West Virginia Football: The Dream Kickoff Team, 56 Years of Mayhem

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West Virginia Football: The Dream Kickoff Team, 56 Years of Mayhem
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Owen Schmitt, co-captain with Bruce Irvin of West Virginia's Dream Kickoff Team

Anyone who has served with honor on kickoff coverage, commonly called the kickoff team, surely has yelled, "Hit somebody!  Hit somebody!"

It does not matter if it was high school, JUCO, college or the NFL—you and your kickoff teammates were mask to mask banging headgear, and all of you were screaming about killing the guy with the ball.  

Predating mixed martial arts but requiring 20 additional people, the kickoff team is the most accepted form of legal assault in our society.  The opponent's kickoff return team is on the field.  One is catching the ball, but 10 are just waiting for the adrenaline-stoked madmen until they "see the whites of their eyes."

Not that easy.  Blockers are basically stationary, while the kickoff team assailants have achieved maximum velocity and optimal anger.  The man who coined the phrase "football is not a contact sport, it's a collision sport," was probably at one time on the field for a kickoff.

From the middle of the 1950s to now,  West Virginia has had an overabundance of athletes who loved to and lived to hit.  

This article chronicles a little over a half-century of the "doctors of brutality"—11 of the best, 11 men who were vicious hitters, practicing the art of the malevolence that defines the sport. 

The best way to honor them?  Take them back to the basics, to the embodiment of the bruises and the bloodshed, where all hitters love to perform their craft.  Enshrine them in what could be called the West Virginia University Mountaineer Dream Kickoff Team, 11 who loved the crack of the pads, who played the game as it was meant to be played.

 

Sam Huff, 1956

Sam Huff is legendary—one tough hombre who, after wreaking havoc on West Virginia’s opponents, became the archetype of the man who played middle linebacker in National Football League.  From Ray Nitschke to Ray Lewis, every NFL middle linebacker owes a debt to Huff.

 

Jim Braxton, 1970

As a running back for Jim Carlen’s Peach Bowl champions, Jim Braxton proved he would play anywhere, run over anyone, block everyone and hit anybody.  He was named in 1970 to first-team All-America as a tight end. 

He served the Buffalo Bills well as OJ Simpson’s blocking back during the Juice’s record-setting days.  Jim Braxton is one of the most memorable Mountaineers, tragically dying of cancer at the young age of 37.

 

Jack Eastwood, 1975

West Virginia’s Jack Eastwood once said he would do anything—absolutely anything—for the Mountaineers.  His aggressive style of play backed up that statement.  Eastwood was the quintessential linebacker and defensive back, a hitter with a keen sense for the ball. 

Despite his contributions to WVU football, Eastwood was largely ignored by All-Star teams.  He was, however, a fan favorite, running loose and hitting with complete abandon as his posse screamed for another.

 

Darryl Talley, 1982

Foge Fazio, then head coach for the University of Pittsburgh, talked of Darryl Talley’s “mean streak,” stating, “All football players are mean, but that Talley is scary mean.”  As an undersized linebacker, Talley epitomized the West Virginia team, which, according to Oliver Luck, “always punches above its weight class.” 

Darryl Talley had a successful career with the Buffalo Bills and was recently named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

 

Renaldo Turnbull, 1989

At 6'4" and 250 pounds, Renaldo Turnbull was the consummate major college sack-happy defensive end.  He recorded 12 sacks as a junior, and despite spending his senior season being double- and triple-teamed, Turnbull racked up eight sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. 

Possessing size, speed and agility, Renaldo Turnbull was the New Orleans Saints' first-round selection and continued his sack parade, tallying nine as a rookie in 1990 and 13 in 1993.

 

David Mayfield, 1994

Growing up in Morgantown, a West Virginian through and through, the 5'11", 195-pound David Mayfield was undoubtedly pound-for-pound the hardest hitter ever to wear the blue and gold.  As a sophomore just after the brawl that defined the 1992 game with Syracuse, Mayfield laid the biggest nuclear hit ever recorded on the Orange’s Marvin Graves.  It was a blue streak and then Graves on the turf, as fast as you can read this sentence.

 

Jerry Porter, 1999

Jerry Porter is one of the two best athletes to play football for West Virginia.  At 6'2" and 220 pounds, then-head coach Don Nehlen could not decide where to play Porter, so he played him everywhere.  As a freshman, Porter was a safety in the first half of the season, then lined up at quarterback and wideout.  He completed his career as a Mountaineer playing free safety, with his size, speed and knowledge of the game landing him a spot on the Dream Kickoff Team.

 

Adam Jones, 2004

Quite possibly the toughest defensive back to play for West Virginia, Adam Jones manned up as a speedy cornerback on the more difficult assignments.  In the 2003 road game with Miami, Jones kept Kellen Winslow, Jr. flummoxed and frustrated, able to hit back hard or harder and match Winslow’s jawing word for word. 

We all know Jones’ personal life is not one you want your son to emulate, but I’d still like to have his speed for that mad dash down the field.

 

Owen Schmitt, 2007

Anyone who saw Owen Schmitt in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl has to remember his off-tackle carry when he absolutely blew the doors off the Oklahoma defense for a long touchdown run.  Imagine that run without a football in his hand.   Now, imagine that man running on kickoff coverage is the same man who banged his Seattle Seahawks headgear to his forehead.  Finally, that man was a walk-on who matches Jack Eastwood in pride and desire and also hits like a cement truck.  Get out of the way.

 

Bruce Irvin, 2011

A white-hot fierce pass-rusher, Bruce Irvin reeled in 12 sacks his junior year after junior college despite A) playing only as a third-down defensive end, B) not recording his first sack until the third game of the season and C) not being coached in the art and technique of pass-rushing. 

He could speed rush the edge and bull rush, even fight off the double-teams he saw his senior year.  Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll thought enough of Irvin to spend his first-round choice on him.

Now, for the kicker:

 

Chuck Howley, 1958

Playing center and guard for West Virginia, Chuck Howley performed well enough to be drafted in 1958 by the Chicago Bears.  He was then traded to the Dallas Cowboys, where he flourished as a linebacker on two Super Bowl teams. 

In the latter game, Super Bowl VI, the Cowboys beat the Miami Dolphins handily to make Howley a world champion.  Oddly, Howley was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl V, the game the Cowboys lost.

Why is Chuck Howley the kicker for the Dream Kickoff Team?  Howley is the other best athlete to be a Mountaineer.  He lettered in football and track, as well as swimming and gymnastics.  Surely he can kick a football, and if he can’t, that’s okay, too.

With this lineup, you don’t want any touchbacks.

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