The Tide Rolls Down from West Virginia
The sports world takes note of Monongah, W. Va., for only one reason: It’s where Alabama football coach Nick Saban grew up. But only the people who live there know the deeper stories — the ones buried in the mines and the ones carried in the hearts of those who played ball for Saban’s daddy.
Nick Saban’s spirit lives here, among the swirls of cigarette smoke and dim lights of a bar that occupies the bottom floor of a woman named Karen’s house.
The bar is called Prunty’s Pub. Late on a Saturday afternoon shortly after Christmas, it’s filled with locals from the area around the small coal-mining town of Monongah, W. Va. They watch whatever no-name bowl games play on the bar’s television, biding time until the College Football Playoff begins, when they will watch the Alabama Crimson Tide get upset by Ohio State, seeing their town’s most famous son fail in his bid to win the Tide a fourth national championship in six seasons.
There is only one small bar up front. Locals sit in front of it and stand behind it, too, because everyone who’s in here is from around here and know the people they’re paying to serve them beer. A pool table stands in the middle of the room. There is a framed West Virginia University football jersey and a Marshall one too, symbols of West Virginia pride and the proud people who root for their hometown teams.
There, against the back wall, is a framed newspaper clipping. It’s from the Monongah High’s 1968 State Football Championship victory over Paden City, because when the high school was still here — before enrollment dwindled back in 1979 and it was consolidated with three other schools — the Monongah Lions were closer to a hometown team than West Virginia or Marshall could ever be. But that was long ago and now their quarterback, a boy named Nick Saban, is long gone.
In the bottom left corner there’s a photograph of two boys. On the right is a smiling Nick Saban, arm cocked back ready to throw. To the left is Tom Hulderman, a boyish-looking wide receiver, catching a pass over his right shoulder. He was one of Nick’s favorite targets and one of his good friends, too. Above them, there’s a roster that lists the other 29 players on the offense.
There are 31 names in all.
Twenty-eight of them still live — or are buried — right here in West Virginia.
Downtown Monongah. Marion County, W. Va.
Nick Saban went to school in Monongah, a small coal-mining town in North Central West Virginia. Here in this blue-collar pocket of the world are the hard-working boys of harder-working fathers, sons of coal-mining country, where work ethic is learned in the unforgiving heat of the deep, dark mines. Nick Saban was always going to be the best coach in college football because he simply works harder. That's the story the national media like to tell.
But truth is complicated and lines are rarely straight. It’s easier to think of a place in terms of the clichés that define it than it is to actually try to understand it, and for those not from there, West Virginia exists almost wholly in terms of them.
The truth is that Nick Saban should be there in that bar, too. People from West Virginia find comfort and security in its hills and never leave. Those who leave come home again. But Nick doesn’t. He’s hundreds of miles away working, already planning how to get his team back to the College Football Playoff again next year. When he does, it will once again open a window onto this pocket of the world no outsider really understands. Because every time Saban steps on the sidelines he tells the story of his hometown, the place that forged the man he left to become.
It’s a story that can only be understood by looking at the ghosts and memories Nick Saban left in Monongah, trapped inside a place no one ever leaves behind.
Tom Hulderman leans forward in his rocking chair, hands on his knees, staring at the television.
He sits in front of the American flag the military gave his mom at his dad’s funeral. The room smells like cigarette smoke. A grandfather clock ticks in the background, measuring the distance between where he sits now and the long-ago time he watches on the screen.
A tape of the games from the 1968 Monongah High Lions’ State Championship season plays in black and white, and a young Tom Hulderman catches a ball on the far sidelines. He tears off downfield. No one touches him.
“Yeah, God blessed me with some deer legs,” he says. “That’s for sure.
It was one of many touchdown passes Tom caught from Nick Saban. Saban was one of Hulderman’s best friends growing up and a man he, like everyone around here, calls Brother.
The two of them have been friends for 55 or 56 years, says Tom. He’s 64 but looks older. When he breathes, you can hear fluid in his lungs. When he coughs, it’s worse. His eyes are still a beautiful pale blue.
When they met more than a half-century ago, Saban gave him a ride on his burgundy-colored bike. He pedaled past him, his tongue out, bouncing across the grass, and Tom was jealous.
“I didn’t have a damn bike,” he says, jokingly.
Growing up, they played Little League baseball together, and then football when Saban’s dad, Nick Sr., started a youth football team in the local Pop Warner league. They went to East Monongah Junior High together and then Monongah High, where, with standout running back Kerry Marbury, they lead the 1968 team to the state title.
Plays keep running off, one after another, on the screen, inching closer to the 1968 championship game at the end of the tape. Tom remembers every play.
“If I’m not mistaken, I think they’re gonna punt the ball to Kerry and he’s gonna hand it off to me or something.”
It happens exactly as he says.
Tom Hulderman, star wide receiver to quarterback Nick Saban on the 1968 state champion Monongah Lions.
Tom is a big man with big ears and big hands. He’s funny and friendly and doesn’t take anything too seriously. When he’s not up wandering the house, he’s in the rocking chair with his eyes on the screen. He can remember everyone on his team. They still get together sometimes. Most still live around here.
He played defense too as a strong safety, and his picture sits back behind the chairs facing the TV, on the ledge of the piano in the back of the room. Standing in front of a muddied field, he has a full head of blond hair and the same big ears. His fists are clenched and you can see a vein in his left forearm. If he’s trying to look fierce, he’s not doing a good job. He looks happy.
He wears a WVU hat now, hiding what’s left of the blond-white hair, and a blue shirt with yellow trim — also Mountaineers colors — tucked into white Nike athletic shorts. He has his dentures in. He looks happy now, too.
On the screen the quarterback for the other team floats an aimless pass, exposing his receiver to a big hit from the human-seeking missile Tom Hulderman used to be. He does it again a few plays later.
“I told the quarterback you’re gonna get him killed,” he jokes.
The tape plays like it’s on a loop, with the three best players starring on both sides of the ball. Kerry Marbury returns a punt or opens up a big run to score. Saban passes to Tom who runs it up the sideline for a touchdown. Saban runs it up the middle on a quarterback keeper. Tom lays a big hit on defense. Saban — who played outside linebacker as well as QB — forces a fumble.
Tom kicked the extra points, too, and on one, an opposing player lays a cheap shot on Saban, his holder. No flag.
“I’m a pay his ass back here in a second.”
A few black and white shots later and he delivers on his promise, knocking a player on the opposite team to the ground after the whistle. Because you can’t have a friend nicknamed “Brother” and not hit back.
“He deserved it,” Tom says.
Tom also remembers the passes he dropped and the blocks he missed and touchdowns he didn’t quite score, tripping up just a few yards short, and he points those out, too. No joy of accomplishment outlasts the sting of missed opportunity. After years and years of replaying those images — both on this television and on the smaller one in his memory — the tracks are worn deep.
Suddenly the screen flashes to color. It’s the state championship game.
Monongah High’s coach, Earl Keener, made them scrimmage the night before. Saban faked a handoff to Kerry like it was going to be a running play, but then threw it to Tom across the middle. He caught it and attempted to evade some tacklers. A teammate rolled into him, ripping the ACL out from one of his prized deer legs. Every time they tried to put his knee back in place, he passed out cold from the pain.
By the time of the state championship the next day, they managed to finally get it back in place. His dad told Coach Keener it’d be okay if he played.
He lifts up his baggy white shorts to show the scar.
Tape of the championship ’68 season playing behind Hulderman in his home in Idamay, W. Va.
This DVD is going to end the same way it always does, with the Monongah Lions winning the 1968 state championship. And you can’t help but wonder what a man like that might be thinking right then or late at night if he watches this tape and he remembers what it was like years before when he and his friend teamed up to win a state championship. The case where he keeps the DVD sits right beneath a copy of “Brian’s Song.”
“Makes you miss the guys,” he says, and it begins to make sense why he played that day.
They won the championship, beating Paden City 20-12.
Tom’s knee was ruined. He never went on to play college football at Alabama, where he had a scholarship waiting for him, and which his good friend — and his quarterback — might one day leave as the greatest college football coach to ever live.
Instead, he got drafted by Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs out of high school, and spent four and a half years in their farm system before a broken wrist ended that career, too. He went back to school, but realized when he got out that he’d make more working in the mines. He did what many here do.
He came home.
Mount Calvary Cemetery, across the road from coal-camp houses in Monongah.
Willie Criado was sitting in the stands with Nick Saban Sr. for that 1968 game.
When Monongah won, a man turned to him and said, “Nick, that’s your team down there.”
Many of the kids on that Lions team had been part of the youth football team Nick and Willie had started six years before in 1962, the Black Diamonds, a reference to the coal being mined under the earth they played on. The pair helped start the local Pop Warner team, but they weren’t supposed to coach it too. When they went down to see how many kids were signing up, the college kids who were supposed to coach never showed.
“Think I oughta go down there and get them to do something?” Nick asked Willie. “Like straddle hops?”
Straddle hops turned into full-time coaching, and Willie joined soon too, taking some of the small kids and teaching them how to get down in a stance. Before long, they were practicing every day, and Nick had provided uniforms and a bus he scribbled motivational sayings into and drove down in hollows and all across Marion County, out to Fairview about 25 minutes away, picking up the kids and then dropping them off again after practice. He gave money to kids who needed new shoes and bought them food too.
They didn’t win much their first year. Willie says they won once. Tom says they never lost by less than 30, though he did score the first touchdown that year. Two years later, they didn’t concede a point.
Willie says the best all-around player on the team was a skinny kid named Tom Hulderman.
“He could play anything,” Willie says.
The boy who could play anything left Monongah, but he came home again. Willie was in the military for a time, but then he came home too.
He lives in the same house he grew up in, across the road from the post office he worked in for 38 years, and down the street from the field where he and his best friend built a small group of local boys into a Pop Warner powerhouse.
Follow the winding roads of US-19 west out of Monongah, and down the hill past Prunty’s Pub. It stretches out of Monongah’s limits and into Worthington where Saban grew up. Take a right on WV-218 past his house, and follow Helen Run’s Creek — “crick” as Willie says — north past Carolina, population 411, and then into Idamay, population 611. He lives in a coal company house on the side of a hill opposite an empty field that used to be the No. 44 Mine of Bethlehem Mines, where his father worked.
It’s here on a light brown couch that Willie talks about Nick Saban Sr. He’s not crying but the corners of his eyes are wet.
Willie Criado at home in Idamay.
They shared locker No. 4 at Farmington High School and became friends. Both were forwards on the basketball team and after practice sometimes they’d wait to see if the Carnation milk truck would pass. If it did they’d hop on the back bumper and ride it to the top of the hill where they’d jump off and run all the way home, Willie to Idamay and Nick further south to Carolina where his dad worked in a mine too. If not, someone would usually drive along and pick them up, because people weren’t afraid to do that then, he says, like a man who lost a friend and is now losing a world he used to know.
When Willie talks about Nick Sr., he gets quiet and his tired, gray eyes stare at the opposite wall because it can’t talk back and maybe that hurts less. He talks slowly and deliberately. He strokes the hair that’s slicked down the sides of his heads or he folds his hands in his lap, nervously pulling at his fingers.
Willie and Nick coached a youth baseball team too. After the last game of their season in 1973, Nick Sr. told the kids he wasn’t sure if he’d be back next year to coach. That wasn’t like him, Willie knew.
He didn’t think anything of it until a few weeks later when they went to watch a high school football game.
“I went to the doctor today,” Nick Sr. told Willie.
He told the doctor he was done with the baseball season, and the doctor told him that was good because they could start getting him better, since he was having some issues with his heart. Well, I got football practice the first of August, he told the doctor. The doctor told him he couldn’t coach, that he couldn’t afford to get upset and get mad.
“You know what he’s tellin’ you, Nick?” Willie asked. “He’s telling you you got the Black Diamonds on this scale, you’re on the other one. It’s what you wanna do.
“You wanna coach, it might be the last thing you gonna do,” Willie said.
But Nick Sr. kept coaching because he didn’t know how to quit; because he loved the program and working the hard-nosed kids he had in it.
“We used to have tears running down our eyes,” says Tom. “He knows your heart is in the game once you do that.”
Eight weeks into the season he died of a heart attack jogging home the same way he used to do with his friend Willie. He worked himself to death.
Those kids gave him their heart. And he gave them his, too.
Saban memorabilia in Fly's Bar and Grill, which occupies the former Dairy Queen that was run by Saban's mother Mary in Worthington, W. Va.
Nick Saban Sr. Memorial Field stands less than a mile from Willie’s house and not much more than two miles from the place where he collapsed. Tom’s house is right across the abandoned field where Willie’s dad’s mine used to be, close enough that he can still walk to the ballfield.
It’s down a road marked by a green sign saying “Ballfield” and up to the right, tucked behind a church. The Pop Warner team’s black and orange colors are painted on all the things that weren’t there when Nick and Willie first started: the concession stand, the bleachers, the swing set, the press box. It’s quiet up here and smells like grass. The field is set down in a bowl, and woods rise up behind it. Houses line the ridge to the right. The people who live there don’t have kids who play, but they come out and watch anyway. To the left on the far side of the field is The Hill, the one Nick Sr. used to make his players kids run up and down until well past dark.
The new president of the now 52-year-old Black Diamonds is Jeremy White. It’s his first year. He’s 35 with long brown hair that he’s pulled back and tucked under a hat, and a scraggly, brown beard. He wears jeans and a stained Black Diamonds hoodie. His Black Diamonds hat looks newer. He’s animated and quick to smile through a mouth full of chaw. He’s from nearby in Farmington but never played. He grew up in Louisiana and only came back when he was 22 or 23. He picks up trash as he walks the field.
“Every practice we run to the top of it,” he says, nodding towards The Hill.
When he goes to work at Wholesale Carpet, he tells his coworkers, many of whom played with Nick Jr. and for Nick Sr. and still live around the area, about the hill runs they still do.
No you don’t, they say. Not the way we used to.
Now the Black Diamonds are an association with three different levels of teams: flag, peewee and midget. They have cheerleaders. Unlike other teams nearby that charge hundreds of dollars, Jeremy only asks for $10. When kids can’t pay, they still play, and he doesn’t ask for the money because Nick Sr. never would have either.
Most people who play are the children or grandchildren of former Black Diamonds. They still show up to volunteer or coach. Jeremy credits the community with keeping the team alive. That, and the $5,000 Nick sends from Tuscaloosa every year, a faraway son trying to keep alive the hometown dreams of an even more distant father.
Jeremy was just laying carpet for a man who had just moved back to town. He used to play for the Black Diamonds. Although he didn’t have any kids old enough to play, he still wanted to know if he could help.
Last season, there were 13 coaches for three teams, 10 of whom used to play here, 11 or 12 of whom had kids on the team, old men watching the young men they used to be.
Back in the day, only Nick and Willie coached. Parents weren’t allowed on the field.
“Every boy got a coach,” Willie says now at his house, down the road. “He takes his boy out there so he gets to play, he becomes the coach. I don’t like that.”
He doesn’t go to games anymore. When the team went back to the field in the weeks after Nick Sr.’s death, he didn’t.
“I just couldn’t. I guess we were just too close, there were just too many memories and all that kind of stuff.”
They don’t coach the way he used to now anyway. Kerry Marbury led the 1969 Monongah High team to another state championship in the year after Nick and Tommy graduated, before going on to become an standout running back at West Virginia. Years later, he came back home and coached here too.
Sometimes, when Willie still came to watch, Kerry would come up and ask him, “Willie, is that the way we looked, the way they’re doing now?”
“No,” Willie would say.
It’s something Tom echoed too.
“There’s no more get down and get dirty,” he’d say.
The Black Diamonds are long removed from the years of 36- and 39-game winning streaks. Jeremy says last year 37 kids played flag, and only 22 returned to play full-contact peewee. New kids showed up to make up the difference, but parents are worried about concussions these days. Jeremy’s son, J.J., is 9, and he’s not sure if he’ll play next year either. He’s small.
There are storage tubs somewhere with trophies from the dominant teams of the early years. The bus Nick Sr. used to drive around to pick up kids is gone — no one’s sure where — and the slogans he used to write in its interior now exist only in local lore, and on the pieces of paper where he used to write them down. His daughter, Nick’s sister Dene, lives nearby and keeps them in the basement.
They wanted to put some of them on a sign, up on The Hill. There was talk of hanging some of the banners too.
Tom didn’t like that idea.
“I got to thinkin’, you know, what’s on that hill?” he asks. “It's already on that hill. Blood, sweat and tears.”
Jeremy told me sometimes he’d see Tom wandering up here, probably searching in the faded lines and muddied field for the same thing he sees in the tape of that 1968 championship season. It’s something that was in Nick Sr. and all the boys who played for him, and it’s something that’s becoming harder and harder to find.
The resting place of Nick Saban Sr., Fairmont, W. Va.: "No man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child."
After Tom Hulderman’s mom died, he took the mulberry switch she used to hit him with and hung it up on the wall, right under a cross and above the television where he watches his old team win the 1968 state championship. He says she made it extra long so she could hit you around corners. It's a symbol of the thing he says his mother took a little bit of when she passed away.
“It’s called grit,” he said.
She was a hellfire-and-brimstone woman, as many were in this area. The dads mined coals and the moms ran the homes. They were strong because they had to be and they were God-fearing because they’d seen what He could do.
Harry Seese, Hulderman’s great uncle, had been killed in a mine explosion. Then when the Farmington’s Consol No. 9 mine exploded in 1968, killing 78, he lost another uncle. Tom’s father had been laid off from the No. 9 mine before, but there was an opportunity to come back in the weeks before that fateful November day. Wait a couple of weeks, Tom’s mother said. Then you can go work over at Loveridge in Fairview. So he waited to go to a different mine. The explosion in No. 9 happened during the shift he would have been working.
Her birthday wasn’t until August, but Tom told her in March 2014 he wanted to get her an early, early birthday present. It was 10 at night.
She said she didn’t think that would be possible.
Tom went to bed, but woke up at 2:30, troubled by what his mom had said.
The next morning he fixed her an egg, bacon and coffee.
“What’d you mean it was impossible to get you an early, early birthday present?” he asked.
“Tom,” she said, looking at him. “What I want for my early, early birthday present is to see Jesus before August 17.”
She wasn’t sick, Tom says now.
Three weeks later, he told his mom he was going outside to smoke.
"I’ll be right back," he said.
He came back, got a drink of water and walked into her room to find her dead. He gave her mouth-to-mouth 21 or 22 times. He knew she was at peace. But he also knew that when she departed, she took something of the world he used to know.
When the coroner came to take her body away, Tom went to a place that felt like home: the baseball diamond in Carolina where he and Saban grew up playing Little League. And he picked up some dirt.
He brought that dirt home and when she was buried up the road in Shinnston, he said a few words and then he took the little bit of the earth where he’d learned to play baseball with Nick Saban and emptied it into the hole where they laid his mother’s body and a little bit of the grit she took with her.
Tom Hulderman takes a Christmas poinsettia to Saban Sr.'s grave.
It’s just before twilight in the Mount Calvary cemetery, and the western edge of the blue sky is splashed with shades of orange and yellow. It’s cold and getting colder. Fires still burn deep in the mines and it smells like coal.
Tom’s mother is just one more in a long list of bodies hiding under these hills that began long before — and will continue long after — the morning of Dec. 6, 1907, when Fairmont Coal Company’s two mines in Monongah blew up, which killed, depending on whose estimate one believes, between 360 and 500 miners, and left many more West Virginia kids without their daddies.
After the earth had exploded out from underneath them, after they’d searched for days for men, pulling hundreds out and leaving hundreds more behind, those remaining in Monongah buried their dead here in this hillside, and then took their tired heads and broken hearts home to go on living in the hills that had swallowed their boys.
They tried to separate the graves by ethnic groups but so many were left unidentified that it was impossible. The land had taken their lives and their identities too, leaving only a blank space in a family tree.
Company houses line the road at the bottom of the hill. Catherine Davis’ house is lit up in Christmas lights. She died long ago, leaving behind a massive pile of coal in her backyard. She lost her husband in the explosions and for decades after she used to walk to the mine and get a piece of coal, because if she couldn’t have her husband at least she could have that. Maybe there was something of him in there.
Many graves weren’t marked, and as the people of Monongah endured and became who they could and died, they buried them here too. Now the cemetery consisted mostly of graves of the people who’d lived in the disaster’s wake.
There was one man whom rescuers did save. His name was Peter Urban and he was found sitting on his brother Stanislaus’ body. After the explosion, they’d tried to run, but his brother fell and couldn’t keep going. Peter sat with him.
Peter recovered and went back to work in the mines. The Monongah mines re-opened and he was still there 19 years later, when he died in a cave-in, buried by the same earth they’d pulled him out of once before.
The light in the cemetery is fading quickly, but a headstone near the bottom reads, “Urban.” There are markers for Julianna and Michael and Father and Mother. And one for Andrew, born in 1906, the year before the explosion. He died in 2005.
The state motto is Montani Semper Liberi. “Mountaineers are always free.” But they aren’t. They’re beholden to the land and mountains they helped build, and the flesh and bones of those who labored and sacrificed to help them build it.
Husbands and fathers, brothers and sons, go down into the earth never to come up again. And when that happens, the family remains, but the earth swallows them too.
They can’t ever leave this place.
Sealed mine portals, Monongah.
In the first light of a cold morning in Monongah, a statue of a woman stands at the corner of Bridge Street and Main Avenue.
She stands in front of a row of beautiful brick buildings. They, like the nearby coal mines, are empty and shuttered, left in the wake of departing industry. Birds chirp in a clear, blue sky, and it smells like burnt wood. Smoke rises from nearby houses and the occasional truck rolls through, over the bridge and up into the thawing hills under a rising sun.
She is the Monongah Heroine and she stands as a reminder of that deadly mine explosion more than 107 years ago, and of the heartbreak and blood that runs underneath the rolling hills of West Virginia. Her young daughter holds her hip and looks skyward, where God is supposed to be.
They lost so much that day but they gained something too. There was a community forged inside the mines by the men who worked together, and outside by the families who leaned on each other. There was a toughness and a love of family, which mother and fathers passed down to theirs kids. And with each new body that goes into the ground they lose a little bit more of it.
Above, monuments to the 1907 Monongah Mining Disaster, downtown Monongah. Below, West Fork River, Worthington, W. Va.
But it lives on in the people here, and it lives on in Nick Saban too. He stands for a West Virginia they all helped build, where parents worked and died, and where their kids grew up playing football and living by its lessons. It’s a West Virginia that exists outside of the clichés that define it. People here know that it exists, even if no one else does. And when they — and the rest of the world — see Nick Saban through the television, on a field hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, they know that it’s important, too. Because he’s there, but he’s from here.
Across the street from the statue stands an abandoned gray, brick building. On the outside wall hangs one of those signs seen mostly outside of seedy dive bars. It has an arrow on top of it, pointing toward the door, and a big white front to hang letters. It’s plugged in but not lit, and the words are not made of big, bold black letters, but written on in red marker.
“This place matters!” it says.