MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Neal Brown broke up the monotony of training camp on Wednesday, leading the West Virginia football team on a field trip to Grafton to visit the Leer coal mining complex.
Several players shared their thoughts about the experience when they met with the media following their return to practice Thursday morning.
“West Virginia is coal, but you don’t really get to see how people do it,” said defensive lineman Darius Stills, a Fairmont native. “We saw the machines. It opens a whole new perspective on life.”
Running back Leddie Brown, a Philadelphia native, was awestruck by the size and complexity of the operation.
“Being from the city, I’ve never really seen anything like that before,” Brown said.
Players unsuccessfully lobbied to make the trip all the way down the elevator shaft into the mine itself, but only coaches were permitted that far down due to insurance liability.
“[We] wanted to take the elevator shaft and go down. I wanted to go down and see what it’s like,” said linebacker Dylan Tonkery. “[Players] wouldn’t really know what it’s like until they got down out of the shaft.”
Just as fans appreciate Stills’ ability to do things they cannot, Stills walked away with a full appreciation of miners.
“I couldn’t imagine being underground for 10-hours plus,” Stills said. “Working with no air, really.”
Offensive lineman Josh Sills said the visit helped emphasize the Mountaineers mantra that they play for something larger than the university itself.
“It was awesome. You get to see the people that truly break their back every day to make a living for their families,” Sills said. “It was very humbling and eye-opening. It’s not just something to talk about. People live it every day.”
On a larger level, the mine visit was one of several team-bonding events that have been instituted since Brown took over in January. Some, like the trip to Grafton, are educational.
Others are purely fun, such as a recent visit to an axe-throwing venue in Westover. Although as Tonkery pointed out, even those visits can be educational.
“Mike Brown is our best axe-thrower. You don’t want him throwing an axe at you,” Tonkery said. “He’s really accurate. He’ll put it right there, bullseye every time. And he’s slinging that thing too. He’s not throwing it easy at you. He’s chopping the wood.”
Tonkery sees the various trips creating a closer-knit locker room.
“Definitely one of the biggest differences is doing team activities without coaches or anything. We’re having a lot of fun together,” Tonkery said. “You can see it in the locker room. Everyone’s talking to their teammates, being social. It’s a lot different from last year.”