Story by Jim Bissett/The Dominion Post
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Darius Stills, the West Virginia University football player, would like you to huddle up with some history for a moment, if you can.
By the early 1920s, labor analysts and workplace safety professionals had the deal down when it came to coal mining in the Mountain State.
If given a choice, they said, of spending an afternoon on a World War I battlefield or deep in the maw of a West Virginia coal mine, you would have been better off going with the former.
Your odds of surviving up top were better, those analysts said.
Even with the bullets, bayonets, bombs and mustard gas. Coal mining was that dangerous.
These days, the profession is tons safer, but miners still die on the job.
And while advances in technology and machinery make it possible to move even more coal during a shift, it still doesn’t make the toil any easier.
All that gave a certain football player pause earlier this month in Taylor County.
Stills and his fellow football Mountaineers will dig in today for their season opener against James Madison at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Kickoff is 2 p.m. and the game, which also marks the beginning of the Neal Brown era at WVU, is sold out. MetroNews GameDay coverage begins at 10 a.m. at wvmetronews.com.
Third and coal
Brown, who grew up in Kentucky near that state’s eastern coal fields, wanted to show his roster of mainly non-West Virginians what living here is all about.
And, what mining has meant for generations.
So the new head coach took his team subterranean.
The Mountaineers bused to Arch Coal’s Leer Mining Complex in Grafton.
While the players weren’t allowed to fully enter the mine because of liability issues, they were able to meet miners and have lunch with them.
In sunshine, they were able to regard up close some of the equipment the workers use daily during their underground rounds.
Stills was especially awed by the continuous mining machine.
That’s the massive, tungsten-toothed beast that rips through coal seams like a strongside linebacker in the opposing team’s backfield on a third down blitz.
“I didn’t know coal miners worked like that,” Stills said, “and I’m from here.”
Take me home …
Stills knows how much work it takes to be a student-athlete at WVU. The 6-foot-1, 292-pound junior is making his first start as a defensive lineman against the Dukes today.
He’ll be joined at the line of scrimmage by his brother, Dante.
The siblings, the sons of former WVU football standout Gary Stills, grew up in Fairmont, Marion County. They tore it up together for the Polar Bears of Fairmont Senior High School.
Gary Stills, who starred on Don Nehlen’s teams in the 1990s, was a journeyman performer in the NFL for a time and is now a businessman in Kansas City.
“I’ve been thinking about his opportunity since I was a little kid,” Darius Stills said. “A lot of us from north-central West Virginia don’t always get a chance to play for the Mountaineers.”
The elder Stills, meanwhile, stays in touch with his sons via cellphone and long weekends back in West Virginia. Sometimes, he’ll break down tape with his boys.
Their mother, Janeen Floyd, raised them in Fairmont, never missing a game or school function.
When she came down with breast cancer three years ago, her boys came off the bench for her.
“Our dad taught us to always fight and to get back in there, and that’s what we did for our mom,” Stills said. “She’s always been there for us. I’m proud to say that she’s a survivor.”
The reason for the (football) season
Growing up with a dad and brother who are also WVU Mountaineers makes Darius Stills appreciate the draw in the state of the football put out by the school, he said.
On the opposite side will be JMU’s head coach Curt Cignetti, who knows all about the Mountaineers. That’s easy – since he used to be one.
His father, Frank Cignetti, was the head coach who took over from Bobby Bowden, who left WVU after the 1975 season for Florida State.
That was when the team played its games at Old Mountaineer Field, a gloriously rickety bowl below Woodburn Hall on the downtown campus.
The elder Cignetti pushed for a new Mountaineer Field (the current Milan Puskar Stadium), but never got to coach there.
Curt Cignetti was a backup quarterback to Oliver Luck, when John Denver flew in to sing “Country Roads” during the first game at the field in 1980 – that also kicked off the Don Nehlen era.
“We’re playing for those coal miners in Grafton,” Stills said. “We’re playing for 1.8 million people.”