There is a segment of our society to whom Mountaineer football is life itself.

If the West Virginia University team wins, it is a victory of its own. And if it loses, it becomes a failure which borders upon death itself, at least in some kind of warped metaphysical way.

Reality, however, offers a different view of life and death, something we all sometimes lose sight of as we get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Sometimes we need to take a walk into the world as it really is to put football into the proper perspective.

True, this Saturday’s meeting with Rutgers at Milan Puskar Stadium was an important game for a West Virginia team that already had two losses and had only one avenue to a BCS bowl left, that via winning the Big East Conference championship.

But this opening game in conference play was not a matter of life and death.

That point was driven home to three of the Mountaineers on Friday, an afternoon when they went to Ruby Memorial Hospital to inspire some sick children and instead found that a child would offer inspiration to them.

The three players were center Mike Dent, wide receiver Tito Gonzales and defensive end Zac Cooper, who could have no idea that he would wind up being the man who would lift the Mountaineers out of a hole and to victory over Rutgers.

One 11-year-old in particular caught their attention.

They asked him if he liked video games.

“No,” he answered. “I read.”

As they were leaving the youngster looked up from his bed and said, “I’d tell you good luck, but this isn’t about good luck. It’s about how hard you work in practice all week. It’s about how hard you play tomorrow. Luck doesn’t win football games.”

Think about that for a moment. Coach Bill Stewart did.

“Isn’t it funny how an 11-year-old young man can be so worldly at such a young age?” said Stewart.

Certainly it hit home with the players.

“We went there to encourage a bunch of kids with cancer, but it was them who motivated us,” said Cooper.

One can only imagine what was going through that 11-year-old’s mind midway through the third quarter when his team, West Virginia, stalled at the Rutgers 45-yard line, facing a fourth-and-2, protecting a 7-point lead.

Stewart, who is the special teams coach, sent his punt team onto the field, but not before talking briefly with Cooper, who aligns himself as one of the protectors in front of punter Pat McAfee.

Stewart was telling Cooper that if the situation presented itself, he might call for a fake and that he was to stay alive and make sure he handled everything he had to do.

Easy for Stewart to say.

Cooper is a former high school fullback from Weir High, where he rushed for 1,125 yards as a senior. But he hadn’t run an offensive play since then.

He went onto the field and lined up punt formation when the call came in from the bench, a call he would say was “a perfect call by Coach Stewart.” But right then he wasn’t thinking about how good the call was. In fact, there was only one thing on his mind.

“Just catch it,” he told himself.

The snap from Adam Hughes came back straight and true, not to McAfee, but to Cooper.

He took off running to the left, just as he had in high school, just as Stewart imagined he would.

“He ran through Magnolia High for 220 yards,” said Stewart. “I don’t remember anyone running through Magnolia for 220 yards, at least while I was there.”

A player grabbed at his jersey but couldn’t get a shot at a tackle. Cooper, who has become a third-down, pass rushing specialist at defensive end, rambled for 18 yards and the first down.

The gamble had worked, although Stewart didn’t want to hear anything about a gamble.

“Sometimes you get a feel. I can’t tell you why, but I had that feel. It’s not about guts. It’s not about taking a chance. If I want to take a chance, I’ll go to the 7-11 near the Lakeview Resort and buy me a lottery ticket,” Stewart said. “That’s a chance. This is something we practice all the time.”

West Virginia had the first down. Seven plays later, Jarrett Brown rushed into the end zone from a yard out and WVU had what would prove to be the game’s winning touchdown.

Some would say that being able to pull off the first successful fake punt since Phil Brady’s fake punt carried West Virginia to victory in the Sugar Bowl three years ago, but they’d be wrong.

As that 11-year-old leukemia victim told the players, “Luck doesn’t win football games.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at

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