Steve Finn is usually pretty workman-like when he goes about the task of opening his mail every day.
And yes, the guy still gets as much snail-mail as he does email, text messages, Facebook greetings and every other missive a social media platform can carry.
Finn, who is founder and executive director of Chestnut Mountain Ranch, a Morgantown area safe haven for young men in trouble or fleeing from it, was somewhat intrigued by one particular envelope on this one particular day in the early blush of 2019.
Said envelope was hand-addressed, and it carried the WVU Mountaineers football logo.
So, he tore into this one first — to find a letter from head coach Neal Brown, who was still getting himself and his family acclimated to the Mountain State.
“I appreciate the good work that you’re doing,” the coach wrote.
“I want to be part of it, and I want our players to be part of it. When it’s convenient for you, I’d like to pay a visit.”
He signed it, “Neal.”
Finn made sure it was convenient, and a few days later, a car containing a certain football guy was bouncing along the dirt-covered swoops and switchbacks of Ponderosa Ponds Road, just outside Morgantown.
“I still don’t know how he found out about us,” Finn said, “but he ‘got’ our state
The executive director, meanwhile, is a de facto city kid. Finn was born here, but he moved to Atlanta with his family when he was a youngster.
When he grew up, he became a police officer and later a detective, patrolling the deceptively mean streets of the chrome-and-glass metropolis of the once-New South.
Finn made it a point to work with the gangs for whom violence was just the way it was done.
He got too used to seeing males, some not much older than his own children are today, carted off in cuffs and zipped-up in body bags.
After awhile what he was too used to seeing — got to be too much.
“It was either get cynical or get shot,” he said.
He turned in his badge and he and his wife loaded the car with their kids, and whatever else would fit, to let country roads take him home.
Chestnut Mountain Ranch, with its school, residence halls and large lodging area, would sprout from 225 acres at the end of Ponderosa Ponds Road a few years later.
And it was there last year that Finn happily found out that Brown isn’t just a football guy — he’s a community guy, as well.
“Pre-COVID, the coach and his players would spend so much time with the boys here,” Finn said.
“Coach Brown would tell them about choices and how it’s never too late to make positive changes,” he continued.
“He was instructing them on how to be good, caring adults. Boys need heroes.”
This past week, that community guy who also happens to coach football received national recognition for his outreach.
Good Works (and good work)
That came by way of the American Football Coaches Association.
The organization named Brown honorary head coach of the 2020 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, citing his “leadership in the Morgantown community and his commitment to education, developing future leaders and giving back,” as the official announcement read.
In his role, he’ll be donning the same headset, as it were, of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who received the honor last year.
This year’s roster features 22 players from across college football who don’t just suit up for Saturday.
They’re also out there, the association said, lining up and using their names and jersey numbers to help advance community causes.
Causes, Allstate says, that couldn’t be more critical and more vital, in a country currently roiled by a pandemic and social unrest.
The off-the-field accomplishments of this year’s player nominees include founding a nonprofit to combat poverty, providing food to families hit hardest by COVID-19.
Others have huddled up against bullying while organizing their teammates to take a stand against racial injustice.
Visit http://promo.espn.com/espn/contests/allstate/2020/index to view the roster, read their stories and to vote for an honorary team captain.
As Brown says, four quarters of football on a Saturday when you’re young — only goes so far.
Coaching, teaching … intertwined
Before WVU, Brown’s football resume had taken him from colonial and pastoral Massachusetts to the sprawling reach of northwestern Texas to small-town Alabama, where the Friday Night Lights couldn’t shine brighter.
Like Finn, though, he’s still from the neighborhood.
Brown is a Kentucky native who grew up in Danville, which is about 45 minutes south of Lexington, in the bluegrass-covered, limestone-banked, rolling hills of Boyle County.
With a population of 16,000 or so, everybody knows everybody — and if you’re a teacher’s kid (he is) everyone especially knows you.
Both his parents taught in the Boyle County school district, and his in-laws did, too.
His wife, Brooke, also spent years as an elementary school teacher, and one of her first official appearances in Morgantown was to take part in a literacy awareness event for the United Way of Monongalia and Preston counties.
Her husband, the coach, shares the same passion for the printed word and was a Read Aloud stalwart in the community before COVID clamped down.
Sometimes, all a good teacher has to do is show up.
It didn’t take long for Albert Wright Jr. to start witnessing that.
‘You just have to see the looks on their faces’
Wright is president and CEO of the WVU Health System, which includes its flagship medical facility, J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
The hospital-within-the-hospital is WVU Medicine Children’s, which treats young patients from all 55 counties in the state.
Directly across the parking lots of both is Milan Puskar Stadium, where Brown does his work.
Part of those duties is for the head football coach to do fundraising and other outreach for the medical community, but this coach, Wright said, doesn’t do podiums and printed-out remarks.
He hits the hallways and the dayrooms and patient rooms, Wright said.
Before the coronavirus changed everything, Wright said, Brown and his players crossed that parking lot regularly.
“The energy level peaks when the coach shows up,” he said.
“If you’re a West Virginia kid, WVU is your NFL. The coach, the players, are stars. You just have to see the looks on their faces when they show up.”
‘Fellas, this is who you’re playing for’
During the start of his first fall football camp last August, Brown treated his players and coaches to a road trip.
Three bus loads of them rolled up to Arch Coal’s Leer Mining Complex
near Grafton next door in Taylor County.
Brown’s old Kentucky home is close to the state’s eastern coal mining region, which bumps up against the coal fields of southern West Virginia.
West Virginia is where coal mining disasters of years gone by are marked by single, terse names: A grim shorthand of where they occurred.
Three bus loads of players from Florida, New Jersey, Texas and the Midwest shook hands with the workers and stared into the maw of those longwall, continuous mining machines that chew through coal seams like a safety blitz on third and long.
The industry isn’t as dangerous as it was, but it’s still hard work, and miners still die on the job.
In the 1920s, miners died above ground in West Virginia, fighting for the right to unionize.
Shootouts between them and coal company goons were common.
Labor-watchers during the early years of that decade even formulated a statistic, equally grim to the aforementioned disaster-shorthand.
If you had a choice of, say, spending an afternoon on a World War I battlefield, or underground in a West Virginia coal mine of that era — you would likely be safer staying up top, they surmised.
It was statistically safer on the battlefield, they said, even with bullets, bombs and mustard gas.
Steve Antoline, a retired businessman and longtime WVU football booster (the Arthurdale native took in his first football game when he was 3 and it was the Backyard Brawl with Pitt) helped arrange the visit.
He was moved seeing the players’ reactions to the outpouring as they were greeted by the miners.
Antoline was moved even more, he said, by a coach who instinctively knew what the football Mountaineers mean to the Mountain State.
“Coach Brown looked at the team and said, ‘Fellas, this is who you’re playing for. Right here.’ ”