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More than a Game

This Storied Football Town in Ohio is Looking to Revitalize its Stadium — and Fight the Opioid Epidemic

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On a late June afternoon, a slight breeze blew as rolling clouds framed the Kentucky hills on the other side of the Ohio, just a stone’s throw away. A new semi-pro football team called the Portsmouth Stealth gathered in a parking lot outside Portsmouth, Ohio’s Spartan Municipal Stadium, home to an NFL team called the Spartans (and later, the Detroit Lions) from 1930 to 1933. Olympian Jim Thorpe, Hall of Famer Earl “Dutch” Clark, and single-wing tailback Glenn Presnell all played there. The 8,000 seat concrete stadium is one of the oldest NFL structures in the country where football is still played.

“That stadium is football,” Stealth fullback Matt Owens said. “Being an ex-NFL stadium, there’s a certain ambiance, a certain uplifting feeling — you feel the presence of the people who played here and that rich history that’s almost forgotten.”

The concrete is cracking and the bleachers are worse for wear. In some ways, the stadium’s decline has mirrored the economic and social struggles of this Rust Belt town with a dwindling population. In recent years, especially, opioid addiction has ravaged parts of the community.

But now, locals are working to renovate the structure and repurpose the stadium, trying to give it — and the town — renewed energy.

Owens, a Marine veteran raising three children, displays a wisdom beyond his 29 years of age. He said there’s a not a lot for young people to do in Portsmouth so he’s hoping the Stealth can offer young people a positive, healthy distraction. The team wants to use proceeds from ticket sales to support youth sports in the area.

The Stealth is currently in its first season in the semi-pro Blue Collar Football League, but Owens is already inspired by the camaraderie this team has fostered. He said he joined, in part, because he missed playing, but more importantly because he was looking for a community. “We’re not a football team; we’re a family. If you’re in, you’re my brother, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Portsmouth and its storied football history are intertwined, and the team wants to take advantage of that. Rooting for the team, and the stadium, gives people energy to fight against the typical narrative of a dying industrial town. “We fight hard,” Owens said. “We might be down, but we’ll come back.”

Old story, new story

Portsmouth lies at a crossroads for trains, rivers, and highways. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing behemoth, making everything from bricks to steel and shoes to golf clubs. For decades, Shelby Shoe and Empire-Detroit Steel each employed thousands.

Portsmouth Stealth quarterback Duke Edwards drops back to pass during a practice at Municipal Stadium. (Photo: Jack Shuler)

When the Spartans played in the 1930s, Portsmouth was home to about 42,000 people. Over the course of four seasons, the team played the likes of the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. They were trailblazers: In September 1930, the Spartans played one of the earliest night games in the NFL. In 1931, the team finished second to the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay opted out of playing a regular season finale game because if the Spartans had won, they would have been declared league champs.

So the next year, when the Spartans took on the Packers at Municipal Stadium, Spartans coach George “Potsy” Clark wanted to prove they were the better team and made no substitutions during the game — eleven men played both sides of the ball. The Spartans won, 19 to 0, in a game that has since been known as the “Iron Man” game.

The Portsmouth Spartans have been the stuff of legend around this region, winning an impressive 28 games, losing 16, and tying seven. They packed the stadium with adoring fans — an estimated 15,000 watched the Iron Man game.

But in 1934, due in part to the Great Depression, the Spartans were sold off and became the Detroit Lions. The stadium became home to local high school football teams. The city owned the stadium — but with less money in its coffers for upkeep — it deteriorated over the years. In the early 2000s, there were rumors it might be torn down so that the city wouldn’t have to pay for costly repairs.

The Spartans football team is depicted on the Portsmouth flood wall. The murals were originally painted by Robert Dafford. (Photo: Jack Shuler)

By that point, the declining town had more serious concerns than its beloved football stadium. Beginning in the late 1990s, prescription drug abuse gripped the city as doctors dispensed prescriptions for opiates at local cash-only pain clinics, which are often called pill mills. By 2010, 9.7 million doses of opiates were dispensed in Portsmouth’s Scioto County — 23 doses for every man, woman and child in the county. In 2011, the DEA, along with local and state law enforcement, raided the pill mills.

However, the opioid problem never went away. Since the pill mills were shut down, intravenous drug use has soared: Heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanyl were introduced and have since wreaked havoc, as they have around the country. Scioto County has high rates of Hepatitis C, the highest rate of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, and it ranks sixth for rate of fatal overdoses per 100,000 people. Last year, 31 people died from overdoses.

Still, the community keeps coming up with solutions. In early June, just days after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the state would be suing five makers of opioid painkillers for their role in the epidemic, Scioto County Commissioners announced their own lawsuit. Rather than hold the producers accountable, the county has decided to investigate and hold accountable drug distributors. Portsmouth City Council has also announced it will file a similar lawsuit.

Though that’s a step in the right direction, Sean Dunne, a sociology professor at Portsmouth’s Shawnee State University, said it will take more than lawsuits to repair the decades of damage from addiction. He said he believes the community will also have to push against what he calls a “narrative of decline.”

Dunne thinks renovating Spartan Municipal Stadium might be a way to begin that work. He submitted a proposal to help fund renovations to Municipal Stadium to a corporate giving program run by State Farm Insurance called “Neighborhood Assist.”

The proposal competed in a public vote last November with 200 others nationwide and placed second. Dunne and the Spartan Municipal Stadium Renovation Project were awarded $25,000. They rallied a group of volunteers to fix the sprinkler system, install security cameras, and remove graffiti. The group, including boosters from Notre Dame High School, whose football team still plays there, hope to eventually restore the concrete, the bleachers, the track, and the plumbing. But Dunne estimates that will take up to a million dollars.

People tell him that the stadium represents Portsmouth’s great past, Dunne said, but he also thinks it represents the town’s potential in the future. “Communities are made up of social institutions and social interactions, but also stories,” he said. “And if you allow stories to turn on you, if you look at groups that will adopt toxic narratives about themselves—they take it on an agree with it. When we won the grant, that was a great victory.”

He knows it’s going to take more than a football stadium to transform the town, but it’s a start.

A scrappy team and its potential

Just before practice at the stadium that hot June day, it began to rain. Owens and the others headed out to the field anyway. A group of seven or eight players started running their routes, and quarterback Duke Edwards threw on target, even with a sopping wet pigskin.

Last year, Dusty Mogan, Jojo Parker, and Emily Owens started the Stealth team to help get young people off the streets. Mogan is a single mom raising three kids who says she’s also “mom” to the more than 40 young men on the team. She said she hopes the younger players will try to play in college so they can be assured an education.

As she pointed out at Edwards, she said, “He needs to get out of here. I have about five players that have the talent to play in college.” She adds that the Stealth’s placekicker is in the process of trying to walk-on at Marshall University, which sits across the Ohio River in nearby Huntington, West Virginia.

A photo of Portsmouth residents before the March Against Heroin. (Photo: Kortney Calver)

The team is scrappy, but Owens said they’re hard hitters and this team gives them something to work for. “There’s a lot of drugs in the area, a lot of crime,” Owens said. “Not a lot of jobs. Not a lot of options for getting out.”

Basel Cooper, a 21-year-old offensive and defensive lineman, is another type of young person the team is trying to recruit. Cooper played football from middle school through high school, but after graduation he was working a dead-end job, he said. “There was no meaning to anything I did outside of work.”

Then, someone from the Stealth asked him to join the team. Now, he has something to look forward to. “I come out to practice and work hard. I go home, and I feel accomplished,” he said.

While watching the team practice, Mogan lowered her voice almost to a whisper, speaking slowly. “Portsmouth’s been beaten down,” she said. “Sports are not the only way out, but for a lot of kids it is.” She considers this team as her small intervention in the community.

The stadium is breathing new life into Portsmouth in other ways, as well. Last March, recovery activists Kortney Calver, Sarah Gee, and Michael Pack, hosted Ohio’s National March Against Heroin there.

Gee said she wanted to have the event at the stadium because of its historical significance. All the good things about the stadium, and Portsmouth, have “been forgotten about” she said.

For the march, more than 2,000 people attended to hear from musicians and celebrities who are in recovery or have been affected by drugs, like professional skateboarder Brandon Novak and Rodney Lavoie, Jr., from CBS’s “Survivor,” who lost his sister to drug addiction. Organizers gave out scholarships for rehab and raised money to buy doses of the expensive opioid blocker Naloxone for the local health department, which is given to people who overdose.

Attendees marched from Municipal Stadium all through Portsmouth chanting, “We’re here to let you know, heroin has got to go!” and carrying posters that read “Recovery works!” and “Real life angels carry Naloxone.” Marchers paused along the way to talk to folks sitting on their porches, handed out information to strangers, and walked together in support of each other.

The opioid epidemic is growing more serious by the day, but Gee is still hopeful. “Portsmouth is in a better place than it was a decade ago because people are talking about the problem and coming together to address it,” she said. “We’re not just going to sit back and let addiction take over our city.”

Jack Shuler (@jackshuler) is the author of three books including The Thirteenth Turn (Public Affairs, 2014). His writing has appeared in Salon, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio and recently launched betweencoasts.org, an online magazine covering stories from Rust Belt and rural America. 
 

More than a Game

West Virginia’s ‘Bad News Bears’: Chico’s Bail Bonds More a Social Club Than Softball Team

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It’s an early August evening on Libertore Field at White Park in Morgantown. The orange prison jumpsuit jerseys of Chico’s Bail Bonds are impossible to miss — and so is our play. But, that’s not necessarily a compliment.

On this evening, the team loses in typical Chico fashion.

The team name, of course, comes from the 1976 film The Bad News Bears, in which a down-and-out and cheap beer-swigging Walter Matthau coaches a group of rag-tag Little Leaguers and tries to whip them into shape.

Morgantown’s Chico’s aren’t too far off from their fictitious counterparts.

On this night, there are flashes of defensive greatness in the outfield from Chico veteran Sean Kelley and rookie Dave Lawson. A few Chico batters turn infield errors into a few runs, thanks to some heads-up baserunning.

We hold our own against an outmatched and much younger rival, Gene’s Beer Garden, only to crumble when we needed to come through.

But all isn’t lost, as it never is with Chico’s. The night is still young. Win or lose, the team had yet to get to the best part of the Chico’s game-night experience.

Chico’s part-time catcher Eric Ramón strides effortlessly towards first base. The opposing team was likely napping on the field. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Becoming a Chico

I found myself a part of this group of gentleman misfits somewhat by chance, but looking back on it all, it makes perfect sense.

It was a Wednesday night in late winter or early spring of 2017, and I had popped into 123 Pleasant Street after a long day at work. I sat down, looking for some sort of reprieve from the heaviness that can be my job. I stopped in to catch up with my friend, Tyler Grady.

“You said, ‘Hey dude, is there a softball team around here or anything?’ And I don’t remember if I even said anything other than, ‘Come with me — follow me right now,’” recalled Grady, a Morgantown musician, car salesman, entrepreneur and a bartender at 123 Pleasant Street.

Chico’s part-time first baseman and the author of this article swings mightily at a pitch on June 16, 2017. His arms do not normally appear this muscular — although, they do in this photo because of pure grit, determination and zen-like focus. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We walked around the bar and I took you downstairs to the lower bar that was not open at the time. I stood up on the liquor shelf, I climbed up and I got down our trophy that was given to us — the Olivia Newton-John trophy, our 0-and-23 trophy. And I was like, ‘The greatest softball team of all time is here,’ ” Grady, who plays right field, remembers.

The Olivia Newton-John trophy is a reference to Tommy John surgery — a procedure baseball pitchers undergo after tearing a tendon in the elbow of their throwing arm. Any baseball fan surely would get the joke.

I immediately understood the sense of humor that informed Chico’s. I could also tell I didn’t necessarily have to be good — this was about goofing off and having fun.

But Chico’s is an institution — with a history far longer than my two-season career platooning at first base.

Among the many stories of Chico’s lore include a player being picked up from jail to make a game, a player buying an orange Miata and getting a vanity license plate with ‘CHICO84’ and strange nicknames like ‘Meatball.’

A Staple of Morgantown Softball

With just one season under their belt as the Nyabinghi Dance Hall, the team took on the Chico-moniker 20 years ago — in 1998 — the same year the bar took on the name of its address, 123 Pleasant Street.

Morgantown native Louis “LJ” Giuliani took over ownership of the bar and sponsorship of Chico’s. He says Chico’s immediately embodied the open-minded identity of 123.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, straight or gay, or whatever. It’s all kinds that take the field when Chico’s takes the field,” Giuliani said, noting that 123 held the same values from the beginning.

Chico’s utility player Jon Vehse, who works in construction and other odd jobs, remembers the early days of 123 Pleasant Street the same way.

“This bar — especially when it started — it was the bar for everybody that didn’t have a bar. Everybody got along. You know, it was the place for everybody that didn’t have a place. In a lot of ways, Chico’s is kind of like that,” Vehse said.

Chico’s rookie right fielder Dave Lawson rounds first base during a June 6, 2018 game against Davis Cabinetry. The game proved to be the only outright win for Chico’s during their 2018 campaign. His dreadlock-friendly hats and visors are known on the team as a “helmet.” Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting

After 20 years, many Chico’s have come and gone from the team and from Morgantown. But even those who have moved on still stay connected to the team and look back on the early days with fondness.

“It was probably, really, to do something healthier besides sitting in the dark bar. I think to go out and do something that was more participatory and less spectator-driven — because, we all sat around and watch baseball together at that time. So, it was nice for us to go out and do something [and] get out in the sun and see the day together,” said Greg Leatherman, a journalist now living in Florida who was around when the team began.

Morgantown’s Music Scene and 123 Pleasant Street

Giuliani, now retired from the softball field, says Chico’s was always rooted in Morgantown’s music and art scene.

“A lot of the players that they grabbed on to just happened to be musicians. Brian Porterfield, Tom Batchelor, you’ve got Jeff Goodwin who is a musician. He’s playing on the team now,” said Giuliani, recalling some of the players who have exercised their musical talents from the stage at 123 and other local venues.

Softball wasn’t their first talent — nor their second, third or fourth, Giuliani said with a laugh.

Top photos: Tom Batchelor is well known around the region for his work with rock and reggae groups like Rasta Rafiki and The Tom Batchelor Band, as well as his time as a Chico. Bottom: Jeffrey Goodwin has been a part of punk and metal bands such as Law Biting Citizens and Ghost Road. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It was a way to bring like-minded folks [together] that liked talking about music or art or how many shots of Jameson they had. It was based more on like-mindedness,” he explained.

Following each Chico’s game, as it has been since the beginning, the Bonders gather at 123 for cheap beers like Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon — and, as Giuliani mentioned, celebratory shots of Jameson.

For Vehse and other Chico’s, the post-game celebration is the perfect cap — with seemingly disparate people milling about, discussing music, sports, politics and sharing stories of life’s misadventures.

“More often than not, it is the highlight of the evening. But there’s there’s just a certain camaraderie. I think there’s a genuine affection between people,” he said.

Among Chico’s, Vehse is known for his love of curating the music from the jukebox in the lower bar.

“From Beethoven to Bob Wills, from the Rolling Stones to Prince Far I. There’s everything on that jukebox. It is an eclectic evening. It is awesome,” Vehse said of the musical selections.

Chico’s shortstop Jim Antonini (center) and loyal fans hoist a shot of Jameson at 123 Pleasant Street during a post-season party to celebrate a successful 3-25 season. With an expanded roster in 2018, it’s possible the Bonders broke a single-season record for most fluid ounces of alcohol consumed. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Creating the Chico Mythology: Game Summaries Recap the Misery

But, even after a few drinks at 123, a Chico’s game night isn’t over until it’s been recapped and shared on the team’s Facebook group.

Part comedy, part mythology, the game write-ups exaggeratedly highlight the ups-and-downs over an always hard-fought seven innings. If Chico’s doesn’t get clobbered into a 10 or 15-run mercy rule before getting through all 7 innings, that is.

“There’s three of us that have kind of done this and that’s myself, David Forman and Jim Antonini,” Greg Leatherman said. “And, basically, it is sort of like the literary connection to Chico’s softball team — is that we’ve always captured the games win, lose or draw and written up how the game went — in both a serious, professional, sort of sportscaster way but also with a lot of humor.”

Shortstop, team manager, Morgantown native and occupational health science researcher Jim Antonini has taken over the write-ups in recent years.

“It’s the same story and it’s gotten harder to write them — because, we continue to lose. There’s only so many ways you could describe a loss and drinking beer after a softball game,” Antonini explained.

If you were at any given game, you would know what is and isn’t absolutely true. If you weren’t, well, that’s left to your own imagination to decide.

A commemorative Jeff Ryan bobble head sits on the liquor shelf at 123 Pleasant Street. Catcher Eric Ramon gifted Ryan with his bobble-head likeness on Jeff Ryan Bobble Head Night at BOPARC on August 9, 2018. Photo: Jesse Wright/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Here’s one of Antonini’s write-ups from a game back in 2011:

The clock struck midnight. Down 19-18 in the last inning with two outs and two Bonders on, hot-hitting Ethan Wells hit deep, majestic drive to center field, bringing the roaring Chico followers to their feet. To the Bonders’ dismay, the Colasonte’s left center fielder dashed out of the darkness and fog of the thick, hazy summer night and made a diving, stabbing, tumbling, catch — ripping the hearts out of the Chico followers and team members.

In disbelief, first baseman Leatherman retreated to his car and wept — not about the loss, but about the pride he felt for his fellow Bondsman.

On this night, Chico’s were everything they had not been this forgettable season: Daring, hustling, bold, youthful. Not wanting to go home, six or seven Chico’s milled aimlessly around the closing 123 bar at 3 a.m.

An exhausted and worn down Vehse stood over the darkened jukebox — with the power long shut off after last call — still trying to make selections…just wanting to hear Peggy Lee sing “Is That All There Is” one more time.

Another Losing Record, But No Giving Up

Chico’s finished their 2018 campaign with a record of 3 wins and 25 losses. Two of those wins came as a result of a no-show forfeit from the opposing team, while the third came on a gloriously executed 7 innings against Davis Cabinetry.

Such a pathetic record should make anyone reconsider their motivations to keep playing softball. But, if you can’t tell, Chico’s isn’t about winning. Antonini says no matter what happens over the course of a season, it’s hard to imagine hanging it up.

Chico’s Bail Bonds poses for a team photo on June 16, 2018, following a win against Davis Cabinetry. The game served as the team’s only outright win of the 2018 season. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I think every year there’s a point in the year — probably after you’ve played 18, 20 games and it’s like ‘Why are we doing this?’ We come out and sometimes we really get humiliated,” Antonini said. “But, then, the game ends and then you get together and everybody has a few beers and then it’s it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s a pretty good way to spend a night.”

Giuliani, despite having not played in recent years, feels the same.

“Chico’s is kind of a state of mind in the sense that we’re not here to judge, we’re here to support and we’re here to spend time with each other. And that’s the bottom line. We’re a softball team that’s more of a social club than an actual softball team,” Giuliani said.

So, if you ever find yourself around 123 Pleasant Street surrounded by orange softball shirts, you’ll know you’re hanging out with the Chico’s. Buy a few of them a drink and strike up a conversation. After all, we assuredly just got beat.

This story is featured on an upcoming episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast ​Inside Appalachia focused on the impact of baseball throughout the region. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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Gaming Appalachia

‘Fallout’ Video Game Series’ Post-Apocalyptic Vision of West Virginia Might Not Be Worth the Trip

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Video games are often not great at depicting rural life. But all signs indicate that the next game in the “Fallout” series, “Fallout: 76,” is going to be set somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia—for better or worse. The news has been met with a range of responses, from celebratory to cautionary, but either way the short trailer released last week serves as a conscious choice on the part of the game’s developer Bethesda to diverge from expectations that their next big release would continue their popular “Elder Scrolls” series.

Information found in earlier “Fallout” games referring to a “Vault 76” located somewhere in Virginia, as well as a certain iconic West Virginian song making its way into the recent teaser, make it pretty clear that Bethesda is eyeing the Mountain State as the setting for the next big iteration of its best-selling game series.

But while the “Fallout” video game series has never properly given the Appalachian region its unique retrofuturist/post-apocalyptic treatment, the game series’ history of portraying rural areas proves that it might not handle its own vision of West Virginia in a way that’s responsible to the state’s real-life residents.

The “Fallout” series has always been about loss and its implications. The word “fallout” itself has multiple meanings as far as the game’s themes are concerned. Nuclear fallout from a brief but devastating world war results in the physical state of the game’s world (once a gleaming sci-fi utopia, now a decimated landscape dominated by twisting metal and debris), but there’s an altogether different sort of fallout visible in the disastrous condition of so many of that same world’s civilizations and people—namely, that they’ve regressed to a point where killing or attacking strangers has become part of the new post-apocalyptic way of life.

A hefty percentage of the folks who players encounter in the game will either immediately try to kill them or else will ask them to complete some kind of quest on their behalf (at the end of which they may also try to kill the player). But most of them are just trying to survive in any way they can. They’re fighting every day with whatever vaguely weapon-shaped implements they have on hand in order to hold on to what little land they have left. The people of the “Fallout” series’ world are deeply connected to and shaped by their local landscapes, forgotten or ignored by whatever remains of the government, wary of outsiders, and fiercely loyal to whoever (or in some cases, WHATever) they’ve chosen to call their family.

Those images might start to sound pretty familiar to many Southerners, particularly those who have lived or grown up in the Appalachian Mountains. But those hoping that their rural experiences will be responsibly represented in the newest “Fallout” iteration have reason to worry; for an explanation, look no further than “Fallout 3” (the first major game in the series with current developer Bethesda at the helm) and its downloadable content “Point Lookout.”

Set in the Point Lookout State Park region of Maryland on the state’s western shore, the in-game region of ‘”Point Lookout” hardly resembles the present-day region’s outdoorsy New-England-fishing-village vibe.

Instead, the area looks like something out of the movie “Deliverance.”

Deranged “swampfolk” roam the land, killing anyone without “the marks” (disfiguring mutations) and worshipping eldritch gods through blood sacrifices and worse. It’s later explained in-game that the swampfolks’ appearances are the result of intense nuclear radiation as well as (naturally) generations of inbreeding. Much like the horror film “Wrong Turn”, the game trades in on its audience’s preconceived notions of rural residents in order to instill fear and create a feeling of otherness or strangeness in its players. Everything about these enemies is designed to call to mind the “dangerous hillbilly” stereotype, from their threadbare overalls to their broken shouts of “There you is!” when they spot the player character roaming their lands.

Screenshot from the “Fallout 76” teaser trailer on YouTube, from Bethesda Softworks.

These characters are not human, a fact that the game telegraphs to the player in various ways (some more subtle than others). The swampfolk are implied to be capable of trade and interact offscreen with certain non-player characters. Despite this, there is only one true swampfolk character players can interact with directly, and it’s a young boy who has specifically been outcast from the swampfolks’ society due to lacking their distinguishing disfigurements. The way to know in-game who is a friend and who’s a foe starts to become a question of simply who looks the most traditionally “human.”

One of the few humans tolerated by the swampfolk is a local moonshiner, because of course the swampfolk love moonshine. They use scavenged teddy bears, bizarre idols and wood carvings to mark the boundaries of their territory, and occasionally dead swampfolk can be found carrying around human flesh in their pockets. Even the game’s official downloadable editor lists the swampfolk as “creatures” rather than human enemies, despite their ability to speak, obvious culture, and mostly-human appearances. Consistently, the gameplay and story of “Point Lookout” work in tandem to “other” the swampfolk through stereotypical redneck characteristics, only to follow up this othering by dehumanizing them so the player won’t feel bad later about killing dozens and dozens of them over the course of the DLC.

Again, none of this is surprising on its own, given how important it is in a video game to develop a visual language to signal to players who and what their enemies are. But Bethesda’s use of harmful rural stereotypes as a shorthand for “enemy” reinforces these stereotypes within American culture at large, and its dehumanization of the characters that embody these stereotypes can’t help but also dehumanize people in the real world with the same characteristics.

It’s possible, even given this track record, that “Fallout: 76” will pay homage to the Appalachian region’s unique history and traditions without stereotyping and minimizing the culture it depicts, and many in the game industry are hopeful that it will . And to be fair, we’ll all have to wait until Bethesda’s E3 conference on June 10 to know for sure that the game is even set in West Virginia in the first place.

But Bethesda’s past missteps have made it unclear whether or not the company values making the kind of effort required to portray rural working class people with any kind of dignity. And if other recent big budget games like “Far Cry 5” are anything to go by, mass-appeal games still have a long way to go before they’re able to evoke rural themes and imagery without completely flattening or misrepresenting the very folks they’re working so hard to call to mind.

Ryan Scott Morris (@Ryabn_Morse) is a North Carolina writer based in the Research Triangle. He attended Appalachian State University, and his work has appeared in Scalawag Magazine, Show Your Skin, and Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in a little white house with a baby blue porch over a basement full of dying plants.

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More than a Game

Derek Redd: ‘Hot Rod’ Documentary Tells Hundley’s Complete Story

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As Tony Caridi and Dan Lohmann began the journey that ultimately led to their documentary “Hot Rod,” the story of “Hot Rod” Hundley’s life through childhood and his legendary careers as both basketball player and broadcaster, they knew they had a great story.

It was in the middle of that journey that they realized just how poignant this story was.

The result is a 92-minute journey through highs and lows, the bright times and dark times of a West Virginia legend, the most complete and compelling study of “Hot Rod’s” life.

The seeds of the project were planted days after Hundley’s death in 2015. Lohmann, the documentary’s director and director of photography, and Caridi, a producer of the documentary along with Lohmann, started talking about the legend’s life. Lohmann had lived in Salt Lake City for nine months working on the broadcast of the 2002 Winter Olympics. There, he realized how beloved Hundley had become as the Utah Jazz play-by-play broadcaster, a job he held for 35 years and earned him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I always thought that, to me, the story was the people in West Virginia knew him as a great player and never knew how great a broadcaster he had become,” Caridi said. “People in Utah knew him as a broadcaster but never knew how great of a player he was.”

So the two began talking to seminal names in basketball and broadcasting to craft that report. In that regard, the documentary sports an all-star team — legendary broadcasters like Jim Nantz and Dick Enberg, legendary players and executives like Jerry West, former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, former Jazz coach/executive Frank Layden and former Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo.

They discussed Hundley’s wizardry on the court and the antics that made him Bunyanesque in Morgantown, then his transition from player to play-by-play, a rare move that Hundley made with exceptional results.

They talked about his ebullient personality and his wide smile. They joked about the 6-foot-4 former guard’s alligator arms when it came to picking up the check and his status as “America’s Guest.” They discussed his decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet, as often happens in investigations of this depth, a handful of interviews led that story to evolve into something so much more. The voices that drove the documentary down a new path came from Hundley’s daughters — Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer.

They talked about his absence as a father in their childhood, his unfaithfulness as a husband to their mother. And that allowed the documentary to delve into Hundley’s own upbringing — how his parents split when he was young, his father didn’t see him until a month after his birth and how he was passed from family to family in Charleston as a child.

“When we sat down with the daughters, we had an idea about what they were going to talk about, but we really didn’t know,” Lohmann said. “In spending that time with them, the morning after his statue was unveiled [at the WVU Coliseum], that was the time we found out that Hot Rod had so much more of a texture to him than so many people knew about.”

It was then that Lohmann and Caridi realized what they had — everything. The complete story. A story no one else really had, how Hundley used that beaming smile and his hilarious antics his entire life to hide the pain he could never completely escape. And they knew it was their responsibility to properly tell it.

They accomplished that mission, as they learned while watching the audience watch the documentary at its Wednesday premiere at the Clay Center.

“You heard sobs,” Caridi said. “You heard laughter. You heard applause. It was great. I think people really liked it. And that’s why you do it.”

The documentary debuts on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and that station will show the project at least two dozen times over the next 12 months. It also will be shown on other AT&T SportsNet properties around the country. It debuts on West Virginia Public Broadcasting at 8 p.m. April 16, and will show the documentary at least 48 times over the next 12 months.

That makes Caridi and Lohmann happy, too. They’ve created a documentary that tells the real story of a legend, one that is distinctly West Virginian.

“He’s the great American story, but he’s the great West Virginia story,” Lohmann said. “West Virginians by nature are a proud bunch. We’re real. And that’s something that he was. He did things that no one had ever done and will ever do again. How many people can say that in sports? And he’s one of our own.”

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