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February 1, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Fan’s WVU game streak all about love

MORGANTOWN — You might have seen his car. It’s the one with the license plate that reads:

NO1WVFAN

And you might be wondering why Rick Harshbarger would qualify for such a plate.

We’re here to tell you why. He has attended 368 consecutive West Virginia University home basketball games, a streak that goes back to Jan. 19, 1988.

And his football streak is longer, going back to 1985, but he says “that’s easy” because there are only six or seven home football games, and the weather is good when he’s driving over from his home on the Maryland side of the eastern border of West Virginia.

Basketball is another story, though. You’re driving through the mountains of Western Maryland and Preston County when the snow is as high as an elephant’s eye or something like that.

“Tony Caridi asked me the other day if the weather was the biggest obstacle,” he said on Thursday after a Morgantown doctor checked out a disc problem he is having with his back. “For most people it would be, but I’m one of those weird people who doesn’t mind driving in the winter … and I’ve seen some pretty rough weather coming to games.

“I’ve probably been on I-68 half a dozen times when it was closed,” he continued. “I’d get to the entrance ramp and they had the horses up there saying the road was closed, so I just went around them. I always had a good four-wheel drive vehicle. Most of the problems I’ve had hasn’t been with getting stuck or wrecking, but with the snow being so deep that the headlights weren’t bright enough and I couldn’t see well.”

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night …

“The streak is 25 years, but if I hadn’t missed that game 25 years ago the streak would probably go back 33 years,” he said.

And so you have to ask why he missed that one game 25 years ago.

“I was moving into my new house and had friends and family there,” he said. “It was Jan. 19, 1988. We were playing UMass. I had every intention of leaving at 5 o’clock and coming to the game, but you know how things are when you are moving into your new house. I had friends and family there, carrying boxes, unloading things.”

Other than that, there really hasn’t been much of anything to keep Rick Harshbarger from a Mountaineer basketball game.

There was the time in 1999 when he was in Mon General scheduled for foot surgery the next day. That was Gale Catlett’s last year. The Mountaineers were scheduled to play Providence, and Harshbarger wasn’t quite ready to miss this game even if it was the season when the team went 8-20.

“What I did was write a note to the nurses saying ‘I’ll be back in 2 and a half hours, don’t worry about me, I’m going to the basketball game,’” he recalled. “Then I snuck out, I put my clothes over my gown, went to my car, went to the game, came back and got into bed.”

There were other close calls.

“I remember one year I had the flu. I was sick, throwing up out the window on the way over. First thing I did when I got to the game was buy a big tub of popcorn, pour the popcorn in the trash can and threw up in the box,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Then just this year there was a really tough situation.

“I went to the Pinstripe Bowl. I’m in New York and it is 8 o’clock at night and we’re tipping off against Eastern Kentucky the next day. I got up at 6 in the morning in New York City and drove 8 and a half hours back to the basketball game,” he said.

Harshbarger’s love affair with West Virginia sports started almost half a century ago.

He recalls his sister Caroline, back when he was 3 or 4 years old, trying to listen to Rod Thorn on their battery-operated transistor radio.

“She had me climbing all over the house, holding it in different positions trying to pick up WWVA out of Wheeling,” he said.

They were in a little West Virginia town called Piedmont, one that would be a Class A powerhouse that would be the state championship basketball team he played on in 1974.

He got his love of sports from his father, Harry, who was in Patton’s 3rd Army and won two Bronze Stars at the Battle of the Bulge.

“My dad started me dribbling. My dad was an all-area player in the ’30s. He actually got scholarship offers but World War II took care of that,” Harshbarger said. “I’m similar to (WVU coach Bob) Huggins in that my dad was a basketball guy and I grew up playing basketball from the time I was old enough to walk. We are educated fans.”

His dad began bringing him to games in the old Fieldhouse and the Coliseum. His first game was against William & Mary.

“I was probably only 5 years old, and I remember I hated the other team’s uniforms because they were green and yellow,” he said.

They would drive to the home games and when the team was on the road his dad would get up on a Maryland mountain top, pull off on the shoulder and try to position the car so it picked up Jack Fleming on the radio.

Today he is CEO of the Potomac Center in Romney, an independent, not-for-profit, private organization founded in 1980 that provides residential assistance and support to both children and adults with developmental disabilities as they learn the skills needed to live successful lives.

As for the streak, he does it not because of the numbers but because he loves his WVU sports, a love he has passed on to his daughter, Candice, a doctor of physical therapy in Keyser, and his son, Bret, a park ranger at Pinnacle Rock in Bluefield, who went 18 years himself without missing a game.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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