Concord University's Mountain Lion football team are the current WVIAC champions. That means that in their division, Concord is the best football team in the state. Their 44-40 victory over WV Wesleyan, to go along with their 7-4 season record was the final process of a complete turnaround for the football team over the last several years.
When I got to Concord in 2004, the team's last winning record was in 1998. 2008 was the worst, as they did not achieve a single victory, ending their season at 0-11. 2009 saw the entrance of Mike Kellar as head coach, who instantly turned the team around. In his two seasons, the Mountain Lions turned things around completely, as I think they only lost 7 or 8 games in those two seasons. He left before the 2011 season and was replaced with Garin Justice. The rest, as they say, is history.
For a few years back in the day, I covered the football team for The Concordian. There are tons of stories I can tell you about my days covering the football team, but the one I've chosen for this occasion took place in 2007 [Click here to see my headshot from back then]. It involves me almost getting beaten up by the star of the football team. And I use the term "star" loosely, because that's back when they sucked.
One of the greatest things I'm proud of from my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of The Concordian was the improved coverage on the sports pages. The Sports Editor at the time was Jonathan Greene, who recently worked for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. One of the chief writers for the section was Mike Stanton, whose column "Mike's World of Sports" always elicited a reaction, whether positive or negative.
My main focus on the newspaper staff over the years had been on the news side, specifically the actions of the Student Government Association. But, I always wrote where I was needed and occasionally I was needed on the sports pages. For my first few years on the staff, the sports section wasn't really good. That was mostly due to two reasons - a lack of enthusiastic and competent sports writers, and a lack of good sports teams to write about. Cross Country and track were the only sports that did really well. The rest were average. And, the football team was the worst in the state (and at one point in 2008, was ranked last in the nation).
By the time I was in charge of the newspaper, we finally had some good coverage in place. With the improved coverage of sports, it led to more people talking about sports, which led to more people writing about sports. I had talked to a lot of people about the football team that season. In particular, a freshman who had told me he didn't try out for the team because he thought their record and coach was embarrassing. Two important things had happened that season - a new WVIAC attendance record had taken place in Charleston. More people than ever had witnessed Concord get blown out in spectacular fashion. That was earlier in the season. The most recent loss was the Homecoming game. Their record was now 0-6.
I had thought about writing a piece about the football team on the opinion section, but was on the fence about it. But, as was the case back then, something fell through with an article and there was a gap on the opinions page, right before the deadline. Deadline in this case being roughly noon on Tuesday. It was probably sometime after 10 am and I realized that there was nothing there and it was my job to fill that space. So I wrote a piece that was titled something to the effect of "Football team's 0-6 record an embarrassment."
To deviate slightly from the story to tell another story (that ties into this story)... Shortly after Candace and I started dating, she saw that I was on my phone. She asked who I was texting. I told her it was Kelly. Kelly, of course, being my previous girlfriend. She seemed irked by that, but I assured her it was nothing to hide, as we had stayed friends after the dissolution of our relationship. I showed her my phone to prove my point. She skimmed the messages and offered the comment, "You guys call each other 'Buddy' a lot."
That Tuesday in 2007, Kelly stopped by the newspaper office so we could go eat lunch. She was waiting in the office while I finished writing my piece about the football team. Also at this time, a room in the office was getting painted. Two of Concord's maintenance workers, an older man and older woman, were in the room with us. Every time they spoke to each other, they referred to each other as "Buddy" or "Partner." One would say, "Can you hand me that brush, Buddy?" And the other would respond, "Sure thing, Partner." Every single time they spoke to each other, they did this. So, as a joke, after that day Kelly and I started doing it. Gradually, we dropped "Partner" but kept "Buddy." We still do it to this day.
For the piece, I honestly don't think I was too harsh. I opened it with something about how they had just lost the Homecoming game and how Concord doesn't really have a huge Homecoming atmosphere (outside of the Greek community) due to their poor record over the years. I then examined all six of their games that season, looking at the score and offering my thoughts on how it was embarrassing.
I closed it by admitting that I didn't know how to solve the problem. I noted that losing teams who are looking to turn around their fortunes usually make coaching changes. I said that I wasn't sure that was the solution to the problem, but I said that an 0-6 team was a problem and something needed to be done about it.
The article hit campus on Wednesday. That morning, I decided to skip my 10 o'clock class (and we wonder why I haven't graduated yet...) and get some work done in the newspaper office. Shortly after 10, the phone rings. It is the Athletic Information Director (or whatever the position is called). Basically, the guy in charge of the athletic website. He wanted to let me know that he had already received about 20 calls about my article, and that none of them were particularly happy. I thanked him for letting me know and told him that he could forward those calls to me or tell them how they could write a letter to the editor to be printed.
Later that afternoon, I was walking back to my dorm, Wooddell Hall. As I was walking up to the glass doors, I saw the Resident Director and about four people gathered around a newspaper. As I got closer, I saw all of them look at me and stop talking. As I opened the door, I looked at the paper and saw my headshot staring back at me. Speaking of staring, all of the people standing there were looking at me as I walked past them. It was honestly one of the few moments of my life that I would characterize as awkward.
That Friday, three incidents happened. Two were kind of funny. The third one was kind of scary.
First, I was walking through the student center. I had to walk past a table that had some football players at it. As I got up to it, a man that goes by the name of "Tank" Toland recognized me. He's that star player I wrote about earlier. I don't remember his actual first name, but the nickname is fitting. I was in a hurry and was walking past him and he started to say something. All I managed to hear was "You bastard!" I turned around and he said, "Yeah, I was talking to you!" I kept walking. That's not the last time I'll see him that day.
I went to my 10 o'clock class that day. It was History 101. I sit next to some football players. I take my seat and I hear some snickering. They have a football game that day, and at the end of class the professor mentions that. He turns to the football player sitting next to me and asks how he thinks the game will go. He says "Why don’t we ask the Editor-in-Chief here." The professor looks at me and I say, "I don’t think they're gonna win." The class laughs, the football players don't.
After class, I'm walking back to the newspaper office. It's located in the Fine Arts Building. To get to the Athletic Building, you have to walk through the fine arts building. So, the football player that deferred to me in class and I are basically walking together. As we enter the building, I'm going to go downstairs and he's going to walk straight through the next set of doors. At that same time, leaving the athletic building and walking through the fine arts building is Tank Toland.
I guess the other player lets him know that I'm a short distance away. I hear "Hey!" I turn around. Tank is walking toward me. He says, "You better not be writing any more shit about me in the paper!"
I honestly think he's joking, which is why I'm so incredibly happy that he didn't hear the next words out of my mouth - "If you start winning some games I won't have to!" For my safety, it's a good thing he didn't hear that.
He power-walks over to me and I'm backed up to a vending machine. There's less than a foot of space between us and I can clearly tell that he is beyond mad at me. He is livid.
The name "Tank" isn't just something cute somebody decided to call this guy. He isn’t called Tank because he fucked a bunch of frat girls. I am fairly certain that I have heard his height listed at 6'8" tall. Even if that's an exaggeration, he is definitely on the upper half of the 6-foot mark. He's well over 200 pounds. Grizzled old-timers use the term "Brick Shithouse" to describe guys like that.
Compare that to me. I am 5'5" and around the 150 lb mark. It was a comic mismatch - I'm backed up against this vending machine, literally looking straight into the air. He is towering over me, staring straight down at me. The football player from my class is standing in the distance laughing.
His eyes are wide with rage. "Don't you ever disrespect me like that again!" I don't say anything, mostly because he doesn't give me the chance to. "You think you're fucking tough? You think you're a tough guy?" Again, I'm staring straight up at him, not responding. "If you ever disrespect me like that again, I will break your face!"
With that, he starts to move closer to me and raises a fist. The other football player is no longer laughing. He has walked up and has put his arm around Tank's waist, trying to separate us. He's saying, "Relax, man. He's not worth it. Let's go."
He backs away, never taking his eyes off of me until he rounds the corner and is out of sight. I let out a deep breath and continue my journey to the newspaper office. I sit down and replay that over and over in my head. As odd as it sounds, I only had one thought after I had calmed down - "I wish he had hit me."
How cool would that have been, to print a picture of myself in the newspaper with a black eye and the caption "A guy over a foot taller than me did this because I wrote the truth about the football team."
They did lose their game that night. I think they won their game the following week. It was their only win that season, as they went 1-10. The next season, they went 0-11. That zero-win season, we finally got rid of the football coach, Greg Quick. Was he fired? No, he was actually promoted within the university. But that's another story for another time.