“She said, ‘That’s your name from now on,’ ” he explained.
Birurakis reclaimed his name when he was a senior in high school, something that was similar to the Greek name his parents gave him. He grew up in Scott’s Run in Liberty, one of 13 coal camps. His parents were from Greece, and his father built their house with his own two hands.
In 1944, Birurakis went from attending University High School to WVU. Many football players, along with the coach, ended up drafted and serving in World War II, so Ira Rodgers, the replacement coach, encouraged others to try out.
“I wanted to try out, but I never played football,” Birurakis said.
He put a lot of work into trying out, but eventually it became apparent that he had never played football — back then University High School did not even have a football team. Birurakis said he was in good shape from working on his parents’ home, as well as one of the fastest on the team. Even his friend he went to try out with quit because he wasn’t in good enough shape to keep up.
In scrimmage, Birurakis tackled with intensity, and the coach noticed.
“When the ball was snapped, I got through the line and tackled the ball carrier right after he got the ball. He didn’t even get to the line of scrimmage, and the coach yelled out, ‘Here’s a guy who never even played football! You guys can’t block him?’ ” Birurakis said.
They ran the same play, and the same thing happened. He said the coach uttered a few cuss words and congratulated the young footballer.
“He said ‘Bir-u-ra-kis, if you play like that, you’ll never miss a game,’ ” he said.
The rest could be described as history.
After making the team, WVU beat Penn State 27-28, with Birurakis in tow.
After his first season, he was drafted to serve in the military. He served in the Horse Calvary for a short time, and then ended up going to the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) because of his knowledge of the Greek language. Two days after he finished training for the CIC, the Germans surrendered.
“They heard I was coming,” he joked.
In 1946, he was training on a shooting range and received a letter from the colonel congratulating him on his outstanding marksmanship. His brother submitted the letter to the paper, and not too long after that, the Japanese surrendered, too.
“Japan saw that letter, and then they gave up,” he joked again.
After leaving the service, he came back to WVU and played football. In 1949, the team won the Sun Bowl. In 1950, Birurakis got married, and in ’51, he graduated.
He wanted to teach school in Monongalia County but said it was hard to get a job teaching with a name like Birurakis, and he did not want to go by the name Berry again. He found a job at a small school in southern West Virginia — out in the country — and a football field that had one goal post. Only after four years, he said he was broke, and the teacher’s money was not cutting it for him and his family.
They relocated to Kittanning, Pennsylvania, where Birurakis worked as an ironworker, and his family lived right beside the train tracks.
“You could almost reach out the window and touch the cars going by, and when the train came through there, the house shook,” he said.
He continued to work as an ironworker. His family relocated to St. Mary’s, then to Niagara Falls, and then came back to Morgantown where he bought the home he currently resides in for $6,000.
“The house wasn’t quite like this then. We fixed it up, did a lot of work on it. I became a carpenter, and we’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Birurakis, who continued his career in ironwork, lent a hand in the construction of the Star City Bridge, the Coliseum and even Mountaineer Field.
After his retirement, he worked for Contemporary Services Cooperation, where he used much of the money to buy a sign to commemorate the history of Scott’s Run, his old stomping ground. Birurakis has been called the Scott’s Run historian and put a great deal of time and money into preserving a piece of his, and Morgantown’s, history.
Birurakis said Eleanor Roosevelt and his mother met when she came through West Virginia. Upon seeing the conditions of the coal communities, Arthurdale in Preston County was created. A mine accident also took place in Osage, and he has been working to fix up the park there to memorialize those lives lost.
“The Osage mine explosion killed 56 people, and we’ve been trying to get a memorial marker. We have a piece of ground. The coal company gave the community a few acres to put in a memorial,” he said.
Right now, there is a park, but it developed a water problem from underlying pipes. Birurakis hopes to raise to moneyput a playground in and address the issue. In April, there will be a dinner to raise funds for the effort.
In his retirement, he hopes to get Scott Run the attention it deserves, and honor his life there and the men who worked and lost everything. Even at 92, there are no signs of that stopping