CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — We continue our “West Virginians on the Gridiron” series — our journey through the history of college and professional football, and the accomplishments made by West Virginia natives — picking up where we left off last time: in the 1940s.
At this point in time, the game of football was expanding across the country, and West Virginia’s impact on the game was expanding with it.
A great example of this expansion were the Cleveland Browns of the ’40s and ’50s, led in part by Farmington-native Frank Gatski.
Gatski is regarded as one of the best centers of his era, helping Cleveland win eight championships between the AAFC and the NFL.
He played in 11 league championship games in his 12 seasons in the pros, including the 1950 NFL title game, where Clarksburg-native, Rex Bumgardner, made a diving touchdown catch in the 4th quarter to pull the Browns back to within one point of the LA Rams.
Bumgardner made the highlight play, but Gatski had the better career — a four-time first-team All-Pro player, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985
Bumgardner wasn’t the only Clarksburg-native making noteworthy plays during this time.
Fellow Harrison County resident Frank Loria was tearing up the gridiron in Blacksburg for the Hokies of Virginia Tech.
Loria was a first team All-American in 1966, a season in which he made multiple game-winning or game-saving plays.
The following year, he was a consensus All-American as a senior.
Loria was not only inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999, but his No. 10 is one of only four numbers retired by the Virginia Tech football program.
“I was so impressed with what he was able to do with a college career, academically, as well as athletically. Those cats like that, they don’t come around very often. He was special. He was very special,” said Rick Trickett, who spoke at the annual Frank Loria Awards banquet in 2019.
Sadly, Loria perished alongside most of the members of the 1970 Marshall football team in the horrific Southern Airways Flight 932 crash.
1967: the same year Loria was a consensus All-American on the East Coast, was another championship year for Monongalia County product, John McKay and the USC Trojans.
McKay became the head coach of the Trojans in 1960. Two years later he won his first title, and never went more than five seasons without another national championship while in charge of USC.
McKay is one of just seven coaches in major D1 history with at least four titles, he coached a pair of Heisman trophy winners, and was one of the first big users of the I-formation.
His 1972 USC team is regarded as one of the best of all-time, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
Back on the East Coast, Point Pleasant-native Ben Schwartzwalder had accomplished something that no other Syracuse football head coach had done before, or would do after — lead the Orange to a national title.
Schwartzwalder’s 1959 Syracuse team defeated the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl, going from unranked to undefeated champs by boasting the best offense and defense in the country by many metrics.
The 1982 College Football Hall of Fame inductee also had a significant history of recruiting and developing black players during the 50s and 60s, and coached Ernie Davis – the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner.
These five weren’t the only West Virginia natives making a name for themselves on the gridiron during this time period. Five more Mountain State play makers of the 50s, 60s and 70s next time on “West Virginians on the Gridiron.”