MORGANTOWN — Their paths were crossing on a sunbathed Saturday afternoon, two West Virginia football players, decades apart on the time scale, each thrust into a similar situation.
One had built his career and reputation to the highest level, the one named Darryl Talley, who on this day was receiving the greatest honor a Mountaineers football player could receive, having his No. 90 jersey number retired by the school.
The other, Akheem Mesidor, was in the process of making his mark on Mountaineers football, involved in a game against Texas Tech on a WVU team caught in the midst of a rebuilding phase under a coach trying to make his mark.
What tied them together was the uniform number. He, too, wears, No. 90.
Talley made it famous during his career at West Virginia, now Mesidor would be the last to wear it as it will go into retirement after his career; a career that has gotten off to a magnificent start, a career that promises to do justice to Talley himself and to his number.
Talley, of course, was there to help transition WVU into a winning era under coach Don Nehlen in a brand new stadium. Likewise, Mesidor is a key figure in Neal Brown’s rebuilding program in the same stadium, although Talley would have trouble recognizing it as it stands in its renovated spendor.
Talley remembered the first day they played in the stadium against Cincinnati in 1980.
“We had to walk through the mud to get in,” he said.
Landscaping would come later.
They thought it was a palace back then, so much so that when Talley was recruited out of east Cleveland by Gary Stevens, they would whisk recruits by old Mountaineer Field and bring them to the site of the under construction new stadium, selling a dream, not a memory.
When asked about the recruiting trip and then playing in the stadium, he offered this up to WVU historian John Antonik as to the emotion of the day.
“I said, ‘OK.’ No big deal. It’s a new stadium. But when they finally opened the place and John Denver was in there singing ‘Country Roads’ … to this day, there are only two other things that give me chill bumps on my arms,” Talley said to WVU historian Antonik. “One was playing in my very first Super Bowl and the other was when my two kids were born.”
Talley would become one of, if not the, greatest linebacker at a school known for its great linebacking, from Sam Huff, who defined the position of middle linebacker, to Chuck Howley, who won one Super Bowl MVP and probably should have had two, and Grant Wiley being three of the four who make up WVU’s linebacking Mount Rushmore.
He finished his career with 484 tackles, a record that lasted two decades at the school until Wiley broke it, then went on to Buffalo for the bulk of his NFL career, one that saw him play on four Super Bowl teams, all of them — sadly for Talley and his teammates — losing efforts.
Talley’s signature game ended in a narrow three-point, 16-13 defeat to arch-rival Pitt, but the testimony to its greatness — and his — is in that is remembered and talked about today.
Pitt, of course, was a different animal then, a national contender with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Dan Marino.
But Talley was a different animal, too. He was a dangerous animal they nicknamed Spiderman.
This was what Antonik wrote about Talley’s performance that day.
Talley lined up at nine of the 11 defensive positions, made an interception covering the slot receiver, harassed Dan Marino all afternoon, blocked a punt for a touchdown and darn near beat those Panthers all by himself.
It was the long-time WVU assistant Bill Kirelawich who put it best.
“The problem with that game was we had one Darryl Talley and they had about six or seven,” he said.
Pitt had been No. 1 in the nation at the time and Talley’s play had put the Mountaineers into a 13-0 lead, which Marino eventually evaporated.
Talley had gone from an under-recruited prospect who played only 10 high school games due to injuries as a junior and senior to a top NFL draft pick who would play in four frustrating Super Bowls ... each a defeat.
But you ask him his top memory of the Super Bowl and it is one that casts a glimpse into his inner soul.
“My most meaningful memory was of the first one in 1991,” he said. “The country was at war and here we are playing a football game in front of millions of people all over the world. We are the show. We’re it. Imagine. Whitney Houston knocked the National anthem out of the park. Blackhawk helicopters are flying overhead.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it. What else could we do then to bring some peace and harmony to the world. When the jets flew over in the “missing man formation,” that was unbelievable.”
Now, Talley has added another page to his memory book as his number was retired at WVU, but again he was thinking not only of himself, but of the young man named Mesidor who would be the last to wear it at WVU.
“I told him, ‘Congratulations on wearing the number’ and look, back in the day they had a thing called a rotary telephone and just remember, I’m the last two numbers of the phone 9-0. So if you ever need anything, call me. I believe I can help guys.
“I can teach them what they need to know and teach them some of the things I believe in.”
Talley has looked carefully at the player wearing his number.
“He appears to have the world on a string right now,” Talley said. “All he has to do is work at it. His talents will translate to the next level if he works at it. If he continues to do what he’s doing, the sky is the limit for him.”
But here’s the thing this shows. Our heroes of yesterday get only better with time, never leaving but, instead, simply moving aside to make room for new stars who follow. If Sam Huff or Chuck Howley were there before Talley, Grant Wiley or Akheem Mesidor would follow.
There never really is a void or a vacuum. It is a living, breathing progression from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation.