WAR — Big Creek football began in 1931. In November, 78 years later, the Owls will fly on, never to be seen on a gridiron again.

It’s all part of progress in McDowell County, but it doesn’t make it any easier on those involved.

“I thought it would happen earlier than this, but it’s kind of a good thing,” Big Creek junior quarterback Cody Underwood said. “We’re getting new equipment, a new school, a brighter future for us.”

Yet, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few tears when the Owls leave the gridiron for a final time.

“It’s going to be hard, knowing you’re not ever going to wear the green and white again,” Big Creek junior Justin Kidwell said. “Oh yeah, I know I will cry.”

No wonder. Big Creek will close its doors in the spring of 2010. The Owls will consolidate with the Iaeger Cubs and create the Riverview Raiders in Bradshaw starting next fall.

That doesn’t mean Big Creek will be forgotten.

“We’re wearing the green jerseys first day of school (next year),” Kidwell said. “All of us have decided, just because of the Big Creek pride.”

There was a time when Big Creek was a thriving school in the thriving community of War, but that’s been many years ago when coal was still king. Since then, the enrollment has plummeted, ultimately forcing the closure of another school in an economically-challenged county.

“Sure it’s tough. I’ve been here a little over 30 years and I’ve seen this school go from 660 kids back in 1977 down to 240,” Big Creek head football coach Mike Vallo said. “A lot of people have a lot of pride in this community.”

Over the years, the Owls have been a competitive bunch, finishing second to Moorefield in the 1997 Class A state championship game. According to one source, Big Creek was state champs in ‘32 and ‘34 when the winner was picked by the media.

“I know a lot about the tradition,” Underwood said. “Just about each one of my family members have played Big Creek football so it is just another line in the generation.”

While rumors had persisted for a while that the school would be closing its doors, it may have finally started to hit home when Mario Poletti Field — the football field that had set in front of Big Creek for most of its history — was destroyed, covered up by the new Southside Elementary School.

That same year, Big Creek held what was its final homecoming football game, and now the school will close, with the season’s final loss on the gridiron in November being the last in history.

“For for these people in this area, this is the closest thing to death,” said Big Creek assistant football coach and head basketball coach Phillip Dunford, who graduated from the school in 1993. “It’s like a mourning kind of atmosphere, to see this school close.

“You took our football field three or four years ago. You started bleeding us out then, now we know this year the doors will be shut. When the last day that door is shut, I don’t think there will be a dry-eyed Owl around no matter where they are at.”

Big Creek will begin its final season of football by traveling to Mount Hope on Aug. 28. The Owls have just nine games scheduled, including four at home, beginning on Sept. 11 against McDowell County rival Mount View. They’ll finish up the regular season at home with Meadow Bridge on Nov. 6.

“I’m sure it will be with high emotions, I’m the kind of person, every year coaching and playing after the last ball game, I cry like a baby because I feel their pain because I have been there before,” Dunford said. “This year I’m having to go through another emotion along side of them.

“Every game will be the last game we play against that team, it will never be Big Creek against Iaeger anymore, that will never happen.”

Big Creek will travel to Iaeger on Oct. 2, the final meeting between two football teams that will become one in 2010.

“To be honest, I don’t know if I’m looking forward to it or not because I know it will be the last one,” Dunford said. “It is kind sad, even now, one team can be 9-0 and the other team be 0-9, and you sportscasters in your log, you’ve got it picked 50-50 because you know how it is.”

Being a part of the final Big Creek football team means even more to the seniors like Ready, who wants to not only go out as part of the final graduating class, but also with a season to remember.

“It means a lot, to me it means being with family and friends and having a lot of fun,” Ready said. “We’re really determined, it’s my senior year, my last year at Big Creek, I’m really determined that we will have a good year.”

The Owls did last season, finishing 7-3 and reaching the postseason for the first time since 1997. It ended in a loss, but it was a memory Big Creek hoped to rekindle in 2009.

“It was awesome, it was the greatest feeling, there could be no better,” said Kidwell, who resides in Coalwood.

Big Creek was already recovering from the lost of eight seniors, but then the Owls suffered a big hit, losing the entire family of Johnsons — Cody, Austin, Devon and Albert — to Richlands. Suddenly, the Owls are facing an uphill climb to playoff football.

“We’re really determined, we go through a lot of adversity at Big Creek, adversity seems to be our middle name,” said Underwood, who will replace Cody Johnson, who had been a three-year starter for the Owls. “It is kind of awkward, we’re going to miss them, but we’re going to be determined and show people what we can do.”

“You’ve got to stay determined,” added Ready. “We’ve got to go with what we’ve got. We can win with what we’ve got, I know we can.”

Giving up or feeling sorry for themselves has never been a part of War, football or the community. Vallo doesn’t see that happening with this team.

“There’s a tradition in hard work, play hard, but play fair,” Vallo said. “That’s what coach (Mario) Poletti preached. Play hard, don’t cheap-shot people and be hard workers and hit them hard. Hopefully we can carry that tradition on.”

Few schools in the area have produced the coaches that have come from Big Creek. Merrill Gainer (Bluefield), Glynn Carlock (Graham) and Joel Hicks (Pulaski County) all have Owl roots, and athletes like Bob Gresham are now a part of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame.

“With or without talent on Friday night, it’s who wants it the most,” said Dunford, who refers to this season as a ‘farewell tour’ for the school, especially for his basketball team that will have just seven home games. “You can take a team full of talent that goes out there and halfways it and you give me a Big Creek team that has heart and we’ll compete.

“The thing that sticks out in my mind is what peoples said to me when I was in college or anywhere. You knew you had better scrap it up when you played Big Creek. When you play them, it don’t matter who it is, you’d better scrap them up.”

Vallo will be the final head coach at Big Creek, having taken the job in 2001, partially to prepare the Owls for the transformation to the new school, which has been delayed often, but is finally close to reality.

“I wanted to give these kids that are hanging in there, give them the opportunity,” said Vallo, who was a baseball coach at Big Creek for nearly three decades. “This new school, it’s been ‘three more years’ for the last five years where they’ve had all kinds of problems.

“I’ve tried to keep the program going to give these kids the opportunity to play at the new school. It’s been my goal.”

The Owls themselves have one goal for the season, beat Iaeger and Mount View and be McDowell County champs one last time.

“We want to be county champions, we want to beat both of them,” Underwood said. “It’s going to be fun this year to be the last time we ever play Iaeger, hopefully we’ll make it a good game.”

“I’ve been an Owl forever,” added Ready, who was raised in Coalwood, “and I’m looking forward to being county champs this year.”

Underwood, who will get the opportunity to play at Riverview for one season, is excited to be a part of the final team at Big Creek.

“It means a lot because I’ve always grown up watching Big Creek,” said Underwood, who resides in Caretta, “and I’ve always wanted to play for them so it is going to mean a lot to play in their last year here.”

The school may close, the uniforms might be put away for good, and the Owls will no longer fly. There is one attribute about War, the school and Big Creek that will never die.

“Pride,” Ready said. “The pride of Big Creek, I love it.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

Trending Video

Recommended for you