I hope the young men that turned into older men have as much fondness in their hearts for me as I do for all of them. You see, 1986 was a defining moment for several of us and if you just took a look at us on paper, we would never have been a group that hung together to make a successful team.
Honestly, off the field, we didn’t always hang together. But once inside the white lines of the gridiron, it always felt to me that we could not be separated. I had never been around a group of guys that were that different, at times had huge egos, but that always seemed to be pulling for each other and the team. You see, we were all a product of Ripley and we played at Death Valley. We were the Vikings and that meant something to almost every one of us.
There are several moments for all of us that I’m sure stick out. Please allow me to digress for just a moment to illustrate how powerful one such moment was in my life. Some of the memories from my time at RHS that I hold dear are:
Sitting in the hallway with Rebecca Hunter (now my lovely wife of 26 years) eating cookies that we bought in the office:
Lining up once to run the 110 High Hurdles for track and everyone around me looking at me like I was crazy;
Senior year state wrestling tournament in the match where I first realized that talent would beat my desire;
Prom with Rebecca in a gold dress that to this day blows me away;
Coach Frashier grilling me at halftime because he thought I was distracted by a girl;
The exact moment that Coach Marino asked me to move from H-back, where I thought I had dreams of running the ball, to left guard because the team needed someone willing to block;
Always being able to hear Mom no matter how loud the crowd would become;
Being so darn proud every time I took the huddle with my team;
Wondering how on earth a drum cadence called “The Chicken” could fill me with so much pride and enthusiasm;
The feeling of pride I had that my adopted town of Ripley posted signs everywhere you could see that said “We Believe”;
And finally, just in case no one believes me, I expressed in an interview before we played the Brooke Bruins how a bunch of hard-nosed, middle of nowhere WV kids believed in each other – “we are not really talented, but we really love each other and we are all brothers.”
I believed it then and I believe it now. This was an odd collection of guys who didn’t want to lose. That brings me to my story of a lifetime.
We all had our cliques that we hung with, heck who didn’t in high school? But what I can tell you is that belief in what a team could accomplish was forever cemented in my mind that day under the tree outside the locker room where a senior meeting was called.
Truthfully, to this day I can’t tell you who called it or who really talked. In my fading memory it seems like everyone had a say. But if pressed, I would have to guess that Rod Lanham, David Nutter, Russell Randolph and Packy Carte were probably pretty vocal. Of course, Matt Smittle would have spoken up, Scott “Whammy” Ramsey would have never been quiet. I’ve never spent a day with Dwayne Hicks where he didn’t have something to say. Shane Wolfe, Bryan Wilson, Matt Moore, Todd Kerns, Jason Jones and I were most likely a little more reserved in the background, but no less defiant to our current situation.
We had lost 2 out of 3 games. Some of these guys had been playing since they could walk, some were late bloomers like myself, but none of us liked losing. We met beneath that little tree we usually prayed under and made promises and commitments to each other that we had each other’s back, that we would not lose another game without giving it everything we had. I remember standing with my teammates and making a commitment to something that was meaningful. Unbeknownst to me, would shape the rest of my life.
The major point is, we had vocal leaders and quiet leaders, but what we really had was a group of seniors who said after going 1-2 to start the year that we were not going out without a fight. I’m sure my memories are incomplete, but what I’m positive about is that under that tree and in that meeting, something magical happened.
A group of diverse young men made a commitment to each other that no matter our differences we would strive as hard as we could for each other on the field. From that point forward I remember no complaining, no degrading a teammate when then messed up on a play, but only a promise to pick each other up, push each other and succeed or fail together – and succeed we did! Defensive shut outs, offensive pounding power football and the fabled desire to “want to.”
I’ve taken the gift of that meeting with me through my entire life and career. I tell my kids that we are “Team Duke.” I only hire people at my firm that can clearly demonstrate “team” and I truly “still believe” in things that are probably impossible.
I want to say a huge “thank you” to my friends and teammates from my senior football class and an even larger “thank you” to the wonderful town of Ripley for adopting a rambling, unfocused 9-year-old kid from Pennsylvania. Both my teammates and my town forever changed who I am and I will never forget it.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Mike Duke. He was a member of the 1986 football team that is being inducted Oct. 5 in the Viking Football Hall of Fame. That season, Ripley advanced to the second round of the Class AAA playoffs, defeating Martinsburg in the first round at Mountaineer Field.
Duke is now a healthcare consultant in North Carolina.