28 years ago, the community of Wheelersburg celebrated their first state football championship.
Now, in 2017, the Pirates are once more state champions.
The 1989 Wheelersburg football team, and the teams who came before that, ultimately established the tradition that is Wheelersburg football.
Getting to that first state championship seemed like a tall task, especially since the ’89 Pirates trailed at halftime in every playoff game they played.
That Wheelersburg team had a little extra motivation to keep fighting, though.
In week 10 of the season, senior Eric Wallace suffered a brain injury in a game against Washington Courthouse. The lives of Wallace and his teammates were changed forever that night.
“There were two times I saw [Coach Ed Miller] have tears in his eyes, and that was the first,” said Steven Hamilton, a senior on the 1989 team. “He told us “Men, if you’ve never prayed before, you go home and you pray tonight.” He let us be aware that they life flighted Eric to Grant Hospital in Columbus to the trauma center.”
“That’s when it donned upon us that hey this is serious.”
Hamilton and his fellow seniors had made a promise in junior high that they would win a state title as seniors in high school.
“In seventh grade ball, we traveled to Ironton for just a seventh-grade game in junior high, and we beat Ironton,” Hamilton said. “On the bus ride on the way back to the ‘Burg, that’s when we all vowed. We said when we’re seniors, we’re going to win the state championship.”
Now, they had other, more pressing issues at hand. The health of their friend and teammate was in question, and it was hard to think about the game of football.
“We would take turns after practice during the week, and after practice we would drive two hours up to Grant Hospital to see him,” Hamilton said.
Playing football seemed like just an afterthought at this point, but the team knew that Wallace would want them to accomplish the goal they had set.
“Going into the playoffs we had that to deal with and that really gave us the incentive to play harder I think,” said Jimmy Carver, a junior split end and defensive back on that team.
That extra incentive gave the Pirates the edge they needed to go all the way in the playoffs. Little did they know, they would soon be playing football in the city of Columbus for a championship.
“If he had not gotten hurt, I don’t know if we would have won the state that year,” Hamilton said. “That kind of motivated us over the bar, we won that for him.”
“We just played above our level because we wanted to win for Eric.”
An incredible postseason run matched Wheelersburg up with Warren John F. Kennedy in the 1989 Division IV championship game.
The Eagles of John F. Kennedy High School looked to be a difficult obstacle to overcome, standing in the way of a state title.
“They had two big offensive tackles and a big fullback,” said Matt Williams, who was a senior lineman on the team. “I believe one tackle went to Ohio State, and another went to division one. They were a big team.”
“I think everyone just had the mindset that it’s just another game. Just go and hopefully everything works out.”
Again, the Pirates trailed early in the game.
“That team had a lot of heart,” said Chris Risner, a senior running back/safety and captain said about the ’89 squad. “There were several games we were behind, but we always found a way to suck it up and pull out a win in the end of it.”
Risner had the big play in the game to tie the score before halftime.
“I lined up as a tackle eligible,” Risner said. “I went down the field for a pass, and Matt [Miller] the quarterback put the pass right on the money. I was wide open, and really just kind of walked right into the end zone.”
“I thought that that got us back in the ball game. We could fight, and we could win that ball game.”
Much like this year’s Wheelersburg team, the ’89 Pirates got a big lift from a trick play in the title game.
Carver remembers the play clear as day.
“I stepped back off the line to get in the proper position, and then ran a quick route to pull the corner back up on me,” Carver said. “I looked at him and said “touchdown” and turned around, and Risner was catching the ball and gone.”
Hamilton recalled a play later in the game that stuck out in his mind.
“It was late in the fourth quarter, and Mark Miller intercepted a pass,” Hamilton said. “We got the ball back, and there wasn’t much time left and we knew at that point we had it wrapped up.”
“We were in victory formation, and the clock stopped. We all looked up at the scoreboard, and Eric’s number was 36. We looked up, and the clock had stopped and it had exactly 36 seconds on it.”
As the game came to a close, the realization was there that Wheelersburg had won the 1989 state championship by a score of 14-7.
“It was the most emotional time that I ever remember,” Hamilton said. “Those senior guys, we played together for eight years and that was our final year playing together.”
Along with Carver, Hamilton did a little celebrating after the game had ended.
“Me and Steve Hamilton before the game promised each other that we would meet on the 50-yard line afterwards,” Carver said. “It happened to be the Big Ten emblem, the block O with the Big Ten emblem, and me and him met there after the game and broke it down and did a little dance.”
Fast forward 28 years, and now the players were watching this year’s Wheelersburg team from the stands in Canton as they pursued the second state title in school history.
“I was there with the ring on and the same jersey I had on when I won mine,” Carver said. “I was so proud of those kids, and I wanted it for them so bad. I always told them it’s lonely at the top, we need someone up there with us.”
Others, like Hamilton, played a big role in the development of the 2017 team. Hamilton coached many of the seniors in sixth grade, and recounts a little motivational tactic of his own from his coaching days.
“I wanted to motivate these guys,” Hamilton said. “On the first day of practice, I brought my old state champ ring and I broke it out when I started talking to them.”
“I said “if you guys play as a team, and you work really hard, you guys can get one of these yourself.” I was just so proud of those kids, I remember every one of them. They worked really hard together, and I knew it was possible or I wouldn’t have taken my ring in and said you guys can get one of these through hard work.”
Regardless of the role they played on the team or within the program, every member of the 1989 team and all the other teams in Wheelersburg history are a part of a special school.
“We’re all like a big family, whether you played 30 years ago or you played this season,” Hamilton said. “It doesn’t matter, all the ‘Burg football players it’s like we belong to a family.”
Not only are the players special, but the students and fans play just as big of a role in the success of all the Pirates teams.
“I think we’ve got a very good fanbase,” Williams said. “We travel well, it’s not just parents. Past players and students still keep up with what the football team is doing, and we take pretty good pride in how well the kids play.”
Really, the entire community of Wheelersburg is involved when it comes to the school.
“The community is amazing when it comes to sports and who we are,” Carver said. “We’re always standing behind each other, and we’re a great community. We really are.”
Over the years, the Pirates have produced many great teams. Most importantly, they’ve created winners off the field, and it’s all thanks to a town that never stops believing and never gives in.