It is a romance made in Almost Heaven, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
If it should blossom all the way to marriage, the only man who possibly could have performed the ceremony has left us, Richard Dawson of “Family Feud.”
It is as unlikely a matchup as you could possibly imagine, beginning more than a year ago as a Facebook flirtation and building into something no one could have ever imagined ... a man and woman falling for each other even though they represent the two sides of the Backyard Brawl.
And this is not just any two young people. Lauren Statler is the niece of one of West Virginia University’s most prominent alumni and donors, Ben Statler.
So who did she wind up in a relationship with, as they put it on their Facebook pages?
None other than a former University of Pittsburgh football player whose name is well known in these parts — Scott McKillop.
Just as Lauren Statler is not just from any WVU family, McKillop is not just another former Pitt football player.
He was the leading tackler out of his linebacker spot in the most devastating defeat the Mountaineers ever suffered, falling 13-9 to Pitt as a four-touchdown favorite when on the doorstep of a national championship in 2007.
And his role as West Virginia villain is even stronger from a comment he made at that time, for he is the Panther who said to columnist Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I (expletive) hate West Virginia. I can’t stand the state. I just don’t like the university.”
He said it, and at the moment he said it, he meant it. Now he lives with it, although his stand has obviously softened some over the time he went off to play professional football with the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills.
So there you have it, that Scott McKillop dating a WVU graduate student who is the niece of a one-time West Virginia coal miner who started his own mining company, PinnOak Resources LLC. Statler and his wife, Jo, shared their success in life in 2007 by giving WVU the largest single gift it had ever received, $25 million for cancer research, academic enhancements and athletic improvements.
Then this year he and Jo topped even that with a $34 million gift to build a new research facility on the Evansdale Campus and create the Statler Research Scholars, which will provide scholarships and research support for 20 or more undergraduate engineering majors.
The gift also endows three faculty chairs in energy research and funds graduate research fellows.
Needless to say, this is a romance like few others.
It started a year ago last August when McKillop sent Statler a request to be a friend on Facebook.
It intrigued her enough to accept.
“Did I really just accept a friend request from a Pitt football player? That’s awful,” she wrote back.
They began conversing via Facebook but didn’t really meet face to face for almost a year, which says a lot about just how the dating game has changed over the years.
“We were supposed to meet a couple of times,” McKillop said.
One of those times was when Pitt played West Virginia in last season’s final game at Milan Puskar Stadium, but McKillop could not get hold of her during the game.
There was supposed to be a postgame date, however, but that didn’t come off either.
“I kind of stood her up. I admit it,” McKillop said.
They continued conversing while he was in Buffalo, trying to recover from knee problems that threaten to end his career.
“It was nothing significant, mostly flirting,” McKillop said.
This October, WVU was to play Baylor in its first Big 12 game. Baylor’s defensive coordinator was Phil Bennett, who was McKillop’s first defensive coordinator at Pitt, and he decided he and some friends would come to the game.
“We finally met face to face. It was small talk, but we ended up going on a date,” McKillop said. “I’ll be honest; I wasn’t cheering for West Virginia.”
“I’ll say. He had on a pink shirt,” Statler added.
Not long after that “The Quote” came into their relationship.
“We started dating and hanging out, and I could sense it was going somewhere. I had actually told her about that quote on, like, our second or third date,” McKillop recalled.
It was about that time that she came across John Antonik’s book titled “The Backyard Brawl” and got a copy for him. She actually had just seen the quote mentioned prominently as a crucial part of the longstanding feud.
“Do you realize what you said? Do you remember?” she said to McKillop. “You’re lucky you don’t get beaten or burned.”
McKillop planned to return to West Virginia for the Kansas State game.
By this time the family knew something about their daughter’s boyfriend. Let’s just say that ...
Well, this is the way that went:
“I told my mom that Scott was coming down, and she said, ‘I’m not giving him my tickets!’” Statler recalled.
“But, Mom, I really like him,” she persisted.
“He’s not getting my tickets,” her mother said
That is the type of bleed blue and old gold family this is.
“My mom finally did cave and let Scott have a ticket to come to the game with us, but the people who sit with us and have sat with us for years are people we have a relationship with, and they were hesitant,” Lauren said.
And don’t think even though she dates McKillop that she’s given up those WVU roots.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to go up to a Pitt game,” she said.
“I never met anyone who grew up in a family like this,” McKillop said.
McKillop is from Export, Pa. It’s taking some adjustment in terms of her brother, her mother, her father. They are such West Virginia fans.
“Where I’m from, there’s so much, so many professional teams, but in West Virginia the school team is all there is. I still catch myself not understanding it because, not to make fun of the state, but West Virginia does not have a professional team. WVU is their major league baseball team, their NFL team, their NHL team.”
And they rally around those teams as nowhere else.
“The only way I can reference that is the passion the fans back home have for the Steelers. Not that it gets annoying, but I can’t understand how, if the Steelers lose, the people the next few days are so down. I’ve seen brothers go after each other after they lose. I can’t understand it.”
This passion for West Virginia begins early and grows with each fan.
“My dad grew up in Blacksville and my mom is from Fairmont,” Statler explained. “They met at a WVU basketball game in ’84. We always came up here and made a weekend of it. We had an RV pass. We’d come up and play.”
Her brother earned a scholarship to play basketball at Fairmont State, and, of course, over it all is the shadow of Ben Statler and his love for his university.
When he made his first donation, Lauren got a job working at the WVU Alumni Association.
“I became really close with the people there and I went to the Texas game with them this year,” she said. “Within the last couple of years I’ve gotten closer to the university. I’ve been coming here my whole life, but being with the alumni association and seeing other aspects of the university has made it that much better.
“Seeing all the chapters throughout the country and seeing how many people love this university just as much as I do has been great for me.”
Of course, the situation means there’s a lot of ribbing going on.
“We go back and forth about West Virginia and Pitt, but her one comeback is, ‘But you still come down here to see me.’ And I tell her, ‘I’d go to Happy Valley if you happened to be there,’” McKillop said.
“It’s like trying to get someone to change political views,” Statler said. “We can talk until we’re blue in the face and we’re not going to get the other one to change.”
And, in the end, McKillop believes he has the final comeback.
“13-9,” he said, referring to the final score of the Pitt game.
Ah, that Pitt game. What happened, everyone in West Virginia has wondered all these years. Certainly history was changed. WVU had no shot at the national title; Rich Rodriguez resigned; the team rallied together behind Bill Stewart and beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But how did WVU lose that game?
“In that article with that famous quote, I let another cat out of the bag,” McKillop said. “We only ran one defense the entire game.”
That was all they needed.
“Paul Rhoads, who’s at Iowa State now, I’d look at him and he kept giving me the same sign. The only check we had was on where the back lined up. Any time Steve Slaton or Noel Devine switched sides, we’d slide our defense,” McKillop explained.
“We knew exactly what they were trying to do and how they were trying to play us.”
And West Virginia changed nothing.
McKillop admits that his team went into the game thinking it wouldn’t win, partly because of a previous experience against the Mountaineers.
“I played in that freezing cold game when H.B. Blades was hurt the first play of the game. I was a redshirt freshman, just happy to be in college, happy to have a scholarship, trying to stay warm. I had gloves on,” he said.
“I didn’t know which way was left, which way was right. I think that was the game where Pat White and Slaton each had 200 yards rushing and Pat White also passed for 200 yards. That was the first time I’d ever played.”
And after the game? A Pittsburgh reporter asked him about how good White and Slaton were.
“I don’t know. I didn’t get close enough,” he answered.
“I was so embarrassed they actually put that quote in the paper,” he said. “You know, I’ve never watched the game film of that.”
No one knows where this couple goes from here, but there was talk one day of having a home of their own.
“When he gets his room, he has his jerseys and stuff. And I said to him, ‘Why don’t you have these framed?’” she said. “Then I thought to myself, I can’t believe I just said that. I guess I have to make that sacrifice.”
Can this really work?
As Richard Dawson would say on “Family Feud” ... “Survey said!”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.
It is a romance made in Almost Heaven, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
- Bob Herzel
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