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Brawl in the Family: A tale of the goalpost, the philosopher and a certain football game

Henry, Freddie, Mousey and Fish could tell you all about it — if you had a time machine.

We’re talking about the Backyard Brawl, the storied college football rivalry between the WVU Mountaineers and Pitt Panthers that faded 11 years ago after the old Big East conference collapsed in on itself.

Tonight, the two teams, separated by 70 or so miles of Interstate 79, line up again in Pittsburgh for a renewal of the series that marked its beginnings in 1895.

A pugilistic series, it was, marked by big games, blowouts, comebacks and belly-up plays — the likes of which could cause bleeding ulcers to take up residence at the innards of even the most seasoned old-time, flint-eyed, point-spread gamblers.

There was Bobby Bowden and 17-14, which went his way.

And Rich Rodriguez, and 13-9 … which did not.

In 2011, on a chilly November night in Morgantown, the Mountaineers outlasted the Panthers 21-20, WVU’s way.

For legions of fans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, the game that commenced just hours after Thanksgiving was all so, well, poignant.

Pitt by then had leapt for the ACC, and WVU was in the process of lassoing a wagon for the Big 12.

Their game, and ours, too — the Brawl — went away.

“Yeah, just like that,” Ed Gorczyca said Wednesday morning, as he counted down the hours to the 2022 renewal: Fleeting, though the game may be, in the geographic parallel universe of conference realignment in college football.

“What are you gonna do?” he asked, after posing his question that wasn’t fully rhetorical.

What he did, immediately after, was laugh.

The aforementioned Henry, Freddie, Mousey and Fish, you know.

Let’s go, Mountaineers (Mr. President)

At 85, Gorczyca is likely the oldest, active member of the Polish American Patriot Club in Wheeling, on 4410 Jacobs St., on the southside of the working-class, Northern Panhandle town just a steel mill girder’s length from Pittsburgh.

The southside is where all the Polish immigrant families like his settled after sailing to these shores for work in the mills that glowed 24 hours a day.

Said families made sure their first-generation American progeny kept the ways of the Old Country alive, however.

Polish was still spoken around the dinner table.

Everyone still went to Mass at St. Ladislaus Parish, before the ornate Catholic church was shuttered.

Come Saturday for Jack Fleming’s call from Old Mountaineer Field, all ears were locked in on the Zenith tabletop radios and Crosley consoles that were in every living room.

Here are the first things you’ll see when you walk in to the Polish American Patriot Club: Bowling trophies, lots of them.

Followed by a framed, 8×10 portrait of President John F. Kennedy.

It’s still there, in honor, that portrait, after all these years, with nary a smudge or speck of dust on the glass covering the now sepia-pose of a leader, forever young.

And, the handiwork of the aforementioned Henry, Freddie, Mousey and Fish.

The intrepid gridiron quartet was present at the former Pitt stadium that autumn day in 1957, when Mountaineers prevailed 7-6 over Panthers, in a game where no one, in either jersey, it seemed, could hold on to the football — until it mattered the most.

Jubilant West Virginians stormed the field like a war movie on the late show. The wooden goal posts never had a chance.

Henry, Freddie, Mousey and Fish snagged a piece in the tumult and hustled it back to Wheeling.

They knew just the place, worthy of its now-icon.

A stylish, two-tone paint job was added.

So was the score of the game and their names also (of course). Now, 65 years later, just like JFK, it has its honor at the Polish American Patriot Club.

“I was in the service for that game,” said Gorczyca, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force right after his high school graduation.

“It was here when I got back. I laughed. I’m looking at it right now and I’m still laughing.”

He’s in the club most mornings after 11 or 11:30 or so. He might catch the news or a game show on TV. There’s always Russ, the bar manager, who loves a great story and tells one too.

He was away from Wheeling for years, living and working in Texas, California and Florida on the way to retirement.

‘Now you gotta get on an airplane for an away game’

In the ways of most ex-pat West Virginians, though, he came back. Gorczyca quickly put the Polish American Patriot Club back on his southside routine.

That’s just where people go, he said — after weddings, funerals, christenings and during football games. That’s where he’ll be tonight, he said.

“I was gonna watch the game at home,” he said, “but I know I’ll end up coming down here.”

He misses the days of the great rivalries of college football, he said — when people at the club, more often than not, invoked a prayer: “I don’t care how many we lose, just so long we as we beat Pitt and Penn State.”

Don’t get him started on the aforementioned conference realignment and temporary Brawl.

“When WVU and Pitt went away, it wasn’t good for the fans,” he said.

“What? Now you gotta get on an airplane for an away game — when you had the ultimate football game right here.”

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