By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Roger Riffe told me a story that he shared with Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer at a sports banquet. I hadn’t seen Roger in several years, but he came up to me at the big political rally last weekend at Poplar Gap Park outside of Grundy and started telling me stories. After 48 years of coaching, Roger has plenty of stories. My friend — Buchanan County sports broadcaster, reporter and writer Lloyd Combs — said he has devoted several pages of his new book to Roger Riffe stories.
When Roger approached me, it was like we were resuming a conversation we had many years ago. I don’t get down to Buchanan County as much as I did in the 1990s, but that didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to him as he told his story. Roger’s voice has a lot of miles on it, but he’s an interesting person to listen to. When I was asking Lloyd about the setting for the story Roger shared with me, Lloyd had heard it and was able to recite it verbatim.
The story originated from a time when Roger was coaching Garden High School football. In 1986, the Green Dragons had finished a solid regular season, but they drew a powerful Powell Valley team in the first round of the playoffs. Garden was leading late in the game, but Powell Valley appeared to be poised to seize victory from the jaws of defeat. Riffe did the unexpected. He called a double reverse, caught the Vikings over-persuing the ball and scored a touchdown on the play — putting the game out of reach.
“Coach Beamer asked me why I called that particular play at that time,” Riffe said. “I told him that we only had eight plays and we had already ran seven of them.”
During a simpler time, I used to enjoy driving around Buchanan County, searching for interesting stories and talking with people. Gasoline was cheap enough that it wasn’t a major concern like it is now. There was never any reason to hurry when I arrived in Buchanan County. I always felt I was among friends.
Standing there talking with Roger reminded me of those days when friends could just get together and talk about the good old days. As we were talking, Joe St. Clair and Lodge Compton walked over to us and joined the conversation. My friend Eddie Steele thought Lodge was one of the best newspapermen he had ever known. After I got to know Lodge, I saw what Eddie saw. The same was true with Joe. He knows more about people than I’ll ever know, plus he subscribes to the newsman ethic of helping sister and brother newsmen get their details right. If they made it to the moment, they ought to know who’s who and what’s what.
In the warmth of that kind of gathering of friends, it was easy for me to escape from my instant responsibilities. As I was driving to Poplar Gap, I was writing this column in my mind, only the first version was all about the memories that flashed through my mind when West Virginia University Coach Don Nehlen recalled his first game at the new Mountaineer Field in 1980.
After I left the university and started working for Halifax Engineering, later EG&G, as a boiler operator at the Morgantown Energy Technology Center, I quit attending WVU football games. When I drove bus for the university, I had to drive for home football games, and I truly enjoyed the experience. I had been gone a year or so before the time Nehlen recalled how he walked out to mid-field with John Denver who sang “Country Roads,” before the start of his first game at the new stadium. I remembered riding to the stadium in a campus bus that afternoon and the bus driver letting me out beside the goal post at what is now the locker room end of the stadium. None of what’s there now, was there back then.
Roger Riffe’s story about pulling the old eighth play trick on Powell Valley to win his first round playoff game wiped the cobweb coated memories of pre-Milan-Puskar Stadium out of my mind and replaced those old memories with more recent memories of good friends on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere ... in the middle of everywhere I would want to be at that moment.
Roger spun a few more stories that afternoon, Lodge got into the act and Joe St.Clair identified all the people who came up and talked to us. Erik Robinson surprised me by helping to work with the musical acts. Senator Phil Puckett talked with me about some spiritual matters, Delegate Will Morefield made sure I was where I needed to be and the family of Emory Altizer treated me like one of their family.
That kind of stuff doesn’t fit into a newspaper article, but it fits perfectly in my memory. When I’ve been away for a time from a place I knew well, I feel like Gershom, the son of Moses (Exodus 2:22) “for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” I smiled when I felt comfort in my heart among friends in Buchanan County. It warmed my soul.
Bill Archer is a senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org