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Rams: From Fairfax Field to NCAA championship game

By Staff | Sep 1, 2017

Students grouped together at smallish Fairfax Field for Shepherd football games in the 1920s through the 1950s.

There was really no West Campus, only Miller Hall, the school president’s home and Fairfax Field, where both football and baseball were attempted.

The field was lumpy and could be muddy by mid-November. A wooden grandstand on one side had a roof and one end zone was ominously bordered by a stone wall that was just in front of the president’s residence and Miller Hall, a solid brick dormitory.

Shepherd football was coached by John Newcome. Shepherd basketball was coached by John Newcome.

The Rams never played more than eight games in the years before World War II. Road trips of any distance were few. The roads were tangled with curves and deer, so Shepherd found non-college opponents in Martinsburg, Sharpsburg and against fire companies that could get to Shepherdstown without going by train.

Attending games for the few hundred students that were enrolled was a social event.

Athletic scholarships did not exist. Many of the players hailed from West Virginia and most were going to be teachers or coaches.

The seasons would start in late September and be completed by the second Saturday in November. Winning seasons would not bring a bowl game or a bid to a postseason playoff game.

Even when the Rams were 8-0 in 1955, there was no playoff or championship game awaiting the men of Coach Don Fouss.

Uniforms might be used for a half-dozen years and helmets were made of leather and didn’t have face masks to protect teeth and noses.

Eventually, Shepherd football moved across the highway to its present-day location. There was no hullabaloo or West Virginia Senators throwing out the first pigskin to commemorate the move.

The field was grass with fewer lumps, but the stands were still only on one side. On the visitors side of the place, a significant hill rose behind the alien bench. Folding chairs, blankets and hurled epithets aimed at the visitors were as common as seeing Fairmont, Concord and Salem College.

More WVIAC schools dotted the 10-game schedules.

Jesse Riggleman was Shepherd’s much-liked coach. He couldn’t offer football grants and his recruiting budget consisted mostly of a shoestring and the promise of a part-time job in the school cafeteria.

Jesse’s boys came from “out back of Romney”, nearby schools in Virginia and Maryland and most were small for their positions on the line.

One of Jesse’s chief supporters was Charlie Kave, a Shepherdstown resident who might peddle his three-wheel bicycle over to practices.

Shepherd went years and years without a conference championship and there were no rumblings among alumni about the antiquated facilities, including the dressing rooms in Sara Cree Hall’s lower floor. There was no weight room, no training table meals, no keeping up with the Joneses.

In 1971, Walter Barr, a former Ram quarterback took the head football job. Kave was still attending practices on a regular basis. He was even secreted away in the baggage-carrying area of a bus that took the team to Cleveland, Ohio for a game. Before suffocating, Kave was removed from his cramped position and rode the rest of the way on to Cleveland with the players.

Kave’s bicycle can be found standing in the corner of the end zone near the present-day Kenneth Boone locker facilities at Ram Stadium.

Barr brought three conference titles in his 15 season, as well as postseason play and 104 wins. He coached Wayne Wilson, a running back who played and started in the NFL.

In the mid 1980s, Shepherd hired current coach Monte Cater. Cater has meant national recognition for the program.

Currently, Cater has more wins than any college coach in the country at any level.

Ram Stadium was improved, with its capacity now listed at 5,000 and a crowd of over 7,000 coming for a national playoff game in 2015 against Grand Valley State.

There is an all-weather surface that makes finding industrial fans to try and dry the mud and water in one end zone a thing of the past.

Cater has presided over four unbeaten regular seasons and a trip to the national championship game in 2015.

James Rooths, Howard Jones and Dominique Jones are some of Cater’s players making NFL teams.

The Rams now play in the Mountain East Conference and have won league championships in three of the four years the league has been in existence.

There are partial scholarships, grants and work study money available to the athletes. Even with these advances, Shepherd still has less money for football than many of the schools in the Mountain East.

Players come from much of Maryland, much of Virginia and each season transfers play pivotal roles on the quality teams.

It’s been a long time since Stutz Bearcats and convertibles were parked near the sidelines at old Fairfax Field. It’s been a long time since visiting teams were targets of the brickbats heaved at them on their bench.

It hasn’t been long since Shepherd’s last two unbeaten regular season teams, those two teams going through 2015 and 2016 without losses.

Shepherd began football in 1920 with one game.

This season the Rams hope to have three or four more games even after the regular season ends in late November.