With the opening of the college football season just a week or so away, excitement levels are rising. I’m a graduate of West Virginia University and we WVU fans are crazy about our football. After all, we have no pro sport teams in our state, and while Marshall University fans are as enthusiastic (and they have their own movie), the Mountaineers carry the name of our state with them. It’s not just a college-wide pride; it’s a state-wide pride.
What really sets the WVU anxiety blazing is what happens just before the game. “Simple Gifts.” It’s the soft and gentle popular section of Aaron Copeland’s score of “Appalachian Spring.” You’d know it if you heard it. The WVU Marching Band (also known as the Pride of West Virginia), like many other university bands, plays certain songs as part of their pre-game show: the fight song, the alma-mater, the National Anthem, etc. While the Pride adds John Denver’s “Country Roads” and the hillbilly anthem “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” to the repertoire, the addition of “Simple Gifts” is what stirs the heart of many Mountaineers.
The band starts in a “WVU” formation and marches in complex patterns while playing the soft tune, ultimately marching into a tightly packed circle with all instruments facing in. Then the band turns during a drum roll and a part of “Fanfare for the Common Man” kicks in and the crowd goes wild. A louder more enthusiastic rendition of “Simple Gifts” starts back up again as the band members march out in expanding circles. I can’t really say why, but this has always been a goose-bump inducing scene and always will be. But this year, it’s even more stirring.
My brother was a manager for the football team when he attended school in the mid-70’s. He loved working the practices and the sidelines during the games. He made lifelong friends with many of the team (and he got me a great autographed football for my 15th birthday that I still have today) and followed the team closely for the rest of his life. A couple years ago, he shared with me that the pre-game show was on YouTube, and we both would watch “Simple Gifts” every day for the week or two prior to the new season.
It was about a year ago that he discovered that his melanoma had returned and knew that he had a very VERY difficult fight ahead. He posted the news in Facebook on Friday, September 3, and attended a WVU game the next day. Despite the devastating news…or perhaps because of it, he insisted on watching his Mountaineers play.
Two or three weeks later, he attended his last game. The two hour drive to see a game got to be too much and I believe he knew it could be the last time he saw the blue and gold. When I talked to Debbie (Jeff’s wife) months later, she told me that Jeff had the most incredible time, despite the fact that his body was failing him. She said that during the pre-game show, he started to bawl. Jeff admitted through his tears how much he truly loved the university that gave him his education, transformed him into a man, and introduced him to his life-long love, Debbie.
My cousin Steve Dunlap (yes…we have a lot of cousins in West Virginia) is a defensive coach for the Mountaineers. He had heard of Jeff’s condition and invited my brother to the locker room after the game. Steve gave him a true behind-the-scenes tour. Jeff met players, saw facilities seen by only a select few, and was presented with an official coach’s shirt and hat. He called me when he got back home and I had never heard such excitement from my brother. This tour was truly a dream-come-true. It was an incredible gesture from my cousin and the university that Jeff loved so well. It meant so very much to him and gave him such great joy.
One couldn’t ask for more from such a simple gift.