By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It’s that time again, and if you are a West Virginia Mountaineer fan you know what we’re talking about.
The school’s football team has fallen apart, the quarterback is facing surgery, the coaching situation in shambles. The basketball team that took you to the Final Four a year ago has scattered in a thousand directions and opened the Big East with a home loss to St. John’s.
That’s right, you’ve been there before, but you are a Mountaineer fan, and that makes you different, someone special and stronger than others can imagine.
Nine months ago you were reminded what a true Mountaineer fan is like, reminded of it at a time of mourning. That was when John Fleming died.
You probably knew him. He ran the Book Exchange here and was the brother of that Mountaineer legend, Jack Fleming, whose voice was better known and more inspirational to a WVU fan than even John Denver’s.
During John Fleming’s funeral mass, conducted by Rev. Dr. Ken Ramsey, there came a moment when what being a Mountaineer fan is all about.
“I know it’s a funeral,” Rev. Dr. Ramsey said to the mourners, “but …”
He looked out toward the sea of faces and chanted, “Let’s go …”
The response he got was a West Virginia “Amen!” as the congregation chanted back “Mountaineers.”
Before being laid to rest, a Final Four pennant was placed inside John Fleming’s casket, the alma mater, the fight song and, of course, “Country Roads” were played.
John Fleming was at peace with the world, a Mountaineer world.
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When you are a Mountaineer fan, no matter what they say, you can take it with you.
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No one ever promised being a Mountaineer fan would be easy. For every time a Major Harris would turn a mistake into “The Play” there were a hundred times when the world would cave in on your head when everything seemed to be going so perfectly.
Why would anyone burn a couch, you ask, after having won a game? Perhaps you will understand better after you read this item found on an obscure message board after WVU had upset Kentucky to advance to last year’s Final Four.
“I had serious doubts here tonight.... Those first 5 minutes and I thought it was going to be a UK rout.....Its natural...31 years as a Mountaineer fan and constant heartbreaks over the years... (see 1989 National title loss to Notre Dame (Football), or 1993 Sugar Bowl loss to Florida for the big one (football), or Pitt beating us 13-9 to put us out of the title game in football 3 years ago when we were favored by 28 POINTS, or Sweet Sixteen meltdown in 1998 with a great, great team, or Louisville coming back from 20 down at half to kill our Final Four hopes in 2006 with an even better team (You've been Pittsnogled!!...now all the WV fans were Pittsnogled by this massive meltdown) …
“My dad still talks about the heartbreak he felt when Jerry West and the Mounties lost the basketball title game to California by 1 point in 1959 ... He was 9 …
“I'm 31 years old and I've witnessed all of these losses first hand (except the 1959 game)...Some as a child, some as a drunken college student, and some as a somewhat responsible adult...Man, it’s been hard to be a Mountaineer fan....”
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All that came BEFORE the loss to Duke at the Final Four with Da’Sean Butler blowing out his knee, before this year’s football team disintegrated.
See, no matter how they make it out to be, being a Mountaineer fan isn’t just burning couches and drinking beer at a wild tailgate. It has something to do with character, of having to endure the same kind of hardships the real Mountaineers of another era endured.
Being a Mountaineer fan is a cold, harsh winter which turns and into a summer drought that tests your heart, exposes you for who you are and what you are, yet also prepares you for that moment when the game-winning pass isn’t dropped and the desperation shot at the buzzer goes through the hoop.
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What’s a Mountaineer fan?
Our blogger knows:
“Coaches have pledged their lives to being a Mountaineer coach and then left for the next big offer... ESPN commentators and the rest of the national sports media often play off the stereotypical image of our state in very negative ways.... (I’m talking about you, [Doug] Gottlieb, and [Dick] Vitale!!!)....The constant insults based on old and ignorant imagery are funny and yet still a bit hurtful…Like Rodney Dangerfield, we both complain and happily joke about getting “no respect”.
“But being a Mountaineer fan is like being a Yankee fan or a Red Sox fan or a Crimson Tide fan… THE INTENSITY IS THAT REAL!!!! We have a deep and unrelenting love for our team…There is no bandwagon or fair weather fanhood….We breathe it and feel it in our bones….I will die a Mountaineer fan even with all the disappointments…
“People often feel sorry for me for being from West Virginia and for being a Mountie fan … I feel sorry for those who don’t have a team or an institution that they can care this much about…”
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There really isn’t much to add to that.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org