Zack Harold

writer/editor

Coach Kellie: A Tiny West Virginia High School is Making Football History

This story originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia on Nov. 9, 2018.

It took a few weeks for Hannan High School principal Karen Oldham to realize her school might have made history. She was so busy with the day-to-day grind of running the small, rural Mason County school that it didn’t cross her mind, until an elderly alumnus brought it to her attention.

Oldham still was not completely certain the school had done anything significant, so before making any kind of formal announcement, she phoned the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletics Commission and asked officials there to do some digging. They called back a few days later.

It was true: Hannan had hired the first female head football coach in West Virginia history.

The Point Pleasant Register got the scoop. Then, Huntington’s Herald Dispatch and local television stations picked up the story, which led to national coverage in USA Today.

It was all a shock for Oldham. It seems that no one—not Oldham, not the hiring committee she put together, not the superintendent who added the hire to the school board’s agenda, nor the board members who unanimously approved it—realized they were doing anything newsworthy.

“Never did her gender come into our minds,” Oldham says.

All everyone knew was, they had found the best person for the job. And that person was Kellie Thomas.

* * *

The voice of Axel Rose singing “Welcome to the Jungle” cuts through the sour air of the Hannan Wildcats’ locker room as players lace up their cleats and tug navy blue jerseys over their shoulder pads.

In her office, Kellie Thomas is wearing her own uniform: a ballcap with a turquoise H, a Hannan polo shirt with a long sleeve shirt underneath, khaki cargo shorts with a Washington Redskins lanyard hanging from the left pocket and leather Carhartt boots with pink wool socks climbing her bare calves. She pulls on a hooded jacket to protect herself from the night’s drizzling rain and begins going through her pre-game preparations.

She replaces the batteries in the headsets she and her two assistant coaches will use to communicate during the night. She pumps up the three footballs that, as the home team, Hannan is required to supply for the game. Then she calls defensive back and running back Isaac Colecchia into her office.

Colecchia isn’t wearing pads. He suffered a concussion in last week’s game and is sitting out this week. Together, he and Thomas go through a checklist of symptoms—headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, insomnia, anxiousness, depression, and a few dozen more—that Colecchia ranks on a scale of zero to six. He gives most symptoms a zero, but ranks “sensitivity to light” and “sensitivity to noise” at one each. Once the symptoms go away and he’s cleared by his doctor, Colecchia will be eligible to play again.

The moment offers a glimpse at Thomas’s recent past. Although this is her first season as head football coach, she spent close to two decades as Hannan’s athletic trainer. She was there at every practice, scrimmage and game to tape up players’ ankles and wrists. Thomas was such a constant, stable presence that, over time, she became a confidant for players.

“She was their go-to when they had problems with previous coaches,” Oldham says.

That is why, when former Hannan coach Brian Scott resigned following the 2017 season, players approached Thomas and begged her to apply for the position.

With the questionnaire completed, Thomas dismisses Colecchia and leaves the office. She rallies her troops and leads the team out of the corrugated aluminum fieldhouse to a patch of grass just outside, where players arrange themselves into four rows and begin their warm ups.

The team normally warms up on the field, but tonight is homecoming. The field is currently occupied by members of the homecoming court and their parents, awaiting the announcement of this year’s king and queen.

As her players stretch and run drills, Thomas and defensive coordinator Thomas Miller size up tonight’s opponents, the Parkersburg Catholic Crusaders. The team isn’t much bigger than Hannan but the Crusaders are coming into this late October contest with a 7–1 record. Hannan hasn’t won a game all season.

When homecoming festivities are finally completed, the team moves its warm-ups onto the field. Then it’s the national anthem, handshakes between team captains and the coin flip.

Hannan wins the flip and elects to receive. Parkersburg punts and stops the return at Hannan’s 25 yard line. Then, in the first drive of the game, Hannan quarterback Matthew Qualls takes the snap, hops back on his right leg to pass and launches the ball into the air.

Immediately, a Crusader linebacker reaches up and swats the ball back to Earth.

“Oh, crap,” Thomas says.

Read the rest of the story here.

Jackie Mitchell Couldn’t Win

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on March 29, 2018. Click here to read the full story.

On the first pitch of that April 1931 game, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a double to New York Yankees outfielder Earle Combs. Then Lyn Larry singled to centerfield, bringing Combs home. Now Babe Ruth, who had led the American League the year before in both home runs and slugging, was coming to bat with no outs and a man on base.

Ruth approached the plate with “a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth,” an Associated Press reporter wrote. The crowd of four thousand at Engel Stadium began cheering wildly. Like the smiling Ruth, they knew what was coming.

Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff walked to the mound, took the ball from Barfoot, and brought in his new pitcher—a seventeen-year-old left-hander named Beatrice Mitchell. Everybody called her Jackie.

Mitchell had first made national news two months earlier, in a short article that ran in sports pages around the country: “Enrolled in a new baseball school conducted at Atlanta, Georgia, by Norman (Kid) Elberfeld, former major and minor league figure, is Miss Jackie Mitchell, age seventeen, a left-handed pitcher.”

At the time, the sports media’s interest did not extend beyond that one sentence. For decades, women had been playing baseball in college intramural teams and novelty barnstorming clubs such as the Bloomer Girls, named for the billowy trousers they wore during games. Some women had even made it into men’s semipro leagues. It was hardly newsworthy that a girl would participate in America’s pastime.

But then, beginning the last week of March 1931, Mitchell’s name reappeared in the papers. Lookouts owner Joe Engel announced he was adding Mitchell to his team’s pitching rotation. Her first appearance would be in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

Mitchell was scheduled to make her first public appearance at Engel Stadium on March 31, where she was supposed to pitch for the press. But much to waiting fans’ disappointment, Engel kept her out of the public eye until the game and showed her off to reporters at a backyard pitching session instead.

It was at this point Mitchell’s origin story began to trickle into the papers. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age—doctor’s orders after she was born premature. When she was seven years old, her family lived in a Memphis duplex beside future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Dazzy” Vance, who was then playing for the Memphis Chicks. When Vance saw his young neighbor playing ball with the boys and noticed she was left-handed—a coveted trait for a baseball pitcher—he taught her to throw.

As she grew older, Mitchell showed promise in tennis, swimming, and basketball. She thought about becoming an aviator like Amelia Earhart. But baseball remained her first love. When the family moved to Chattanooga, Mitchell joined the Englettes, a girls-only team owned by Engel and managed by her father.

Watching her pitch to a “boy friend” who agreed to serve as catcher, sports scribes noted Mitchell’s “odd side-armed delivery” but complimented her speed, control, and curve. They asked if she was nervous. “There is no use to get nervous over a ball game when I have been playing ball nearly all my life,” she said. “I will just go out there and do my best, and I believe I can fool the Babe.”

During his thirty-five years with the Lookouts, Engel became known for his vaudevillian antics. He once traded a slumping shortstop for a turkey, which he cooked and served to sportswriters. He staged a phone call to Adolf Hitler and held an “elephant hunt” in the outfield with papier-mâché pachyderms. Another time, he lured a newly recruited Native American player inside a teepee he’d erected on the pitcher’s mound. Engel emerged a short time later, bellowing “Custer’s revenge!” and holding a butcher knife in one hand and a “scalp”—actually a dark-colored wig—in the other.

But all that would come later. Engel’s first big stunt would be pitting a teenage girl against the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row batting lineup.

Newspapers across the U.S. picked up the story but remained skeptical. Writers pointed out the game was scheduled for April 1, a sure sign the whole thing was a prank. When a photographer telegraphed The Sporting News and offered to shoot Mitchell’s contract signing, the receiving editor thought it was a joke: “Quit your kidding. What is Chattanooga trying to do, burlesque the game?” The photographer wired back to assure the newspaper he was not kidding, but the editor was not convinced. “Yeah! Presume Al Capone or Charlie Chaplin will be catcher. In sending any more wires please pay for them so I can enjoy the laugh.”

The game would not take place on April Fools’ Day, however. Cold weather forced Engel to postpone until the next day. The delay did nothing to dampen anticipation. By the time the game began on Thursday afternoon, bells were ringing on teletype machines across the country as reporters filed accounts of the game.

Click here to read the rest.

Live from Oak Hill

This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of WV Living magazine.

Angel Acevedo was known to Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ fans as Assassin No. 1 of the tag-team duo The Cuban Assassins. Richie Acevedo did not doubt his father’s stories about being Fidel Castro’s bodyguard.

To his young mind, the evidence was all there. There was the star tattoo on father’s left hand, which he claimed was the secret brand of the Communist revolutionary’s inner circle. He also fit the part. Small but brawny, Angel Acevedo had a wild mane of thick black hair, an equally thick accent, an unruly beard, and the gaze of a man possessed. But perhaps most convincingly, all the adults in Richie’s life also seemed to believe his dad’s stories.

From 1969 until 1973, Angel regularly appeared in homes all over West Virginia as part of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’, broadcast live from the studios of WOAY-TV in Oak Hill. Known only to fans as “Assassin No. 1,” one-half of the fearsome tag team known as “the Cuban Assassins,” he was one of the program’s most ruthless characters, willing to take whatever means necessary to win a match.

But Angel’s down-and-dirty antics did not win him many fans, especially in an America where the Cuban Missile Crisis remained a not-yet-distant memory. Richie, now 46, remembers sitting in the auditorium where the show was taped and hearing spectators holler violent threats at his father. “I thought my dad was one of the most dangerous men in the world,” he says.

Angel, like many professional wrestlers of his generation, never broke character, even outside the ring. “What he told us was what he told everybody else,” Richie says. It wasn’t until his teenage years that Richie began to ask questions. He eventually found out his father actually hailed from Puerto Rico and had never met Fidel Castro. He also learned that Raul, the man he’d been raised to think was his uncle, was actually just his father’s tag-team partner.

You might expect Richie to be bitter about these revelations. He’s not. When he got old enough, he became a professional wrestler, too. Although he did not devote his life to the sport in quite the same way as Angel, he still spent decades bouncing between ropes and jumping off turnbuckles.

Richie says he understands his father’s deceptions now. He had a character to portray and a story to tell, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep fans invested. “Magicians have known this for a long time,” he says. “The word ‘fake’ is irrelevant.”

“Don’t let those people cuss on the air”

Professional wrestling, for all its artifice, has roots in reality. It began as a sideshow attraction in the 19th century. These were, for the most part, true athletic competitions—a direct outgrowth of Greco-Roman and “catch-as-catch-can” grappling, often featuring a traveling strongman going up against audacious locals. It usually wasn’t much fun to watch. A single match could last for hours. Competitors seldom left the mat as they shifted from one submission hold to another.

In an effort to liven things up for the crowd—and make more money—one 1920s sideshow act known as the Gold Dust Trio began fixing its matches. Wrestlers Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joseph “Toots” Mondt, with help from manager Billy Sandow, adopted outlandish personas and began scripting dramatic near-defeats and comebacks. Since they weren’t actually trying to hurt one another, they could work together to make fights seem more violent than ever.

By the end of the ’20s, there was a clear distinction between the two varieties of wrestling: the legitimate competitive version and the scripted “professional” version. While it is sometimes suggested fans in the early days did not know professional wrestling was scripted, newspaper and magazine clippings reveal a winking acknowledgment of what was really happening in the ring. Fans weren’t too naive to realize wrestling was “fake”—they just didn’t care.

Wrestling came to television early in the medium’s history. KTLA of Los Angeles, California, began broadcasting matches as early as 1946. Promoters initially worried television would hurt ticket sales to live matches, but the opposite proved true. Television offered something traveling shows never could: an opportunity to create ongoing storylines and feuds between wrestlers. This made fans more invested in their favorite characters so, when the wrestlers came to their towns, they flocked to see their heroes in person.

Wrestling came to WOAY-TV in 1954. A station in Columbus, Ohio, was already broadcasting live wrestling, which a station in Huntington picked up and re-aired with great success. WOAY’s owner Robert Thomas smelled an opportunity and struck a deal with a band of wrestlers who regularly performed at the Memorial Building in nearby Fayetteville. The wrestlers would get 90 minutes of free airtime. In return, the station got free content as well as proceeds from advertising revenue, ticket sales, and concessions sales. Bob Kent, the manager of the Memorial Building, agreed to be the program’s host. But after the first night, when a flying chair knocked over his announcer’s desk, Kent told Thomas he would have to find another emcee. Thomas had just the man for the job.

About a year earlier, Thomas’s father had discovered Shirley Love singing in the choir of the local Methodist church and got the honey-voiced youngster to drop by the station for an audition. Soon Love was working the microphone on WOAY-FM, doing public service announcements, station breaks, and newscasts. He began working at the company’s TV station, too, manning the microphone boom and cranking the homemade teleprompter.

Now Love, still in his early 20s and with little broadcasting experience, was being offered a high-profile job. He didn’t want it. “I said, ‘Mr. Thomas, I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about wrestling,’” Love remembers. “He said, ‘All you’ve got to do is describe what they’re doing.’” So, with his blonde hair perfectly coiffed, Love stepped in front of the cameras to host the second-ever episode of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’. He would continue hosting the show until its finale in 1977.

Despite his initial reluctance, it wasn’t long before Love was getting in on the act. One night, when wrestlers staged a very real strike against promoter–wrestler Jan Madrid and refused to perform, WOAY instead devoted the entire night’s program to an impromptu grudge match between Madrid and one of the auxiliary police officers hired to provide security for the event. It ended with an enraged Madrid grabbing both Love and co-host Sandy Higgins by their shirts—which, unknown to viewers, had been pre-slashed with razor blades—and ripping them off.

Now naked to the waist except for his sport coat, Love picked up his microphone. “I said ‘Sandy, I come out here and try to be as dignified as I can. This is humiliating. Look at me. I don’t know about you but I’m going home.’” The show only ran a half-hour short that night. By the next week, the strike was settled and it was back to the regularly scheduled entertainment.

One of the show’s most popular features was Love’s interviews with spectators between matches. While the action in the ring was prearranged, these provided truly unscripted entertainment. One night Love complimented a young boy on his coonskin cap. “He said, ‘Grandpa found it in the trash dump!’”

Another time, a man from Prince bragged he’d killed 12 squirrels on the first day of squirrel season. “I said, ‘No, you only killed four.’ He said, ‘No, Shirley. I killed 12. We fried four and I got the others in my sister’s freezer.’” It wasn’t until Love gingerly pointed out the state’s four-squirrel bag limit that the man’s count suddenly changed. Love later learned the local game warden was watching that night. “He fell off the couch laughing. He said, ‘I couldn’t have arrested that guy, he was so serious.’”
Sometimes even the most unassuming interviewees could cause trouble. One Saturday, Love noticed Madrid flick sweat on an elderly heckler. She was first in line for an interview when the match was over. “She looked like a little old Sunday school teacher. I said, ‘What do you think of Jan Madrid?’ She said, ‘I’d like to smack that son of a b—h right in the mouth.’

“The boss would always tell me, ‘Don’t let those people cuss on the air. I could lose my license.’” It was an ongoing struggle.

Wrestlin’ gets real

Unlike Richie Acevedo, Jan Madrid’s son Monty was in on the act—literally. “They called me ‘the booker.’ Dad would let me carry a briefcase to the matches. That way I felt included. It was my little make-believe thing,” says Monty, now 53.
Monty was not much of a wrestling fan, though. He was a shy and nervous kid. Even though he knew everything was prearranged, he’d hide in the locker room or at the back of the auditorium during particularly brutal matches.

Things were much different outside the ring, however. “Wrestlers were my playmates growing up,” he says. He remembers dinners at his house with all the WOAY wrestlers, since the good guys and bad guys couldn’t be seen together in public. “Everybody was friends. Gosh knows it cost a fortune to feed all those wrestlers,” he says.

Sometimes a wrestling bear would show up. Whoever was scheduled to wrestle the creature that night would earn its trust by feeding it Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies in the Madrids’ backyard. “It would just grab me up and put me in its paws and just roll me around the yard. It was the sweetest thing in the world,” Monty says. “Growing up like that isn’t the real world.”

But as Monty would find out, real life has an unfortunate tendency to infringe on make-believe. Jan Madrid always wrestled as a villain, or “heel.” That way, the wrestlers he booked always had a bad guy to play against. He portrayed himself as a cocksure, arrogant immigrant “from parts unknown.” “He would talk about his country versus America. He was an American-born citizen, of course,” Monty says.

It was all scripted, but the bad feelings he created among fans were very real. Monty remembers getting threatening phone calls at the house. More than once, disgruntled viewers mailed the Madrids receipts for new televisions—seeking reimbursement for the TVs they had shot in rage. “We’d come out many times, all four tires slit, sugar in the gas tank,” Monty says. “It cost a lot of money, being a villain.”

It wasn’t just the fans. In 1969, the West Virginia state government came after the wrestlers—who were listed by both their ring names and given names in court documents—of WOAY. On a Monday night in August, promoter Warren Schernbach had booked eight of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s most popular wrestlers—including Jan Madrid and the Cuban Assassins—at the Bluefield Auditorium for a show benefitting local church and school groups. But then the police showed up. They rounded up all the wrestlers, along with Shernbach and referee Larry Swiger, and placed them under arrest. The charges: wrestling, refereeing, and promoting without a license.

Since Shernbach, Swiger, and the wrestlers had not paid their Athletic Commission dues, West Virginia Athletic Commissioner Doug Epperly contended they were violating state law. He told reporters he was hesitant to stop the event, especially since it was a charity event. “However, fair is fair,” he said.

Each of the men posted his $280 bond and was released. Schernbach maintained everyone’s innocence from the start. “The commission is trying to deprive us of our right to entertain the public,” he told a reporter with the Beckley Post-Herald. “Legally, we are entertainers. Not athletes.”

The gang of 10 was scheduled to appear before Mercer County Magistrate Court but, before that could happen, their lawyer, W. Dale Greene, made an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to prohibit further proceedings on the charges. “The petitioners are showmen, actors, artist thespians, not engaged in any contest of strength but rather engaged in the thespian arts of facial grimaces, make-believe, mat pounding, and use of all the props,” Greene wrote in his memorandum. “While the petitioners may have billed themselves as wrestlers, a rose is a rose and the public at large knows it.”

The high court granted a hearing on the matter, barring any proceedings on the misdemeanor charges until a ruling was issued. Newspapers lose the thread of the story there, and court documents are nowhere to be found. But an entry deep in the Supreme Court’s daily ledger, recorded January 23, 1970, shows that judges dismissed the case. The Athletics Commission evidently decided not to pursue the charges further. The reason behind this change of heart is lost to history.

The Athletic Commission also came knocking on WOAY’s door early on in Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s history, threatening to shut down the broadcast unless Thomas paid his fees. The station owner responded by changing the spelling on the marquee from Wrestling to Wrestlin’ and adding a disclaimer to the beginning of the broadcast: “Pre-arranged for your entertainment. This is not an athletic event.”

The changes satisfied the government, but Love says it didn’t have much of an effect on the fans. “The people didn’t pay attention to it,” Love says. “They got right into it.”

Down for the count

Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ came to an end in a deservedly dramatic fashion. In September 1977 a generator overheated, caught fire, and burned WOAY’s studios to the ground. The station, scrambling to get back on air, moved its operations next door into the auditorium where matches were broadcast. When everything was back up and running two months later, WOAY had nowhere to host its wrestling program and lacked the equipment to do a remote broadcast. It was the end of a 23-year run. “A year longer than Gunsmoke,” Love says.

There’s no way to really know how popular Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ was during its run. Thomas, a consummate penny pincher, refused to pay for Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. But in 1972 he hatched a scheme to get his own demographic data: he convinced Love to run for a spot at the Democratic National Convention. Since it was a statewide election based mostly on name recognition, Thomas knew he could tell where his station was most popular by seeing which counties gave Love the most votes. Love came in ninth out of nine delegates, but was the top vote-getter for Nicholas, Clay, Fayette, and Raleigh counties.

For Love, it was an introduction to a whole new kind of bloodsport. He ran several more times for the Democratic National Convention and, in 1994, he was elected to the West Virginia State Senate. He served 15 years in the chamber before retiring. Then, in 2017 and at the age of 83, he was sworn in for his first term in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Love has now spent longer as a politician than he was a wrestling announcer. But he knows Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ will be his legacy. “We could go anywhere right now and if we met 10 people, eight of them—if they’re over 40—would say ‘I used to sit on Grandpa’s lap and watch you,’” he says. “It was everybody’s Saturday night opera.”

 

A Boy and His Bird

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

For more than a millennium, people in Japan and China have used aquatic birds called cormorants to help them catch fish. Fishermen tie hemp snares around a trained bird’s throat so that, when the animal dives into the water after its prey, big fish remain stuck in its gullet. The fisherman then brings the bird back onto his boat and makes it spit up the trapped fish.

In West Africa, the Boran people of Ethiopia have for centuries worked alongside a bird known as the greater honeyguide. The bird leads tribespeople to honeybee nests using its calls and flight patterns. After the humans smoke the bees away and rob the honey, the bird gets to eat the leftover wax and insect larvae.

In Randolph County, West Virginia, Collin Waybright and his red tailed hawk Ace have been hunting together for about a year. Ace flies from tree to tree as Collin walks below. “He knows I’m going to flush something out,” Collin says. When a critter eventually does emerge from the underbrush, Ace dives from his perch and—usually before Collin knows what is going on—overtakes the prey and quickly dispatches it with the crushing grip and razor-sharp tips of his talons.

This bird isn’t much interested in fish or honeybee larvae. He prefers to hunt chipmunks, although he and Collin caught their first grey squirrel together last November. Ace once caught a king blacksnake, too, which gave Collin quite a scare. “They’ll take anything they can catch. You never know what you’re going to get if you go hunting with a hawk,” he says. “It’s never a boring time.”

Never boring and almost always successful. Collin says Ace catches something almost every time he goes into the woods—which is more than any other hunter can say for his prized shotgun or rifle. This is probably why ancient humans got the idea of hunting with birds in the first place. “I think at some point early man realized these birds were catching the quarry he himself was pursuing,” says Matthew Frey, co-founder of the West Virginia Falconry Club.

The origins of falconry are hazy. The practice likely goes back before the written word, but historians know the Mongols practiced falconry between five and six thousand years ago. It spread throughout Asia and the Middle East—there is even a mention of the sport in the Quran—but did not take hold in Europe until the Crusades, becoming extremely popular during the Renaissance period.

It was more than an entertainment, however. “Way back when, it was a viable way of bringing meat,” says master falconer Paul Fowler. Reliable firearms were not available until the 1700s and even then the weapons were not very efficient or accurate. “Even then, falconry was one of the only reliable ways to take winged prey,” Paul says.

The sport declined in popularity as weapons improved. It is relatively obscure today, with only a few thousand licensed falconers in the United States and fewer than 20 falconers in West Virginia. Matthew says he has seen increased interest in falconry over the last few years, but he also knows the sport likely will not and maybe should not become totally mainstream. “It’s really not for everybody. And, in fact, the people that are successful are a small, esoteric few,” he says. “You really have to be an expert in it, and to be an expert you have to be passionate about it.”

At 15 years old Collin is, as far as he knows, the youngest falconer in the state. He got his apprentice falconer’s license when he was 14, after being introduced to the sport at West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. At an age when most boys his age are thinking about learner’s permits, Collin began the long process of becoming a licensed falconer.

West Virginia law requires beginning falconers to pass a huge multiple-choice test and have all their equipment inspected by the Division of Natural Resources. Applicants must then spend two years under the tutelage of a more experienced falconer. Collin didn’t know any falconers when he started but contacted the DNR and found, as luck would have it, there was a guy about 10 minutes away who could help him get started—Paul Fowler.

Once he passed his test and had all the necessary equipment, Paul helped his apprentice catch his first bird. State regulations only allow apprentices to hunt with red tailed hawks or American kestrels, and each student must catch their own hunting birds.

Paul loaned Collin a Swedish goshawk trap. The device features a hinged A-frame design so when it is set, the sides stand straight up to expose a bait animal in a special compartment at the bottom of the trap. When a bird swoops down after the bait, the sides of the A-frame snap together and enclose the raptor.

In early January 2015, Collin and Paul dropped the trap along a back road and drove away, hoping a bird of prey would come along and be hungry enough to take the bait. When they returned a short time later, the trap was closed. Collin’s pulse quickened but he tried not to get his hopes up. “I thought the trap had been blown shut or something. We drove closer, and there he was.”

Inside the box was a red tailed hawk—the bird soon to be known as Ace.

He was a little on the small side and missing one of his toes, likely from a bad encounter with some would-be prey. Paul helped Collin put a hood on the hawk to calm the bird down, then taped Ace’s legs together and wrapped a towel over his wings to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Back at Collin’s house they placed the hawk in the eight-foot-square “mew” Collin and his dad built to house the bird, and hooked anklets and a leash to his feet.

Collin and Ace began training the next day. The first step was to get Ace to eat from Collin’s glove, a way to establish trust. Food is the only thing that motivates a bird of prey. Raptors used for falconry do not desire the approval of their human partners, and do not consider hunting as a means of play. This means falconers must keep an extremely close eye on their birds’ weight and food intake, keeping them hungry enough to cooperate but not so hungry they become malnourished.

Once Collin earned Ace’s trust—and established himself as a reliable source of food—it was on to the next step: getting Ace to jump from his perch onto Collin’s leather glove. The more they practiced the farther Collin moved from the perch, giving Ace the confidence to jump longer distances. Soon they moved this exercise outside the mew. With Ace attached to a creance—a cord falconers attach to their birds’ feet to keep them from flying away during training—Collin started jumping the little hawk from 50 feet away, then slowly progressed to 150 feet. Once he was comfortably flying 150 feet to Collin’s fist, it was time to give Ace his first free flight.

Collin walked to a field near his home with Ace firmly planted on his gauntlet. It had been only two weeks since Collin first trapped Ace, and he was nervous about what would happen once he allowed the bird to take off on his own, with no tethers on its feet. “It was nerve-wracking. Some people’s birds just up and go.”

Standing with his arms and legs apart, Collin turned at his waist and stretched his arm toward Ace’s target—a large trailer filled with hay bales. The bird took off, fast. The tracking bells on his feet jingled as his wings flapped, and in a few seconds Ace was perched atop one of the bales. Collin blew two sharp chirps on his whistle and Ace came off the perch, soared across the snowy ground, and lighted back on Collin’s forearm.

His nerves dissolved into a heady rush. He repeated the exercise a few more times, and each time Ace found his perch before returning gracefully to Collin’s arm. It wasn’t long before they took these newfound skills into the woods. There is a video on Collin’s Facebook page, showing him flushing an animal from a big brush pile with a large stick. Ace sits atop the heap with his eyes peeled for movement. In an instant, he drops off his branch and onto the ground—his talons wrapped around a chipmunk.

The power dynamic is fascinating. We humans are so used to being at the top of the food chain and yet, when Collin goes hunting with ace, he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. He is the bird’s assistant—and it’s exhilarating. “I have this relationship with this wild animal that not very many people get to have. He actually comes to me when I call him,” he says. “And you’re hunting with it. You’re working with it cooperatively.”

Falconry creates a unique, rewarding relationship between birds and mankind, but it’s nothing like most relationships humans forge with animals. Although they work closely together, Ace does not seek Collin’s approval and does not express love. Some days Ace will allow Collin to pet him but on other days he’s skittish and does not want to be touched. Some days he’s ready to hunt. Other days he’s not interested. “They’re always going to be wild, no matter how long you’re with them.”

But the boy and his bird do share a special bond. The longer Collin hunts with Ace, the more he understands his hunting partner. “You figure out how it thinks.” Collin believes Ace is learning about him, too. He has seen the way the hawk reacts to his body language and emotions. Ace is learning how Collin thinks, too. “He trusts me.”

* * *

As we were readying this story for publication, I got a call from Collin’s mother Marsha. “I have some bad news,” she told me. Just a few days after our interview, Collin found Ace on the floor of his mew, dead. “It looked like he had just dropped. My heart just sank to my stomach,” Collin says.

There were few signs the hawk was sick. He was a little sluggish a few days before but seemed fine otherwise. “He had performed awesome. He was coming to the fist even before I whistled,” Collin says. Then all at once Ace stopped eating and wouldn’t hop on Collin’s glove.

The family called the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont for help, and made arrangements for Ace to see one of the center’s veterinarians if his health did not improve. The hawk took a turn for the worse before that could happen, however. Collin is still working with the center to figure out what killed Ace but they believe it could have been a congenital condition. His time with Collin might have even lengthened his life—captivity has been known to double or even triple the average lifespan of red tailed hawks.

Ace’s death hasn’t affected Collin’s interest in falconry. He plans to get another bird, he just doesn’t know when. “It’s just part of the sport. You get a bird and you like it and you keep it, it’s going to happen eventually.”

But that doesn’t make losing Ace, his first bird, any easier. This was the animal whose willing cooperation inducted Colin into a fellowship that predates recorded history. But more than that, Ace was a huge part of Collin’s everyday routine. “It’s a way of life. You’ve got to plan everything around the bird,” he says. “I’m having a hard time just believing he’s gone.”

 

 

Logan County bat maker is fueled by his love of the game

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 22, 2014.

Mike Crosby, owner of Crosby Bats

Mike Crosby, owner of Crosby Bats

MAN — Drive down Main Street, and it’s easy to tell what people in this small Logan County town have on their minds.

Painted bedsheets and poster boards hang on fences and front porches, proclaiming support for the Man Hillbillies football team.

Friday night lights are a big draw in southern West Virginia. Often, the local football team is the only entertainment in town.

But there’s at least one guy in Man who isn’t that interested in pigskin.

Mike Crosby is stuck in baseball season.

Working out of a matchbox-sized shop built onto the side of his well-kempt double-wide trailer, Crosby spends his days turning out custom-made baseball bats he says will rival anything produced in Louisville, Ky..

Crosby, 40, designs the bats on his home computer, drawing out the blueprints like an architect.

These plans are converted to sets of coordinates, which tell his computer-operated wood lathe how to shape the bat. He has different patterns for tee ball, Little League, middle school, high school and professional baseball players.

Once the designs are loaded into the lathe, all Crosby has to do is fasten a piece of wood into the machine and select which pattern to use.

The lathe takes over from there, moving its spinning blades over the wood, shaving the cylindrical billet into a baseball bat.

The process now takes about three minutes, but it took Crosby months to make his first baseball bat.

“It was hard to learn. I’d never done anything like this before,” he said.

x x x

Crosby fell in love with baseball at an early age.

“My dad was arguably the best baseball player in southern West Virginia,” he said.

His father, Tommy, attended try-out camps for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, and was offered a temporary minor league contract by both teams.

Tommy turned down the offer, however, because he had a wife and child at home. He could make more money working in the coal mines.

But Crosby’s father continued to play ball, spending each weekend playing softball with a local men’s league.

Crosby remembers passing a ball around with the players when he was five years old.

He eventually became a ballplayer just like his dad, playing for Man High School before heading off to college.

He briefly attended Marietta College in Ohio and then transferred to Garrett Junior College in McHenry, Md., where he played for current West Virginia University Institute of Technology baseball coach Lawrence Nesselrodt.

“That man brought something out in me I never knew I had,” he said.

By his sophomore year, Crosby was leading the junior college conference in every offensive category except batting average.

His time in college baseball was cut short, however, when he got upset with a pitcher, punched a dugout wall and broke his hand.

The injury knocked him out of the major league draft. He moved to Pennsylvania to play in a men’s league.

Mike Crosby at spring training for the Gulf Coast Pirates

Mike Crosby at spring training for the Gulf Coast Pirates

In 1994, he drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Pirates try-out camp.

“When I threw to second base, their eyes got as big around as golf balls.”

The next year, the Pirates invited him to spring training. He spent a season playing for a Pirates farm team in Bradenton, Fla., the Gulf Coast Pirates, before another stroke of bad luck sent him to the dugout.

During a game against the Sarasota Orioles at spring training, he was catching against a Baltimore Orioles team, when a batter hit a ground ball to the short stop.

Crosby left home base and sprinted down the first base line to back up the play.

“My foot just popped,” he said.

He tried to walk off the pain. After a few more pitches, he rose to catch a popped foul. “As I turned to push off of that foot, I just went down. I knew something was wrong.”

Crosby had broken a bone on the outside of his foot. He would be unable to begin the season.

He returned to West Virginia and got a job at 84 Lumber in Elkview.

About two years later, while hefting bags of concrete from a delivery truck, the store manager told Crosby he had a phone call.

It was a scouting director for the New York Mets. The team wanted to offer Crosby a single-A contract.

Crosby said he would only sign if the team would let him play for a double-A minor league team.

The scout declined.

x x x

Once Crosby has cut the baseball bat, he transfers it to a manual lathe for the finishing touches.

As it spins, he holds a piece of heavy-grit sandpaper around the bat, sending puffs of sawdust into the air. All the bumps and ridges left by the computerized lathe are gone in just a few seconds.

If he’s working on a bat that will be used during games, Crosby next takes a hard piece of wood or animal bone and runs it along the length of the bat.

“It compresses the fibers to keep the bat from chipping,” he said.

Next, he goes over the wood with fine sandpaper. Then he runs his bare hand over it, using the moisture from his skin to pick up any leftover sawdust.

Crosby now reaches into his extensive collection of spray paint, which he keeps in a cardboard box above his sanding station. He tests the spray can on the front edge of his workbench, adding to the rainbow of paint blotches that cover the wood.

He has learned that painting bats while they are still on the lathe ensures the paint is applied as evenly as possible.

This is a two-tone bat, red with an unpainted handle, so Crosby holds a small piece of cardboard against the handle as he shoots paint onto the wood.

He depresses the button on the spray can and in just a few seconds the whole barrel of the bat has turned red.

Crosby props the bat in a corner to dry.

He’ll wait one day before moving on to the next phase of the process.

Go any faster and the paint job will be ruined. Like most of his bat-making process, Crosby learned this the hard way.

x x x

After giving up on baseball, Crosby spent five years on the independent professional wrestling circuit performing under the name “Mike Montana.”

“When I got done with baseball, I craved that attention. Just having people cheer for you again, that filled the void,” he said.

He eventually began working in construction but didn’t like it very much.

He went to work in the coal mines but, given the tumultuous nature of that business, decided he needed a backup plan.

One day Crosby was watching the Discovery Channel show “How It’s Made” and saw a segment on Sam Bat, the “Original Maple Bat Corporation.”

He remembered walking through the locker rooms during his days in the minor leagues.

“Every locker, every guy had a different bat,” he said.

Crosby remembered how intrigued he was by those bats, how simple and beautiful they were. He decided to try making a baseball bat. He purchased a wood lathe on eBay and went to work in a shed behind his house.

His first attempt didn’t work out so well. He spent two hours working the wood on the lathe but emerged less than victorious.

He showed his creation to his wife, Rebecca.

“I thought, that’s not even close. We’re going to starve,” she said.

Crosby still has that first bat, to remind him where he started. It resembles a baseball bat, but only vaguely.

It looks more like a caveman’s club. The wood is rough with none of the delicate curves of the bats he now produces.

Crosby realized he would need to upgrade his equipment if he wanted to make a high-quality product. After a little searching online, he found a Chinese company that makes computer-driven lathes.

He dropped about $12,000 on the machine and built a shop onto the side of his home for it.

The lathe arrived three months later, but it took him five months to learn to use it.

Crosby had never used computer design programs before, so he called a professor at Ohio State, who sold him a set of instructional DVDs on the subject.

“I never was a good student but I studied it and figured it out,” he said.

But even after he learned to use the necessary computer programs, Crosby still could not make a bat on his lathe.

The wood shattered each time he tried, sending shrapnel flying through his shop.

He finally contacted Steve Toth from Lehigh Valley Bat Works in Bethlehem, Penn..

Toth was interested in Crosby’s computerized lathe, so they worked out a deal. Toth would come check out Crosby’s gear, as long as he showed Crosby how to use the equipment.

The men worked all day in the tiny wood shop. By that evening, Crosby had made his first real baseball bat.

He emerged from the shop, bat in hand, to find Rebecca sitting on the porch steps.

“I said ‘What do you think?’ And she smiled real big.”

Crosby Bats was in business.

x x x

Each of his bats feature a large “Crosby Bats” logo on the sweet spot, just like the major bat manufacturers do. Crosby also personalizes the bats with players’ names and numbers, if requested.

He makes each of the decals using a vinyl cutter, but Crosby eventually plans to invest in a laser engraver.

Once the decals are applied, he puts a staple in the handle end of the bat and, using a wire hanger, dips it into a big PVC tube filled with polyurethane.

He hangs the bat in a small drying bay.

After the sealant dries, he uses fine grit sandpaper to remove any remaining rough spots.

Crosby also checks the bat’s weight by hanging it on a digital scale.

Players can request certain weights for their bats, and while there’s not much Crosby can do to increase a bat’s weight, he can shave off five to eight ounces by cupping out the end of the barrel.

He uses a standard hardware store router with a custom-built jig that holds the bat steady while the router drills into the end.

Once finished, Crosby wraps each bat in plastic cling wraps to protect the finish during shipping, and sends the bat off to his customer.

When he started the company in 2011, his goal was to get his bats in sporting good stores around the country.

“I never dreamed I’d have very much business around here,” he said.

His bats are now being used by young players throughout Logan, Kanawha and Putnam counties, and West Virginia University Institute of Technology and Davis and Elkins College have both purchased trophy bats from Crosby.

While he does sell bats in some sporting goods stores in Arizona, most of Crosby’s sales come through his website or word-of-mouth.

Crosby currently is not licensed to manufacture bats for Major League Baseball.

He figures he’ll take that step when one of his faithful high school customers gets drafted into the minors.

The shop remains a very small operation but, in some ways, that works in Crosby’s favor.

Major manufacturers churn out thousands of bats every day. The factories have quality control standards, but substandard products inevitably slip through.

Crosby said mass-manufactured bats often arrive at stores already broken.

Although it might look perfect on the outside, the wood is fractured on the inside.

You can tell by holding it loosely in your hand and tapping it against the ground. A good bat should carry the vibrations. A broken bat will not.

Crosby said most parents don’t take time to check their bats in the sporting goods store, however. They only realize something is wrong when their young ballplayer hits a fastball and his brand-new, expensive bat is reduced to firewood.

Crosby tests each of his bats before he ships them to customers. If he finds one that is broken inside, he puts it aside and uses it as a trophy bat.

But that’s not the only reason players like Crosby Bats. While bats in retail stores can sell for up to $120, Crosby’s custom-made bats sell for $60 to $70.

He could charge more — a lot more — but doesn’t want to. He prefers to keep them affordable for young players.

“I just want them to get out there,” he said.

While he would eventually like to make Crosby Bats his full-time business, Crosby’s number one drive is the love of the game.

Looking back, he knows he threw away an opportunity to realize his childhood dream of playing professional baseball.

He thinks if he had tried a little harder, he probably would have achieved his goal.

“My old saying was, I’d drive a bus, sleep in a tent and eat bologna sandwiches if I could get a contract.”

But he’s not sorry. Crosby has a wife and two daughters, he’s involved in his church and enjoys helping young baseball players hone their skills.

“If I would have made it to the big leagues I would have self-destructed,” he said. “I like the person I am now.”

Crosby doesn’t get to play anymore. But all over southern West Virginia, players are carrying his custom-made baseball bats to home plate.

They get to feel the vibrations ripple through their arms as wood meets leather. They get to watch the ball fly for the fences.

With a little luck and a lot of work, these boys of summer might get to see their dreams come true.

And if they do, they will take a small piece of Crosby with them.

Zac Jones to fight in Rough ‘n’ Rowdy Brawl

This story was originally published Jan. 9, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail. It won “Best Lifestyles Feature” at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association Awards.

Fists wrapped and gloves tied, tomorrow night Zac Jones, the often-troubled son of Charleston mayor Danny Jones, will duck through the ropes at the Charleston Civic Center for his first ever boxing match.

He’s been training for months, running, lifting weights and learning the fundamentals of the sport from his coach at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

“I’m not nervous now,” he said. “I’m sure it will change by the time the event comes around, when I step into the ring with thousands of people watching.”

Jones, 24, is among the dozens of men and women signed up to fight in this year’s Rough N’ Rowdy amateur boxing contest, which begins Friday night.

He initially signed up because he needs the money.

The winner of each weight division gets $1,000, a substantial sum when you’re working two low-paying restaurant jobs to make ends meet.

But over the last month, Jones became more sincere in his training. He doesn’t know if he’ll win, but he believes there’s a chance.

And if he loses . . . well, he’s been there before.

This is Jones’ first boxing match, but it’s not his first fight.

And while thousands will see him step into the ring, millions were watching the last time he went to the mat.

This time, Zac Jones is fighting for $1,000, a championship jacket and a trophy.

Last time, he was fighting for his life.

* * *

It was 6:30 on a chilly March morning, and Jones was speeding down Interstate 77 in a white Mazda 3 with Moldavian Harris, 24, of Detroit.

Metro Drug Unit Detective O.B. Morris spotted the car, followed it off the Washington Street exit and turned on his blue lights.

Mayor Danny Jones had informed Charleston Police of his son’s whereabouts so he could be arrested.

Officers found 25.7 grams of cocaine in the vehicle. Jones and Harris were charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine. A judge set their bonds at $25,000 cash. The mayor refused to pay his son’s bail.

National media outlets picked up the story after the elder Jones released a heartbroken statement declaring his son a “hopeless drug addict.” He said he was thankful for Zac’s arrest.

“If in jail or prison, I know that Zac has a better chance at living than on the outside. This is because Zac is a hopeless drug addict who has broken the heart and the will of everyone and anyone who has tried to help him,” he wrote.

The stories all mentioned the younger Jones’ previous run-ins with police, a 2008 DUI arrest and a 2011 bust for heroin possession.

No one knew his struggles with substance abuse had started much earlier.

“I always felt I was different. I think I was born with this disease of addiction,” he said.

He began smoking marijuana at age 12, a year before his father was elected mayor.

“There was something just attractive about it. I don’t know if that makes sense to somebody that’s normal,” he said.

Things got worse as he got older. Jones estimates he got high every single day from the time he was 14 until his first stint in rehab at age 20.

He got his first taste of painkillers at age 16, after breaking his feet in a skateboarding accident. He began abusing Vicodin before moving onto Oxycontin, which eventually led to heroin.

“The opiates are where I really found what I was looking for,” he said. “Cocaine was always in there, too.”

He was arrested for the first time in 2008, after crashing his car in South Hills.

Jones, just 18 at the time, ran from the scene. Police found him a short time later in wet and dirty clothes. His blood alcohol content was 0.122.

At age 20, he decided to get clean. He was spending all his money on drugs while his bills and rent were falling behind.

“I could tell I had a problem,” he said.

His father sent him to a rehabilitation facility in California, where he successfully kicked his habits and graduated the program. The sobriety only lasted a few months, however.

Jones had hoped rehab would cure his addiction to “heavy” drugs, but wasn’t ready to give up alcohol.

“I was 20 years old. I wanted to drink,” he said.

He underestimated the strength of his addiction. Jones was soon using drugs again, and was arrested for heroin possession in 2011.

Police, responding to complaints of drug activity, arrived at an apartment on Kelly Road, where Jones answered the door and allowed the officers inside. His girlfriend at the time handed over a plate with 10 lines of heroin, which Jones admitted belonged to him.

His father refused to offer any more help.

“I was so miserable. I was ready to run ’til the wheels fell off,” Jones said. “I didn’t care about anything or anyone.”

* * *

After his arrest last spring, Jones spent more than three months in the South Central Regional Jail. His father refused to pay his bond and asked that no one else would, either.

Looking back, Zac said he’s glad for the tough love because it forced him to come to a realization. He could spend his life in jail, stay addicted to drugs, die or get clean.

He decided to get clean. He began calling The Healing Place, a rehabilitation facility in Huntington, every single day, “desperate, desperate to change my life.”

“They want you to show you’re really wanting it,” he said.

When the center wouldn’t accept him right away, Jones got started on his own.

“When I was arrested, I was in really, really bad shape. I’d done drugs for a lot of years. I just decided I wanted to use the time I was going to be away to get back in shape,” he said.

The jail didn’t have a gym, so he began doing exercises in his cell. The exertion made him sick at first, but Jones was eventually doing 1,000 push-ups a day. He started lifting weights after he was released to The Healing Place in June. When he moved to the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home a few months later, he started going to a gym in Charleston.

In nine days, Zac Jones will be 10 months sober and in the best shape of his life.

Every morning he rolls out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and, four days a week, begins strength training by 6 a.m. He also runs, clocking five kilometers every other day. He goes to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Donnally Street three or four times a week to train for boxing.

He works hard to stay fit, and you can tell. When he was arrested, Jones’ face still bore some of the softness of adolescence. That’s gone now.

His shoulders and arms bulge under his T-shirt sleeves, the skin stretched tight to show thick veins underneath. Watching him work a punching bag in the gym, you’re thankful it isn’t your face.

Jones also works hard to stay sober. It’s a daily struggle.

“It took me a long time to realize I cannot use drugs or alcohol successfully,” he said. “Without me being clean, I don’t have a chance.”

He has figured out ways to keep himself in check.

Some of his strategies, like the exercise, he’ll talk about. Other parts, he prefers to keep private.

“It’s not easy being an addict and staying sober,” he said. “I know how it is. I know how it feels. It’s a tough way to live.”

Jones has quit drugs, alcohol, even cigarettes. He still dips snuff, which helped him quit smoking, but he wants to quit that, too, after the fight.

“There’s help out there. You have to sincerely want it, and be willing to ask,” he said.

“This way of life is a lot better than the alternative.”

* * *

Although he formerly worked as a coal miner, Jones is now a cook at Recovery Sports Grill on Virginia Street.

On Thursdays, he goes to work at the Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Cross Lanes, where he makes $40 a night cooking his father’s special barbeque ribs for the French Quarter restaurant.

“I get my ass kicked every day. It’s hard work, working in a restaurant,” he said.

Jones said he likes the restaurant business, but figures the only way to make real money is to open his own place. He hopes to eventually resurrect his father’s restaurant, Danny’s Rib Shack, somewhere in the Kanawha Valley. Right now, he’s just trying to build up experience.

It’s the same thing with his Rough N’ Rowdy fight.

“I’m not going to be a boxer. I’m not training for the Golden Gloves,” he said. “It’s something I’ve trained for. I’ve already done what I’ve set out to do.”

When Jones signed up for the Rough ‘N’ Rowdy, he was asked to provide a ring name.

Many fighters take inspiration from their home counties.

Boone County will be represented this year by a “Boone County Beast,” a “Boone County Brawler,” a “Boone County Redneck,” a “Boone County Thrill,” a “Boone County Outlaw,” a “Boone County Wild Child” and even a “Wildest Child.”

Others play off their given names, like “Cam the Man,” “Cam Nasty” and “John Boy.”

Jones originally considered “Bones,” but realized a lot of fighters with his last name pick that one.

Then the word Juggernaut popped into his head. He first thought of the villain from Marvel’s X-Men comic books. But then he looked at the definition.

“It means an unstoppable force.”