It was a perfect autumn day for a football game on a Sunday afternoon just three days before the big Thanksgiving Day. The “Porch Sitters” had tuned up for the important game by playing the likes of No. 15 Coal Camp of Mud Fork, Holden and Monaville on weekends prior to the game that was now set against a team known only as Buck Fork. I can’t recall just who arranged that fateful Sunday game, but I suspect the late Jerry Adams, who worked in the coal mines with some of the Buck Fork area residents, probably organized the football encounter that was held about 1970 or ’71.
Back then, and for many years prior, communities played football games against each other on a regular basis, almost as if there existed a league of some sort, which there was not. The mostly No. 16 Coal Camp bunch of guys, who were known as the “Porch Sitters”— for all the time they spent sitting on the company store porch at Island Creek Coal’s No. 16 store—played their “home” games on the wide open field beside Verdunville Grade School. At other times, the Mud Fork bunch was known to travel to Holden, Monaville and sometimes lower Mud Fork where the college is now located to do their gridiron battles. Transportation was always the problem when engaging in such encounters. It was not unusual for some players to ride their bicycles to the scene of the crimes; some others hitch-hiked when necessary, while still a few others had access to vehicles.
There were no helmets or shoulder pads to be worn, and certainly no “concussion protocol” like in the NFL today, but occasionally, one team or another would have a guy who sported his steel spikes, which meant for sure someone was going to bleed by the game’s ending. It was not unusual for players to have a chew of tobacco in their mouths or even a lit cigarette dangling from the quarterback’s lips; that was the way the games were played—rough and rowdy. And there certainly were no officials on hand to call any penalties. Such things as “holding” or “clipping” were simply accepted. Rolling blocks were also the norm, and the late Jack “Rabbit” Hensley, a little guy, was a master of that particular tackling style. Arthur “Squeeze” Blankenship, a member of the No. 15 Camp squad, also was a tough little rolling block tackler, especially when he had a pint of Old Crow whiskey in his gut. Squeeze left us a long time ago, dying in a fight outside a bar on Mud Fork. Of course, there were occasions when in the heat of the battle fist fights would be the result, but, for the most part, the games were rather civil.
Bloody noses and sometimes broken bones were just a part of the local action, and the phrase, “playing for blood”, was taken literally during coal camp confrontations. There were no pretty cheerleaders to encourage the “raw-boners” on, but there usually was a sizable crowd of bystanders wherever the games were exhibited. However, on a sunny day in November the “Porch Sitters” were to be amazed at the crowd that showed up for their big game with Buck Fork. The game on this particular afternoon had to be considered an away game because it was played at what was then called Woodland Park, a location at upper Mud Fork that was created by the Verdunville Woman’s Club. The park, like the club, no longer exists, but one of the participants of that day’s game, Gary Moore, resides there now. Gary, undersized and playing the offensive line, broke his leg on the first play of the game, and that pretty much set the tone for the remainder of the day.
Upon arrival at the Woodland Park site, things just seemed different. For one thing, there were grown women setting up picnic tables and unfolding chairs for seating—their small children playing at their feet. As I was squeezing out of my cousin Gary Evans’ Volkswagen, which was packed with five “Porch Sitters”, the unmistakable smell of fried chicken in the open air just didn’t seem normal. Add to that the fact that these ladies started spreading table cloths and carrying containers of things like green beans, potato salad and other goodies that one would expect to find at family reunions or picnics. I thought: “Wow, these women sure are proud of their kids that were going to participate in the big game.” The ladies also had coolers full of sodas, better known to us as “pop”, and it appeared they were there for “the long haul”, so to speak. Unfortunately, none of the “Porch Sitters” had come prepared, as I finished off the last of my Nehi grape pop. After tossing the bottle in the back seat of the Volkswagen so that I could redeem it at the company store for a nickel, we proceeded toward the field to warm-up for the game. Our opposition had not yet arrived, though the women were certainly prepared for them. We began to show-off a bit in front of the females, throwing passes to and fro, and making nifty catches. After all, we did have some skilled players; not very big, but skilled. A teen-aged Ronald Belcher was maybe the most talented athlete to come out of Mud Fork, but he was a skinny 155-pounder at the time. My cousin, Gary, was as tough as nails, but he wasn’t very big either. Come to think of it, Delbert McCloud was skinny. I was skinny. Heck, I guess we were all skinny, but tough-skinned, graceful and somewhat talented.
The roar of approaching truck motors caught our attention as our opponents were now arriving. There appeared to be a small army of men in the back of several pickup trucks. When the mostly bearded gentleman hopped down from the vehicles I thought them to be the fathers of our opponents. Well, I was wrong. I soon found out these men, and I do mean MEN, most of them sporting beards and overalls, looked like they had just came from a logging camp. None of them looked to weigh less than 200 pounds, and they were our opponents. I found it interesting that all the men wore steel-toed boots. Meanwhile, the “Porch Sitters” had on what we called tennis shoes. I figured for sure we could out run these guys. It then dawned on me that I had no idea where Buck Fork was. As far as I was concerned, we might as well be playing Green Bay. I later found out that Buck Fork is a hollow in Harts Creek, a place I had never been at the time, but a place where I have friends living today.
To determine who got the ball first, there was no toss of the coin, per se. However, the captains of the squads got together and a small flat rock was located. One guy spat on one side of the rock and the other guy flipped it into the air, while the other captain called “wet” or “dry”. If you called “wet” and the rock landed with the spit side up, that captain chose to receive or to kick the ball off. It worked the same way if a person called “dry” and the rock landed with the dry side up. There were times, though, when we actually flipped a coin to decide the issue. It’s just that we didn’t always have a coin to toss.
This particular bunch of “Porch Sitters” was simply following in the footsteps of their predecessors—talented older guys who had left the friendly confines of the company store porch to serve in the Viet Nam War, or to find work in cities like Chicago, Detroit and other far off places. We were going to protect their honor at all costs. And on this day, the costs were high.
On the opening kickoff, a feisty Delbert McCloud, his long red hair blowing in the wind, was stone-
walled, and I could tell he was hurting, but I also knew he would never let the other side know it. As mentioned earlier, Gary Moore broke his leg on the first play from scrimmage and it quickly became obvious that the teenaged “Porch Sitters” were going to fall. Indeed, we were “out-maned”, as they were men and we were but boys.
The Buck Fork bunch never threw a pass the entire game. In fact, they never faked a single hand-off, or used any gadget plays. It was simply a case of “running it down our throats.” The cheering on the sidelines and the now “foul” smell of fried chicken was taking its toll on the “Porch Sitters.” It’s a wonder any of us survived. Ronald Belcher played nearly the entire game without his glasses that were broken early on. Gary Evans, Kenny Johnson and nearly everybody else on our team was bruised and battered. As for myself, well, I played defensive back, and like I said, Buck Fork did not pass the ball. Though I was in on a few gang tackles, I’ve always been smart enough to not step in front of an oncoming train—and I did not. Therefore, I live today to tell this true story about a game that was anything but a “Super Bowl.”
I don’t remember the final score of that contest, maybe because the calculator had not been invented yet, but I’m fairly certain that we did score a couple of times. Over the years, I’ve asked some of my fellow “Porch Sitters” if they could remember the score. Nobody could tell me. Thus, I have concluded that every player on our team must have received a concussion that glorious day. It was a day when a bunch of long haired and skinny teenagers got throttled by a group of men from someplace called Buck Fork.
Over the years, the “Porch Sitters” had many good times together, but still today, when I’m at a picnic and smell fried chicken, I look around to make sure there is nobody in overalls and a beard running at me. No, I didn’t have to serve in any wars, but I guess you could say I am shell-shocked, or Buck Fork shocked, or maybe, even fried chicken shocked.
Long live the “Porch Sitters.”
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.