One of them was living in Yukon. The other was from Homer Hickam territory up the narrow ribbon of road in Coalwood.
This was in McDowell County where coal was not only king, but it was the whole royal family to the thousands that depended on it for a meager living.
The time was the late 1960s .
The state of West Virginia still had its small high schools. And those revered coal country schools produced football players that were recruited by WVU to beat the Southern Conference teams, and later the independent schedule, the Mountaineers faced.
Bob Gresham lived in the mining area known as “Yukon”. Oscar Patrick was in the mining area known as “Coalwood”.
The tiny school they attended was in War and it generated athletic teams that were football state champions and track and field state champions.
Why, Big Creek High School even won a basketball state championship.
The Big Creek Owls. There the high school was. Standing with its soot-stained pale bricks. Three stories. A four-foot concrete owl on the roof, facing toward the front. Classrooms with 15-foot ceilings. The football field was hard against the front of the school. Space reserved for four rows of bleachers separated the field from the front steps of the school house.
Mountains crept down on all sides to the school grounds.
A small stream wiggled its way along one side of the football field.
Big Creek was small. But just in the size of the student body. It was large in the number of football players it sent up the gnarly and winding road to university city — Morgantown and the West Virginia University Mountaineers.
Bob Gresham was a three-year running back in Morgantown from 1968 through the 1970 season.
As a junior, Gresham, who wore No. 33 on his dark blue jersey, rushed 206 times for 1,155 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. That year (1969), Gresham had one of his most productive games of his three seasons. He rushed for 173 yards against Richmond. The Spiders had a hard time stopping him.
That same season, he scored 18 points on three touchdowns against William & Mary.
As a senior, Gresham rushed for 866 yards and had another 340 yards in pass receptions. His eight touchdowns left him with 21 for his career.
He was an eighth-round draft pick by the New Orleans Saints, and would play six seasons in the league. His other two NFL teams were Houston and the New York Jets. Gresham’s NFL totals showed him with 14 touchdowns, 1,360 rushing yards, and 728 pass-reception yards.
Oscar Patrick acquired the nickname, “Big O”, being 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds. His career at WVU as a wide receiver where he wore No. 88 spanned the years 1967-69.
West Virginia didn’t throw much in his sophomore year (1967). He had 19 catches for 326 yards and two scores his first year.
It was as a junior that Patrick did his best work as a Mountaineer. His 50 catches in 1968 were for 770 yards and got him five touchdowns.
Long-suffering Mountaineer fans, who grieved through decades of losses to Joe Paterno-coached Penn State teams, have not forgotten the early October day in 1968 when the “Big O” had 10 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns against the Nittany Lions. West Virginia still lost, 31-20, but Patrick gave the WVU people some few smiles along the way.
Patrick was injured for much of his senior year and caught only nine passes.
He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Redskins, but never appeared in any games with that team.
Big Creek High School in poverty-stricken McDowell County is no more. It was swallowed up in a state consolidation move and now Iaeger, Big Creek, Gary, Northfork, and Welch high schools are all past and Mount View High School stands alone for the county’s ever-dwindling population.
Gresham went the few miles from Yukon to War to go to high school. Patrick went the few miles from Coalwood to War to go to high school.
And they both traveled the hazardous two-lane state roads from War to Morgantown to get a college education and play football for West Virginia University.