Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

May 31, 2014

Gene Lathey happy he played WVU football in mid-1950s

MORGANTOWN — Gene Lathey, one of eight new members of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame, wasn’t very big coming out of Dunbar (W.Va.) High School.

“I was 5-foot-11 and weighed only 189 as a senior,” he recalled last week. “Coach Gene Corum, WVU assistant, told me on a visit that I was too small.”

That was back in 1952. So Lathey decided to take a summer job with a full-service drug store, drink as many milkshakes as he could, and build up his weight to a little over 200 pounds.

A guard and tackle who played both offense and defense in high school, Lathey was named Kanawha County’s scholastic Lineman of the Year by The Charleston Gazette.

So he was selected to perform for the South in that summer’s North-South all-star football classic. WVU head coach Art “Pappy” Lewis was impressed, watching Gene in a scrimmage.

“You’re somewhat bigger since we last saw you,” Lewis said. “How would you like to come up and play football for me?” It took Lathey less than a minute to reply “I’d love to do that!”

Asked recently how it was playing football under the 10-year veteran mentor, Lathey deferred his answer to a story that had been written by his 53-year old daughter Gail Lathey some time ago.

She has a master’s degree in English from North Carolina. Despite complete loss of vision in one eye and partial sight in the other, Gail still can see well enough to type with one hand.

Here’s the story she wrote about her father’s football years at WVU:

“In the early 50s, a whirlwind began in the mountains, hollers, and valleys of West Virginia. Started in part by the wizardry of Coach Art “Pappy” Lewis, a teen vision, and in part by the hand of fate.”

“Dozens of mountain boys came from farms, mines, and factories to converge on the football field at WVU.”

“They were Pappy’s boys, soon to be called The Ironmen. Sports writers would chart and study and shake their heads in wonder at this.”

To a young guy on the WVU sports happening beat in the 50s, Gail’s descriptions size up very well to what most folks considered the first real Golden Era of West Virginia U. football.

Lathey, who had turned down a scholarship offer from Morris Harvey College, weighed 205 when enrolling at WVU. After a freshman team requirement by NCAA, he was redshirted a year, then started every game at guard in 1954-55-56.

Lathey helped the Mountaineers to records of 8-1, 8-2, and 6-4. They also won the Southern Conference Championships each of the three seasons.

WVU ranked 12th nationally in 1954 and 19th in 1955. A highlight in 1956 was a 7-6 upset win over Texas in a non-conference contest at Austin, Tex.

Lathey was named to the all-time football team for the 1950-59.

“Pappy Lewis was a wonderful coach and a great guy,” he said. “I didn’t know until later. But when he came here in 1950, Pappy said, ‘I’m going to recruit home-grown boys.’ I like that.”

Recalling some of the great gridders he played with, he said:

“Let me put it this way: In that North-South game I played (1952), Bruce Bosley from Green Bank, Hall of Famer; Bobby Moss from Huntington, Hall of Famer; Sam Huff from Farmington, Hall of Famer; Freddy Wyant from Weston, Hall of Famer; and now I’m joining them.

“Five guys all from West Virginia in that one North-South game and then became WVU teammates. Isn’t that something?”

Did Lathey enjoy his years at WVU? “They were unbelievable,” he replied.

He’s still selling insurance in Ripley as he approaches the age of 80.

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