by Geoff Fox
On Friday, September 6, 1957, Coach Paul H. Imphong led the Hancock Panthers football team onto the field for the first game in school history.
Sixty-two years to the day later, as the 2019 Panthers kicked off the season against Massanutten Military Academy on the field that bears the name of the first coach, members of that first team unveiled a plaque on the school. The marker contains the names of the 27 players from that first team.
Last Friday, five of the 11 living members of that first team unveiled the plaque.
Former players Bill Little, H.L. Powers, Leo Murray, Junior Shoemaker, and Hal McCarty gathered at the wall beside a piece of cardboard being held with, fittingly, blue tape.
The cardboard was pulled down revealing the plaque with the names of the 27 players, two coaches, and two team managers from Hancock’s 1957 football tea
The 2019 Hancock Panthers football team stood off to the side watching the
The plaque came about when a group of the players got together and noted something needed to be done to memorialize that first team before it “evaporated into dust,” Hal McCarty said.
For those players, he said it was “now or never” to get the plaque up before they lost the desire or lost touch.
McCarty said they made contact with the school and the administration welcomed the idea.
After the reveal of the plaque, attendees headed inside to the school’s cafeteria, while some stayed behind to look at the plaque, including players past and present.
Inside the cafeteria, it was a chance for the players to reminisce about their time on the gridiron and with the legendary local coach.
An emotional Bill Sterner started by saying how much Hancock meant to him. The former athletic director and coach spent almost 40 years at Hancock before being transferred to Clear Spring prior to the 2018-19 school year.
Sterner said he spent a lot time with Imphong the last 10 years of his life and called him a “good man.”
He said Imphong would come to football practice and watch and later telling Sterner what his thoughts were on the practice.
Sterner also recounted a story of when Imphong was ill and couldn’t make it to practice.
“So we went down there and we warmed up in his front yard with about 40 kids,” Sterner said with a crack in his voice.
He said Imphong was emotional when he came out to see the team. The funniest part, Sterner said, belonged to Imphong’s wife when she told him she didn’t have enough lunch meat to feed all of the visiting players and that he’d have to go to Pittman’s.
Sterner said Imphong would call him every game day at 10:15 a.m. to talk about the game and tell him they were going to do fine.
“I’m very proud they asked me to come back,” Sterner said.
Mayor Ralph Salvagno was also there to speak to the group before the players got their turn.
“This school means everything to this town,” he said.
Coming from Bowie High School where there were over 600 students in his class alone, the mayor said he had the honor to play on that school’s first soccer team.
“I know when 62 years pass, they will not put a plaque out there,” he said. “They’ll probably forget, unlike Hancock. We remember tradition. We think it’s very important.”
He also thanked, on behalf of the town, the players for stepping onto the field for that first game.
McCarty, a freshman on that first team, said the plaque was a labor of love for those players who have worked through the process.
McCarty said two people who were supposed to be talking to the group were Bob Brennon, who was a senior on that first team and scored the first touchdown, and Tom Imphong, the son of Paul Imphong. Both were stuck in a traffic backup caused by an accident on I-70.
McCarty also read a list of those players who had passed away – Jimmy Ayers, Jack Corbett, Bill Divel, Bob Forshaw, Dick Hess, Kenny Hess, Joe Hoopengardner, Bill Jones, Ray Keefer, Gene Kerns, Phil Little, Wendell McKinley, Harry Scherlinsky, Bill Seville, Jimmy Shives, and Robert Souders.
“We owe a lot to all those guys,” McCarty said. “We wish they could be here, but unfortunately that’s not the case.”
McCarty also read the name of players who were unable to attend the ceremony – Donnie Barnhart, Charlie Burnett, Jack Eddy, Dick Grove, and Kenny Shives.
Each of the five players at the ceremony relived a memory of the first game to those in the cafeteria.
“Those guys were coal miners,” Shoemaker said about the players from Ridgeley.
He said he remembered playing on the edge and a guy hit him so hard, he was seeing stars.
Murray told a story about a practice where fullback Wendell McKinley came through the line and hit him even though he didn’t have his helmet on.
“That’s probably why I’m the way I am today,” he jokingly said.
Little said they didn’t believe the Ridgley players were actually in high school because a lot of them didn’t have teeth and some had beards.
Because the field was in the coalfields of West Virginia, Little said the players were sucking down lemons as if they were candy by halftime.
“We were whipped,” he said. Little added they had coal dust in their eyes, nose, “you name it, we had it.”
Little said the team’s uniforms came from the University of Maryland. His kneepads were, he said, down around his ankles.
“We had to pull them up and sort of tie them around to make it look like they fit us,” he said.
Powers said he didn’t remember about the game, but one thing he did remember was when Jim Shives asked him to call a timeout.
Powers said Shives told him he needed some tea because his asthma was acting up.
“I told him, ‘All the tea in China’s not going to help us’,” he said.
McCarty said when they went to Ridgeley for their first game, they were dressed in lily white uniforms with blue letters looking like a million dollars, having never played the game and with only six weeks of learning behind them.
“We were soccer players,” McCarty said. “Football came kind of suddenly to us, but we were blessed with some superior athletes.”
McCarty said it was due to an injury in the second quarter that he got into the game.
“I got down in my best three-point stance and I looked up and I saw this gorilla,” McCarty said. “I mean the biggest, meanest looking thing we ever saw.”
McCarty said when the ball was snapped, everything inside him snapped as well.
He also recalled the players didn’t call Paul Imphong “coach”. Instead, they called him Mr. Imphong.
“We didn’t call him coach, we called him Mr. Imphong out of utter respect for this man who shaped our lives as all these years went on,” McCarty said. “He meant a lot to us.”