As Mike and I crossed the Ohio River into West Virginia last Friday, one of my first thoughts centered around escaping Buckeye Country. If you grew up in Michigan, like I did, you would understand the thought process.
After spending the week on an island in Lake Erie, we had been traveling a scenic route southward through the Ohio countryside. The trip took us past Ohio State decals positioned in the windows of homes and businesses as well as scarlet flags hanging from front porches.
When we crossed the Mighty River and entered the Mountaineer state, I never imagined that we were entering an annex to Big Orange Country.
But then Mike, my long-time sportswriting colleague at the Knoxville News Sentinel, mentioned George Cafego.
The former All-American, whose nickname was “Bad News,” played halfback, safety quarterback and special teams for the Vols in the late 1930s. Cafego was from Scarbro, West Virginia. Tackle Abe Shires, who blocked for Cafego, earned All-American honors in 1939. Shires was from Alderson, W. Va.
The memory of Cafego sparked a conversation that took us miles down the road toward our destination in Huntington. The discussion also spawned a greater appreciation for this nearby state’s contributions to Tennessee athletics.
The pipeline is still open today and has been expanded to accommodate present circumstances. The Vols needed a running back after Len’Neth Whitehead went down with a season-ending upper body injury. Enter Lyn-J Dixon, who arrived via the transfer portal last week from West Virginia and jumped right into preseason practice. The running back had committed to the Vols in 2017 out of high school in Georgia but instead went to Clemson.
Darnell Wright, who’s from Huntington, will be blocking for Dixon and the other backs. After an offseason conversation with offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, the 6-foot-6, 335-pound lineman has taken some preseason snaps at right tackle. Wright told Elarbee, “Whatever helps us win and helps us be the best.”
“He wants extra drill work; he wants extra reps; he wants to work,” Elarbee said of Wright. “I think that’s something, I’m not sure, he probably did a little last year but it’s so pronounced this year. He’s just such an improved player and I’m just excited for him.”
The conversation also included basketball. Mike mentioned former Vol guard Greg Bell. The native of London, W. Va., scored 1,198 career points for the Vols.
I countered with Lady Vols Mary Ostrowski and Alexis Hornbuckle. Ostrowski, who was from Parkersburg, is 11th in career scoring (1,729 points) and was an All-American in 1982. Hornbuckle, who’s from Charleston, was a Swiss army knife of a player who played a key role in two national championships (2007-08).
So, if you are driving through Huntington, I highly recommend La Famiglia for dinner. It’s a family-run Italian restaurant. I also suggest you order some wine with your meal and raise a glass to the West Virginia wing of UT athletics.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.