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Guest Blog: The Old Ways and Bridgeport Football

By Connect-Bridgeport Staff on December 16, 2019 via Connect-Bridgeport.com

Editor's Note: Chuck Miller, the author of this piece, was a member of the 1986 Class AA state championship football team. He’s an occasional contributor to Connect-Bridgeport and has written two books. His latest, Will Little Roo Ever…?, is a children’s picture book about a little girl striving to overcome developmental delays. Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon is a strength training book. Visit his website for more of his work. The above photo is of the 1986 championship team, with Miller in the front row wearing 62.  Below, Miller is shown with fiancé Christina Whitlatch
 
“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” laments Bradley Cooper in the well-known country ballad from the A Star is Born soundtrack. Having just watched the Bridgeport Indians grind out a hard-earned tenth state football championship over the Bluefield Beavers, I alternatively marveled at the unwavering consistency over the last 50-plus years while also wondering how often, if ever, the changing cast of characters tasked with running the program had considered altering the formula for success.
 
One doesn’t have to search very hard to see just how obsessed Americans are with the latest and greatest of everything. We can’t dump our iPhone 56 fast enough the day the 57 debuts. We trade our cars in every couple of years for new models barely distinguishable from the old just because of that shiny newness.
 
Remember shoe repair shops? Yeah, me either. Nobody fixes their shoes anymore. We live in a world where everything from our toaster to our relationships is disposable.
 
And then there’s Bridgeport football. By now, even casual followers of the program can probably recite some of the accomplishments — seven straight seasons from 2013–2019 reaching at least the class AA semifinals, twenty-seven consecutive seasons in the state playoffs, fifty-two straight non-losing seasons dating to 1967 (a mind-boggling record of consistency that will likely never be broken), and the big one… ten state titles spread across all three classifications.
 
This extraordinary record of achievement is only part of the story, however. There’s also the story of how it was achieved: not with innovation in the form of a newer and better way of doing anything but with sameness. You can forget your iPhone altogether, much less the latest upgrade. We’re talking grandma’s rotary phone with the cord that wouldn’t let you get more than ten feet from the wall.
 
When viewed through the lens of some of the team’s long-standing rivals, I’m sure this sameness has been a mind-numbing experience similar to some miserably repeating Groundhog Day. Just imagine being on the wrong end of the 38–2 record Bridgeport has compiled against Liberty Harrison or the 36–3 mark against Lewis County.
 
Worse yet, imagine every single one of those losses following exactly the same script. They didn’t change anything or add any fancy wrinkles. They didn’t do anything to trick you. They did the same thing they did last year and the year before that and the year before that; a constant drip… drip… drip… of water droplets on your forehead, slowly and steadily breaking your will.
 
If you tuned in for the 2019 state championship victory against Bluefield, you saw the latest iteration of sameness. The Indians lined up in the exact same formation for every snap — the iconic stick-I that telegraphs their intention to run the ball straight into the heart of their opponent’s defense from a handful of basic plays — and did exactly that over and over and over.
 
Bluefield doesn’t have dumb coaches. They have a legend of their own, Fred Simon, who has led them to five state titles. He knew what was coming, and he smartly crowded the line of scrimmage with nine of his eleven defenders for most of the game to try and stop it. They simply couldn’t.
 
The end result was three long and demoralizing touchdown drives; a ball control clinic in which Bridgeport’s offense kept possession for thirty-two of the game’s forty-eight minutes while only attempting a single pass. Many of Bluefield’s supposedly superior athletes (five Division I college commits to our zero) were left standing on the sidelines throughout, watching helplessly.
 
Perhaps it’s finally time to broaden our myopic definition of athleticism. Maybe grit, toughness, conditioning, and coachability — strength of mind and body — are also athletic attributes we should value right alongside traditional markers of athleticism like speed and agility.
 
It takes rare patience and discipline for anyone, much less a teenager, to stay the course and keep grinding even when the sledding is slow. Strain and struggle for four tough yards. Now line up and do it again. And again after that.
 
Sounds like a man’s work more than a boy’s. Nothing glamorous or exciting here. Yet it’s the Bridgeport way; a singular mindset taught from peewee to midget to middle school and beyond. By the time they get to high school, any player in the Bridgeport system knows exactly what’s expected of them.
 
It’s all about the basics like knowing the snap count, lining up where you’re supposed to be, blocking the right man, and wrapping up when you tackle. Before you can be a hero you have to do the little things right every play, and we’ll make sure you do by drilling them in practice until they’re second nature. Other teams might try to outsmart their opponents, but Bridgeport out-simples theirs.
 
So what, if anything, has changed over fifty-plus years and four head coaches? I had to smile when I tuned in for the online broadcast of the state finals (ah, maybe not all innovation is bad) and saw the team aligned in the aforementioned stick-I, the familiar formation used when I played way back in the mid-1980s and introduced by Wayne Jamison in 1970.
 
In recent years, the most obvious change has been a pistol alignment on offense. As I recall, that change was made right around 2013, just before a successful run of three consecutive championships. I don’t know the ins and outs of a scheme change like that, but I’d guess the coaching staff took a look at the talent pool that was about to come through the program, saw they had the luxury of some speed they don’t normally have, and wanted a formation that would better enable them to exploit defenses by getting to the edge more often.
 
What I remember most is how upset I was at the time. When I read that we were moving to the pistol, I thought we were about to spread out and start throwing the ball all over the field just like everybody else. I thought we were following a trend and were about to throw away our identity for some flashy, new junk.
 
We’d no longer be the hard-nosed program that ran the ball right at you. We’d be just another finesse team like all the rest; sheep in the herd rather than the outlier following the old ways.
 
Little did I know we were about to line up in that pistol and continue running right over and through everyone, only now we’d occasionally run around them too. We were still the same tough, disciplined team, and you still knew exactly what you were getting every play. Good luck stopping this train.
 
In 2019, presumably lacking the advantage of speed to get to the corners, Head Coach John Cole, a neighbor of mine growing up on Vista Drive, smartly reverted back to the stick-I that was also utilized during his early-1980s playing days. If we weren’t going to be able to consistently run around you, we’d give ourselves that extra blocker at the point of attack and go back to running right at you.
 
And so, the one change in fifty years that I could detect from my sideline vantage point had come and gone, at least for the time being, in the span of about five seasons, though I’m sure the team also does a few things differently on defense these days to neutralize the newer spread offenses. Going back to the Bluefield game again, we were certainly able to adjust in the second half and move our defenders into better positions to slow down their aerial assault.
 
Any of my perceived defensive refinements may also have as much to do with our commitment to stopping the run as with any schematic wrinkle. As determined as Bridgeport is to control the line of scrimmage and establish the running game, we’re equally determined to prevent our opponents from doing so. We run. You don’t. And then, after we’ve rendered you one dimensional, your passing attack becomes more manageable to defend.
 
Funny how that works, isn’t it? Bridgeport is a willingly one-dimensional offense. Yet on defense, our primary purpose is to make our opponents one dimensional. We’ll run every play, and we’ll make you pass every play if you’ve any hope of moving the ball. Let’s see how that works out when we look up at the scoreboard at game’s end.
 
The only other possible element of newness, if you can even call it that given its pervasiveness nowadays in nearly all sports, is an important one that happens off the field: weight training. I’ve heard Coach Cole speak in interviews about the team’s year-round commitment to the strength and conditioning program, and he referenced a physically stronger team this season than the one that lost to Bluefield in the state semifinals the last two years.
 
While many players in my day lifted, we had no formal program and there were probably still some misconceptions about weight training producing bulky, slow players. The hand in glove fit between lifting weights and Bridgeport’s football culture that’s developed over time seems both obvious and inevitable.
 
Amidst all this sameness, there is something different about championship teams; something that makes them stand out above the others that were merely good but not great. With this team, and with many of Bridgeport’s most successful teams, I think the standout quality was selflessness.
 
Most weeks, the best I can do to follow my Indians from my home in Philadelphia is to read game summaries on Saturday mornings. Early in the season, I saw Brian Henderson’s name quite a bit, as he eclipsed 100 rushing yards in wins over Lewis County and Morgantown. Later in the year, Henderson all but disappeared and was replaced by Carson Winkie filling box scores with big outings in wins over North Marion and Keyser.
 
I assumed perhaps Henderson had been injured and could only hope we’d get him back to full strength in time for a playoff run. At some point, I learned he wasn’t injured at all. He’d simply switched positions with Winkie, moving from tailback to upback and assuming a blocking role so that Winkie could become the featured runner. Indeed, Winkie thrived in this role, piling up 597 yards in four playoff games behind the stellar blocking of his offensive line, Henderson, and fullback, Trey Pancake (surely a member of Bridgeport’s all-time name team, though the Captain would likely be recent graduate, John Merica).
 
What high school kid is going to take that move well, though? Think about it. You’ve been scoring touchdowns, getting your name in the newspaper, and impressing your girlfriend. Now you’re going to throw your nose into the fan’s blades and block for your buddy so he can score all the touchdowns.
 
I’m pretty sure kids in most programs are going to complain and create a distraction if their coaches ask them to make that move. Not so at Bridgeport. Here, it really is about the team before the individual. Early on, you learn to recite those championship seasons from memory — 1955, 1972, 1979, 1986, 1988, 2000, 2013, 2014, 2015, and now, 2019 — and you realize you can compete to be remembered on that list or you can chase stats no one will remember even a year later.
 
I hope this little piece has given readers some appreciation of just how unique Bridgeport football is, not just for the winning but for the approach to winning and for the lessons about hard work, consistency, discipline, and teamwork that players take with them well beyond their playing days that are here and gone in the blink of an eye. Many times in my own life when I’ve thought about quitting or giving up on an important project, I’ve reminded myself that I’m from Bridgeport, and then I’ve picked myself up off the mat and pressed forward.
 
When we were stacking those three consecutive championships, I wrote this article detailing how rare that level of success was, even for an excellent program like Bridgeport’s. To do it the way we do it is even more rare, and I have to believe that one day — hopefully not in my lifetime — it will be gone forever.
 
All the old ways eventually die.



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