Backyard Brawl Memories from the Mountaineer Sideline - WVU Football, WVU Basketball, News - Mountaineer Sports

Backyard Brawl Memories from the Mountaineer Sideline


The Backyard Brawl is just hours away, and so I've decided to share with you my memories from recent years of West Virginia's oldest active rivalry.

At the risk of coming across as something less than an objective reporter, I'm typing this on my personal computer. Let's keep work out of this for the time being. If you've been a WVU student and cared one bit about sports, you'd likely have some subjectivity left in you, too.

I can recall finishing up Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house in 2004 and doing everything I could to keep it down as I watched what unfolded over the next few hours. After rearranging the basement furniture, I refocused my anger not on inanimate objects, but instead on its source – the Pitt Panthers.

Perhaps it was that fury that left Walt Harris without a job and Dave Wannstedt filling the position. Wannstedt, the former Miami Dolphins coach. As a Buffalo Bills fan, I quivered at the news, but let it fuel my passion and aggression for the rivalry as I embarked on my journey as a student manager at West Virginia University in his first season at Pitt.

If we're being honest here, and we are, no one could have expected the 2005 season to play out as it did. I can say that with confidence because even the coaching staff had no idea what the starting lineup should have been when the year kicked off.

Had they known, it could have been an undefeated season. Instead, we settled for undefeated in the Big East. Not too shabby.

Pittsburgh was the senior night game that year. It was scheduled to be the season finale, but Hurricane Wilma had something to say about that.

It was freezing. I don't remember the exact temperature and wind chill recorded that day, but the field felt like concrete. Fans in the stands froze to their seats and you'd believe me if I told you the heated benches froze, except WVU didn't have heated benches back then.

Back to the Brawl. It could have been an even match if only Wannstedt had taught his players to run faster in his halftime speech. Since that didn't work out for him, it was a 45-13 hammering that made the weather entirely worth it for those in attendance.

Fast forward a year to my first trip to Heinz Field and a similar result, though it took longer to feel certain that this one was in the bag.

Both teams threw punches in the first half and to this day I still watch Darrelle Revis' 73-yard punt return and wonder how such a beauty from Pat McAfee turned into the year's most spectacular play. It was as exciting a half of football as the fans there could have hoped for.

But we expected to come out and put to rest any hope the Panthers had at a victory early in the second half, and that's precisely what happened. On the second play from scrimmage, Pat White busted off a 64-yard touchdown run and you could feel the momentum shift.

I, a lowly manager, raced down the sideline after White and then ran straight past the crowd of Mountaineers along the bench to tell the Pitt fans, "It's over," with a throat-slashing motion. Why I decided to be the messenger, I'm not sure, but it seemed clear at that point that WVU had this one secured.

One of the best single-game performances from a quarterback-running back duo defined the 2006 meeting. Well, that and a timeless cat impression that still makes me chuckle whenever I hear the noise – whether in Pittsburgh or in Cincinnati.

The first two meetings of my career at WVU went so well that I think I let it get to my head. I remember at one point telling people that I didn't consider Pitt the most hated rival because it hadn't done anything to upset me in my time at school.

If that happened in a movie, you'd have known immediately that something bad was going to happen. In real life, they don't call it foreshadowing, but if only I knew what would transpire on Dec. 1, 2007, I never would have made that asinine comment.

That year, Rich Rodriguez asked me to record a song and a music video to be played during pregame warm-ups. I know, that sounds strange, but it's true. It played before the game against Louisville and the blowout victory over eventual co-champs Connecticut.

The night of the Brawl, it was pushed aside for a special feature on the 100th edition of the rivalry. My parents had come early to see the video and were upset when it didn't play.

"It's okay," I remember telling my mother. "All that really matters is that we win this game."

Again, in a movie, this would have spelled disaster. In real life, same result.

When WVU came back and beat Louisville in 2005, there were a lot of heads hanging on the sideline, already giving up before suddenly a spark reminded them that they could still win. The Pitt game was the opposite. At no point did it feel like anyone thought a loss was coming, even as it drew closer and closer.

Pure shock is the only way to describe the feeling as the clock hit zeroes and Pitt had purposely packaged WVU two of its measly nine points.

Anyone who ever thought, "Maybe Rodriguez threw that game to get the Michigan job," would have known how seriously wrong that accusation was if they had seen him in the locker room.

That one left us all lost and confused. The season ended in exuberance, but to this day I look at the Fiesta Bowl wristwatch that I still wear daily and the Big East/Fiesta Bowl championship ring I keep locked away and I wonder how things would be different if I was never given either one.

The next year, some of the managers wore that Fiesta Bowl ring to Heinz Field and showed it to the heckling fans with the message that WVU still played in a BCS bowl, whereas the Panthers spent the holidays at home.

Sometimes it takes being humbled to practice humility.

A 19-15 final led to the second-most depressing locker room atmosphere I've ever witnessed. The unquestioned leader of the team sat there blaming himself, despite the insistence from everyone around him that it hadn't been his fault.

The next game that season, the whole event was dedicated to him.

I no longer throw furniture when WVU loses. I learned to hide my emotions as part of the team because as upset as I may have been, I know the players and coaches were feeling something I couldn't begin to understand.

In subsequent Backyard Brawls, my alma mater has come out on top, both times in exciting fashion. I still watch from the field, only now it's in the end zone with a camera in my hands, filming the action.

Each year, more and more players who graced the sideline in my four years with the team are gone from those sidelines. But each year, you see a renewed passion – and dare I say hatred – from players who have taken their place.

The ones who have been there before are taking to Facebook and Twitter to remind the world how they feel about Pitt. It's impossible for the current crop to escape the chatter around town, the vulgar three-word chants that grace just about every WVU sporting event, regardless of opponent.

A WVU football schedule without Pittsburgh listed will be a shame if that's what lies ahead, but for now, the schedule still lists the Panthers. And look at that, it's today.

As I type out these last few words, I return to being an objective reporter, clueless as to what affiliation I have with this WVU place and its football program.

I'll leave the outward showing of support to the fans, the coaches, the players and the managers who currently roam the sidelines. I'll suppress the memories I've gained through my own experiences with the Backyard Brawl.

I just figured I'd share them with you in the meantime while I've still got my personal computer open.

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