The Bluefield High School football team was undefeated in 1960. How did they do it? When team members gathered last weekend for a get-together, one had a simple explanation.
“We were afraid to lose a game,” said Doug Ward, a senior in the fall of 1960. “We didn’t know what (coach Merrill) Gainer would do to us. It was pure fear.”
Maybe it was a joke. Maybe.
Gainer’s legendary dedication and drive obviously had a lasting effect on those who returned to Bluefield on Friday, 50 years after going 10-0 in an ill-fated football season.
Ward said his top memory of being on the team was “how hard we worked, all the time. Coach Gainer kept us going all the time. I just remember how hard a-working group it was.”
“We didn’t know how to lose,” said Tom Lilly, a tackle on the ’60 team. “We’d gone through little league, junior high, JV and never lost.” He was one of at least three on the team who went through their entire high school career without a loss.
The coaching staff “taught us a lot of discipline and commitment,” Lilly said. “The main thing was commitment. That’s what the coaches (emphasized), was to focus. If he saw somebody talking to a girl on Friday, he would jump on him.”
Ward remembered sitting up in the stands with a teammate, watching the band practice and relaxing. “We were 400 yards from the closest girl ... and they came and (chewed me out) for watching the band. Your mind was not on the game if you were doing that.
“And if we’d have lost that game, God knows, I’d probably STILL be runnin.’ ”
Jay Disibbio, who was a sophomore in 1960, said, “The camaraderie that we shared those three years was wonderful. We had a coaching staff that was unbeatable, and a school that was unbeatable. I think for the three years we were 30-1 and one state championship.”
Lilly said winning was “something we really kind of expected to do.” When the 1960 players gathered, he said, “You can look at us, we were not good athletes.”
He said team co-captain Tom Kesting was “the only lineman that was really any good; all the rest of us just thought we were.”
But they did have a line coach named Jim Miles. Lilly said, “If he’d told us we could knock down that wall, we would believe it.”
That coaching staff also included George Erps and John Chmara, a genius of football offense who would succeed Gainer as head coach in 1968.
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When the team got back together, they had numerous stories to tell, particularly about a 1960 comeback win in War against Big Creek High School, the school at which Gainer coached before moving on to Bluefield.
Kesting said, “It was the second roughest football game I ever played in. The (roughest) one I played in was when we played Big Creek down here in 1959, the first time we played them here at Mitchell Stadium, and we beat them 6-0.”
The 1960 version of the Big Creek Owls “outweighed us 22 pounds per man,” he said. “The emotions of this game were extremely high, because we wanted to win, and they wanted to kick the snot out of us.
“They had us, like, 13-0. And as we went into the final segment of the ballgame ... all of a sudden, the lights in the stadium went out. It went to total dark.
“So they brought us over to the sidelines, and Coach Gainer sat us down and said, ‘Guys ... this is what we need to do to win the game.’ So we went back out and beat them 14-13, which was really a fantastic experience for us, to be able to do that.”
Gainer used the interruption to make a personnel switch, moving gifted runner Richard Bourne from quarterback to halfback.
Another team member, Dusty Lotito, asked rhetorically, “You wonder why the lights went out?” He said he’s heard for years that Gainer knew where the power switch was.
Kesting said, “The game was so bad, I played so hard that when the game was over with, I passed out. I had depleted the salt that was in my body and everything, and they had to give me intravenous (solution) because I was so dehydrated, because we had played so hard.
“It was a great game.”
There was another dimension to that win besides the newly-intense rivalry between the Beavers and Owls.
“They told us that we’d only win two games that year,” Kesting said. “The transformation that took place, and the confidence of the team after we won that game was incredible. The next game we played … it was like we were a different team.
“We had taken the game to a higher level. It was like we knew we could win.”
The team finished 10-0, but did not get to play for the Class AAA state title because the playoff format consisted of just one postseason game, between the two top-ranked teams. Bluefield finished third in the points system.
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When the 1960 team members gathered at Bluefield High School to talk with the 2010 team on Friday afternoon, one ’60 player told current Beavers head coach Fred Simon, “You followed two legends (Gainer and Chmara), and you’re a legend in your own right.”
Simon answered immediately, “Coach Gainer started it, and we wouldn’t be where we are if it hadn’t been for him.”
From 1959-67, Gainer’s teams at Bluefield had a record of 87-6-1, five undefeated seasons and four state championships. Chmara, from 1968-85, posted a 130-53-1 record with two state titles and two unbeaten teams.
Simon, the coach since 1986, has a record of 185-99, four state championships and three perfect seasons.
— Contact Tom Bone at email@example.com