By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was one of those games that make the sport of college football what it is.
A regular season game, late in the year, everything to play for, two great teams, one of which would win.
West Virginia at Cincinnati, the Bearcats leading the Big East, hoping they can somehow sneak in the back door and play the National Championship game, the Mountaineers fully determined to put an end to those dreams.
It is early in the evening, the Mountaineers heading out of their locker room for pregame warm-ups. Chris Neild, their nose guard, looked off to one side.
That’s when he saw it.
“The National Championship trophy,” he said the other day, thinking back on the moment. “I don’t know how they got it there, but there it was, about 20 to 30 feet to the right. Cheerleaders were getting their picture taken.”
Right then something snapped in the emotional Neild.
When the team returned to the locker room, when they in the final moments preparing to hit the field, Neild spoke out before his defensive teammates.
“I don’t think I can tell you what I said,” Neild said. “That should stay in the locker room.”
Suffice it to say it was something more than “isn’t that a nice trophy out there?”
Chris Neild had become a leader as West Virginia went out and upset the Scarlet Knights, 24-21, with a brilliant defensive performance, the difference in the game being an interception return for a touchdown by safety Sidney Glover and a game-saving interception by linebacker J.T. Thomas.
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Leadership is what it is all about as this spring begins today for the West Virginia Mountaineers, going through an April 30 spring game. which is a Friday night.
They remain a young team, a talented team, but a team in search of themselves.
“I don’t care if you have 12-0 talent. If you have 6-6 leadership, that is what your team is probably going to be — 6-6,” Coach Bill Stewart said.
It isn’t really about whether Geno Smith can run the team, whether the offensive line is improved.
It’s about replacing the leadership of Jarrett Brown and Reed Williams and, yes, even Patrick White, who is in his second year away from WVU but whose shadow still hangs heavily.
“This entire operation of 2010 is going to be based on some very simple facts. Do we have the right chemistry? Do we have the right leadership? Do we have the right role models doing what they are supposed to do? That is what we are going to find out,” Stewart said.
“We will be good as our leadership and not just with our seniors — new ones must emerge. We only lost three senior starters on offense and two on defense. We were a young football team, but you can only use that excuse so long. We need leaders to step up. It is all based on leadership, and I hope our guys will take care of that.”
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The players understand the role they must take in running the show.
Don Barclay is a junior offensive lineman, a returning starter.
He understands the leadership thing.
“Back when I was freshman when went to the Fiesta Bowl and had two great leaders in Owen [Schmitt] and Patrick [White].”
Then they had just Patrick White and then no Patrick White.
They had to take what they had seen and put it to use.
“Leadership starts with your work ethic,” Barclay said. “Leaders set examples.”
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Chris Neild understands about leading. He actually had taken a leadership role the week before the Cincinnati game.
Connecticut was in Morgantown and the Mountaineers found themselves in a terribly difficult position. Jaspar Howard, the popular Connecticut safety, had beet shot and killed following the Huskies previous game.
The nation mourned Howard. The Connecticut team was inspired to win a game to honor him.
And West Virginia was sort of a national villain, the team standing in the way of winning one for the fallen Connecticut player.
The Mountaineers, to a man, were touched by the situation, but that is hardly the way to play a football game, which is a savage game, at times, and one that requires your every positive effort.
Before that game, Neild knew he had to speak up.
“It’s the vibe, a spur of the moment thing,” Neild said of knowing when to speak and what to say.
He was walking a tightrope, he knew, but something had to be done to light the fire for the Mountaineers.
“I don’t want this to sound wrong. We all hurt for Connecticut, but we had to play an important game,” Neild explained. “It was game time. I was afraid we would not come out with a fire.”
And so he spoke out, did what he had to do to get his teammates ready to play. The game was a mission for Connecticut and they stood to win in the final couple of minutes until Noel Devine broke loose on a long touchdown.
Connecticut had won the nation’s sympathy and respect for its courage.
West Virginia had won the game.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.