Recently, Bill Stewart called attention to a request he had made of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Stewart requested game tapes of Jerome “The Bus” Bettis. Stewart’s apparent intention is for fullback Ryan Clarke to mimic Bettis’ style in the Mountaineer’s offensive attack.
“The Bus” was a bruising tailback for the Steelers. His style was that of his moniker: a runaway bus. It was difficult to distinguish who initiated contact when Bettis was tackled. Bettis played college football at Notre Dame as a fullback.
The lineage of the fullback position at WVU is impressive. Since the mid-1950s, WVU has fielded a long line of NFL-caliber fullbacks.
Joe Marconi got the ball rolling back in the mid '50s. After Marconi’s stellar career at WVU he spent 11 seasons in the NFL. Marconi helped the Chicago Bears to the 1963 NFL title. Marconi was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl for his performance during the 1963 season. He played 11 seasons in the NFL from 1956 to 1966. Joe is listed as the 11th career fullback yardage leader at WVU with 1,026.
Larry Krutko was the next WVU fullback drafted into the NFL. Krutko was taken in the second round, the 20th selection overall, by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Krutko played three years for the Steelers, 1958 thru 1960. Larry totaled 1,407 yards as a fullback for WVU. He is ranked sixth all time.
Dick Leftridge was the next great WVU fullback. Leftridge teamed with Garrett Ford Sr. in 1965 at WVU. Together they posted almost identical stats as Floyd Little and Larry Csonka did at Syracuse that same year. Leftridge was the third player drafted in the 1966 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Leftridge’s NFL career lasted one year. Dick comes in as the second all-time yardage leader for fullbacks with 1,701 for his career.
It is said that Leftridge literally ate his way out of the NFL. Leftridge battled weight and conditioning issues throughout his career. Garret Ford Sr., a record-setting tailback at WVU, has stated that Leftridge had as much or more natural ability than Jim Braxton.
When O.J. Simpson was becoming the first NFL back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, an ex-WVU fullback was his lead blocker. Many consider Jim Braxton to be the best fullback to ever wear a WVU uniform. Braxton was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the third round of the 1971 draft.
Braxton played eight seasons for the Bills, retiring after the 1978 season. Simpson credits Braxton as the reason he gained 11,236 yards in his career.
Bobby Bowden deemed it necessary to move Braxton to the tight end position in his senior year. Braxton was named a first-team All-American as a tight end. Jim is ranked fifth all-time for his yards as a fullback with 1,462 yards. Braxton may have set the record for fullbacks at WVU had he not played his senior year as a tight end.
The move was precipitated by the emergence of two other fullbacks, Brian Chiles and Ed Williams. Brian Chiles gained 888 yards in his career at WVU. Brian is listed as the 16th all-time yardage leader for fullbacks. Ed Williams gained 1,113 yards and is listed in eighth place on the all-time list.
Ron Lee was the next WVU fullback to be drafted into the NFL. Lee was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1976 in the third round. Lee played three years for the Colts from 1976 through 1978. Ron is ranked fourth on the all-time fullback list with 1,470 yards rushing.
Next in the line of greats at WVU was Walter Easley. Walt holds the career rushing record for fullbacks at WVU with 1,773 yards. Easley was drafted by the 49ers in 1981. By 1983, Easley was in the USFL playing for the Chicago Blitz. Easley would play one more year in the USFL, 1984, with the Pittsburgh Maulers.
Immediately following Easley at WVU was Ron Wolfley. Wolfley was taken in the fourth round of the 1985 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Wolfley was selected to four Pro Bowls as special teams captain from 1986 to 1989. Wolfley was a fearless special teams player in the NFL.
Ron played 10 years in the NFL, retiring after the 1995 season. Ron gained 1,328 yards as a fullback for WVU, seventh on the all-time list of fullbacks. Wolfley is the only player to have played in St. Louis for both the Cardinals and the Rams.
Craig Taylor took over after Wolfley. Taylor was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the sixth round of the 1989 draft. Taylor played three years for the Bengals: 1989-91. Craig gained 865 yards for 17th on the all-time fullback list.
Kantroy Barber is the next WVU fullback to be drafted into the NFL. Barber was drafted in the fourth round of the 1996 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Barber’s last year in the NFL was with the Miami Dolphins in 1999. Kantroy gained 713 yards as a fullback for WVU, ranking 20th on the all-time list.
Wes Ours is the next WVU fullback to play professionally. Ours went undrafted in the 2001 NFL draft. He was signed to a free agent contract by the Indianapolis Colts on Apr. 21, 2001. Wes bounced around the NFL playing for several teams until finally being released by the Steelers in 2004. Ours has played in the Arena League since 2004.
Wes Ours isn’t listed on the fullbacks all-time yardage list. He is one of the all-time fan favorites at WVU. His nickname was the “Wes Express” for his ability to run over would-be tacklers. It is believed that Ours was the largest fullback in the country his senior year.
Finally we come to Owen “Runaway Beer Truck” Schmitt. Owen currently plays for the Seattle Seahawks. Schmitt was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft. Schmitt saw playing time in all of the Seahawks' games this year except the season opener against Buffalo.
Owen shows 1,003 career rushing yards at WVU for 12th on the all-time fullback list. Schmitt is believed to have broken 10 facemasks during his playing days at WVU.
Bill Stewart’s request of the Steelers is sound coaching philosophy. As head coach, player development is paramount. Jerome Bettis is a fine example for Clarke to imitate. Still, with Stewart’s penchant for historical references, why would he not search WVU’s film archive for examples for Clarke to emulate? WVU has fielded a breadth of quality fullbacks in its history.
Stewart’s apparent philosophy of incorporating the fullback into WVU’s arsenal of offensive weapons is simply returning to its pedigree. Bill Stewart’s version of “Fullback to the Future.” When Stewart refers to playing “Mountaineer football” he is referring to a physical, hard-nosed style of play. Mountaineer fullbacks have been one of the cornerstones to that style of play for decades.
Ryan Clarke is a 6'0", 225-pound fullback on WVU’s football team. Clarke has shown the ability to gain yardage between the tackles. He has also displayed a penchant for blocking. Clarke has the potential to hoist his name to the distinguished list of fullbacks at WVU. Should Clarke realize his potential, there is a long line of outstanding fullbacks waiting to welcome him.