Having grown up in Wheeling, there are countless memories I continue to cherish. One that stands out in my mind is Friday Night Lights at Wheeling Island Stadium. The game that would mark the end of summer and kick off the school year was Wheeling Park vs. Wheeling Central.
As a young boy, this was the equivalent of the Super Bowl. Everyone from the valley would come to the Island to witness this game. Kids who played junior high football would represent their team by wearing their school jersey. At halftime kids would play two-hand touch under the bleachers near concessions or in the parking lot under the scoreboard, by using little blue plastic footballs that read “Wheeling Park” or maroon-colored footballs that read “Wheeling Central.”
I remember watching former Park players Myron “Boobie” Walker, Sean Jamison, Troy Law, Michael “Motor” Griffith, Mike Tennant, Shawn Donaldson, Zach Abraham and Chris Daugherty. These guys weren’t high school football players in my eyes: they were the Tom Bradys, Antonio Browns and the JJ Watts of the football world. These are the players I would emulate while playing two hand touch during recess on the playground at Woodsdale Elementary or tackle football in my neighborhood. What made it even better was that they all played for the Wheeling Park Patriots. The Red, White & Blue. Around here they call it “Park Pride.” This is the team I would dream of playing for one day.
Fast-forward ten years of my youth – 24 years ago today. 1991 was a very special year. I was 16, had my driver’s license, a full head of hair, had just won a state championship as a member of the Wheeling Park Soccer Team, and I was a member of the Wheeling Park High School Football Team.
Not just any Wheeling Park Football Team, though, but THE TEAM. Everyone knows or has heard about THE TEAM. We were 11-1. Our only loss came at the hands of Brooke in front of 10,000 plus at Wheeling Island Stadium. We had just defeated Mount View, which was one of the biggest, most physical teams in the state. We were headed to the Big Dance, the Big Show, the State Championship Game. While all the players celebrated after the game by going to Hardee’s, all the coaches, parents and friends of the program turned the Bridge Tavern into the equivalent of Tao Nightclub in NYC on a Saturday evening. It was a celebration of how far we had come as a program. It’s that special thing I mentioned earlier…”Park Pride.”
Unfortunately, all the former players I mentioned earlier never had the chance to play for a state championship. I remember thinking this was our team’s chance to win it for those guys and everyone else who has ever come through the program. We could be the first to do it. We could make history. How cool would that be? How many kids our age have this opportunity? These were just a few thoughts running through my mind.
We left for Charleston on Thanksgiving Day. Our buses headed south with a nice sendoff from our families and fans up at the high school. Sony Walkman (check), pre-game mix cassette tape (check), pillow (check), Nintendo Gameboy (check). I had all the essentials. I remember the majority of the bus trip being quiet. The night before the game, we had a team meeting in the hotel. I remember Coach Ron White telling us how proud he was of us not only because of what we had accomplished on the field but off the field. I vividly remember him telling us how proud we would make him when we would eat at a restaurant, check into a hotel, etc. and the employees would come up to him and compliment him on how well-mannered we were. I can tell you firsthand that was a compliment to our coaching staff. We were led by a group of men who lived for us. The countless hours these men would spend teaching us the game of football was amazing, but they would take pride in and spend just as much time teaching us about the game of life. I remember this staff did not want us having any distractions. They took the phones out of every room so we would not be up all night making room-to-room calls. A few Tecmo Bowl tournaments and haircuts went on that evening to help ease the nerves before curfew.
On game day my roommates and I were awakened by a loud knocking on our hotel room door. I got up, looked through the peephole and saw a bubble-eyed, peephole version of Coach Petrini’s face literally six inches from the door. Coach Petrini didn’t speak, walked to the middle of our room, stared me in the face, stared my roommates Todd Dei, Daryl “Boogie” Johnson, and Shane Saunders in the face, then left. The man said nothing, but his actions spoke volumes. He knew and we knew what we were playing for that day. His job was to wake us up and be sure we were ready. We made his job easy for him that morning.
After a team breakfast we headed to the stadium. When we got to Laidley Field, I remember seeing a sea of Red, White & Blue. None of us had any communication with our families for two days (remember, no cell phones back then). I remember looking up into the crowd trying to spot my parents and siblings and being amazed at how many people were there to support us. Not just Park family, but Ohio Valley Family. Other coaches and players from teams we played, Central fans, John Marshall fans, etc.
This was when it hit me. This thing started as Park Pride but when a team from the valley makes it to the championship, it becomes Ohio Valley Pride. We were playing for the entire Ohio Valley, and we were ready.
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We were confident but nervous. Not nervous that we were going to lose, but nervous because we did not want to make any mistakes. We knew our best was good enough to win. We controlled the entire game. Capital High School was doing a really good job trying to contain our high-powered offense led by Coach Joe Spence, but we were still able to move the ball. We scored on a run from Boogie and led 7-0 all the way through the 4th quarter. Our defense, led by Coach Mark Nardone, played lights-out. As a matter of fact, Capital didn’t cross the 50 yard line into our territory until the 4th quarter.
During the 4th quarter is when “the play” occurred. Capital had the ball in our territory for the first time with under a minute to score. Considering how our defense had played all day, we had nothing to worry about. With 12 seconds left in the game, defensive end Josh Wack came off the edge and sacked Capital’s QB. It was over. I remember picking my teammate Jamie Bordas up and hugging him on the sideline as we heard our crowd counting down 5…4…3…2…1 and then erupting in a huge cheer as if the game was over. I also heard a loud cheer from Capital’s side. I saw the official in the end zone put both his hands up in the air, signaling for a Touchdown. What happened? The game was over……I was so confused. Capital snapped the ball with just under 1 second left in the game and the Capital QB threw the ball in the end zone for one last desperate attempt. A Capital wide receiver and our All State defensive back Shane Saunders both caught the ball and tangled for it while on the ground. The officials gave Capital the TD. We were headed into overtime.
Each team was given four downs with a chance to score from the 10 yard line. We took possession first. We scored and kicked the PAT. Now it was Capital’s turn. Capital ended up scoring on third down. I remember them bringing out their kicker to kick the PAT before a time-out was called. During the timeout Capital decided to go for two and the state championship. Both teams lined up for this final play. Capital ran a sweep to the left and the RB got tripped up but ended up crossing the goal line. Game over. Capital 15, Wheeling Park 14.
I can remember the rain started to come down harder and the sound of a bass drum beating while watching Capital celebrate on their home field. Our entire sideline was stunned. How did this happen? How did we let the game get to this point? We outplayed them all game. We deserved this! More importantly our Seniors deserve this!! After the game I remember Coach White saying, “Keep your heads up. If you wanna hurt fine, if you wanna cry…cry, you deserve it. You worked your butts off.” We all were numb, worn out, drained emotionally and mentally. Many coaches and players broke down in the locker room. I have vivid memories of watching some of our seniors who had led us to this game show emotions I have never seen before. The tough thing to fathom was that our best was good enough but we gave our best and still lost.
There are a lot of things about that game that continue to haunt many of us who were a part of it. We tackled one of Capital’s players in the end zone in the first quarter. This was not called a safety and Capital got the ball on the one yard line. Boogie Johnson’s run on 4th and goal was not ruled a touchdown because the officials ruled Boogie down when his momentum stopped for a split-second, although his body never touched the ground. On Capital’s desperation heave with no time left in regulation, were all their players set? These are some of the questions asked again and again over the years.
Looking back 24 years later, I have come to the conclusion that although we did not win a State Championship, I truly believe we were all taught a valuable lesson: that life is not always fair. Learning and experiencing this at such a young age has helped prepare many of us for what life inevitably brings. Highs and lows, peaks and pits. We were fortunate to have many more highs than lows that season even though our season ended in the deepest of pits. Being a father of three, I look back and reflect on all the parents who were involved in helping us make the 1991 season so special. All the support, fundraisers, pre-game meals, tailgates, signs at the stadium, etc. I look back at all the guidance our coaching staff gave us and the way all those men handled the toughest coaching loss of their careers.
These actions are a product of “Ohio Valley Pride.” These are actions I plan on passing on to my own children. This is why while in town this past weekend to spend Thanksgiving with my family, it was imperative that I took my children and nephew to the send-off Pep Rally before Park headed to Point Pleasant. This is why I will do everything in my power to rearrange my plans next weekend to drive from Lexington, Kentucky to make it to Wheeling Island Stadium on Saturday to witness my Wheeling Park Patriots take on the same team our team faced in 1991 for the WV State Championship. This season undoubtedly has been special. Thank goodness for technology, which has allowed me to listen to many games on Friday evenings this fall through my Macbook. The parallels between the 2015 team and the 1991 team are incredible. Both teams have one loss to the same opponent and face the same team for the State Championship. Nick Nardone and Savion Johnson both have the unique opportunity both their fathers had. Regardless of the outcome, it gives me great joy to witness a new generation carry on the tradition of “Park Pride.”
In closing, I will always remember the late George Kellas doing a segment on TV the evening we lost, saying, “When people look at the trophy they brought back 30 years from now someone will say…..You wouldn’t believe what happened to us that day.” George was correct. It’s been 24 years and we are still talking about it.
Pictures Coutresy of Pete Chacalos and the DiLorenzo Family