A LIFE magazine article drew national attention to Ferry’s football 60 years ago | News, Sports, Jobs
Success and longevity are acclaimed, and while many were wild to say the least at how their beloved community was portrayed when recognition reached national level, it was still remarkable that Martins Ferry – the oldest Ohio state colony dating back to the 1770s—and specifically to its football team, the Purple Riders—has caught the attention of few high schools except the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, that inspired a book, a film and the television series “Friday Night Lights” never had.
Combine Ferry’s success on the gridiron – they bask in the glow of one of the longest winning streaks in state history at the time as 32 in a row fell victim to the mighty Purple of the last game of 1958 to first game of 1962 – with the allure of spotlighting an industrial town in the Ohio Valley that was sadly beginning an economic decline, and it became the perfect storm for the first national magazine of the day – LIFE – to visit the site of the oldest settlement in Ohio about 60 years ago.
The LIFE magazine article—which appeared in the Nov. 2, 1962, issue that featured the Cuban Missile Crisis on the cover—was highly anticipated, but when it hit newsstands, the tone quickly changed in Ridertown.
The article, written by John R. McDermottt with photos by Mark Kauffman, was titled “Rocky birthplace of football” and subtitled “The Great Game to Escape from Mill Town.” It mostly cast a negative light on the area, portraying high school football at that time as a way to earn a college scholarship and hopefully escape the drudgery of a “filthy” mill town along the Ohio River.
Other focal points were the high priority given to winning football matches on Friday night and the support of recall clubs, but also the pressure they put on the coaches at the time. Ironically, the article never even mentioned the Riders’ historic winning streak.
The series of photos that accompanied the article contributed greatly to the displeasure of Ferry’s faithful – the soot-covered blast furnaces and carpenters… dark, damp depictions of close-ups splattered with mud and wounds recorded among them.
There were others too – scenes from a Ferry-Bellaire game at the venerable Nelson Field from the 1961 season…a photo of coach Bob ‘Smokey’ Wion directing practice…fullback Gene Joseph and the tackle Curt Ziegler sporting the hat of their choice during practice…and even Mary Groza sitting in the kitchen with a photo of her son – Lou “The toe” – background.
While much of the story was depressing, there were also a few good spots.
Reference was made to two of the “favorite sons” of rivals Ferry and Bellaire – Groza of the Purple Riders and Nick Skorich of the Big Reds among them. Groza, of course, became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Cleveland Browns while Skorich played for the Philadelphia Eagles and later coached the Browns.
Another benefit was to mention that playing football kept countless young men from dropping out of school and boosted community spirit, noting that in a town of 12,000 people at the time, 8,000 people filled the stands from Ferry Stadium on a Friday night. in autumn.
One of the most memorable quotes in the story came from Gene Minder, who came up with this to raise his family and hope for the best for each of them: “I raised them on love and spaghetti.”
How furious were the fans in the Valley – and those of Martins Ferry in particular – who were proud of their heritage and of course, Rider football.
Several copies ended up being set on fire at the school’s end-of-season bonfire and beloved teacher Miss Heloise Knapp took her displeasure one step further by sending a not-so-friendly letter to the editors of LIFE… written entirely in Latin!
It also provoked an immediate reaction in local newspapers, including a column written by Bill Van Horne (MFHS Class of 1939) who was sports editor for the Times Leader at the time and who expressed the anger of the football coach in chief at the time, Robert. “Smoky” Will.
Van Horne called the article “twisted, distorted, strenuous and deliberately intended to make our area look as dirty, harsh and run down as possible” while Wion echoed those sentiments when he was quoted as saying “We feel we have suffered a great injustice. The image of high school football here in the Valley has been grossly distorted.
Another example of what you might call “poetic injustice” in Ferrians’ eyes came when one of his own cast his hometown in a less than favorable light in one of his works.
This time it was the poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” written by James Arlington Wright (MFHS Class of 1946).
Published in 1963, it was one of the few famous poems ever written with football as the backdrop.
Again featuring dark overtones, he made several references such as the “The Poles of Tiltonsville” and the “Negroes in the Benwood Blast Furnace” and talked about high school football players being “suicidally beautiful” and that they “gallop terribly against each other.”
Wright, by the way, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1972 for his work “Collected Poems” and was elected a Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. He died in 1980 and was named to the Martins Ferry City Hall of Honor in 2008.
Fast forward more than three decades and the convergence of these two came about thanks to ESPN when it produced a nine-minute segment on a program titled “Why we love football”.
Filmed in the fall of 1999, the story was about Ferry as a “city high on steel and football” and the one who had a “A 90-year romance with the game of football.
The importance of being part of Ferry’s football tradition came through in an interview with Rider quarterback Zac Bruney (MFHS Class of 2000), who went on to a successful college career at Mount Union University and is currently the head coach of Wheeling University.
“You feel the presence of all the big names from the past…it just gives you chills,” he stated.
The story was about two famous “son” by Martins Ferry – the aforementioned Groza and Wright – and of course the second reference brought the poem back and the negativity of the LIFE article resurfaced in the ESPN feature.
Poet Laureate Robert Hassed – called upon to perform Wright’s poem – called it a “beautiful, but also tragic” representation, offer “I don’t think it would work as a Chamber of Commerce slogan, but I don’t think it’s an epitaph either.”
However, the ESPN segment gave a few townspeople a chance to vent over the LIFE magazine article several years later.
“They degraded the whole city” said Carl Mamone (MFHS Class of 1942) who was both a former head coach and a former mayor of the city. “Things like the only reason a boy played football was to get a scholarship and not have to go to the factory to work.”
“It Wasn’t Fair” echoed Joe “Bold” Joseph (MHFHS Class of 1937). “If I knew the guy (the author) today, I would suffocate him…I would give him hell.”
Same beloved city historian, librarian and longtime MFHS rider “great fan” Annie Tanks wasn’t happy, although she eventually managed to put a positive spin on things.
“Everyone was helped and expected a nice write-up,” Tanks said, “but the article focused on getting out of town.
We look around and see people moving and the town struggling to pay their bills etc., but we have a winning team!
A winning team indeed – a team that garnered more than its fair share of national attention – but that was LIFE at Martins Ferry, especially in the early 1960s.