local football use, of course.
On second thought, just forget it.
You can’t get kids to play sandlot ball anymore.