The debates have lasted for decades. When you get right down to it, there’s really no way to determine the winner of the debate asking one simple question: Who is the best running back in Bridgeport High School football history?
Determining the best is opinion-based and when it comes to opinions relating to this topic individuals are more likely to go with someone from their own era as opposed to the others.
That doesn’t mean someone who was a student in the 1960s can’t believe that Steve Stout or Charlie Fest were among the best ever. It doesn’t mean some from the 1970s won’t choose Chris Marteney or Shawn Marshall. Throw in some others who may like C.R. Rohrbough, Brian Zickefoose, the Tonkerys of either Dylan or Wes, Corey Wagner, Alex Sutton, the Bonamicos of Anthony and Dante, Brett Hathaway and, well, the choices are pretty endless.
And before anyone screams, I’m aware I’ve left dozens of names off the list when it comes to big-time running backs making up the pantheon of greats to wear the red and white. If you think someone listed or not listed here was the best, well, then you can probably make an argument for them.
Want to know what is not so much in doubt regarding the running backs in BHS history? The answer to that would be the person who has the most yardage ever for the Indians.
I say “not so much” because it’s not 100 percent certain. However, based on all accounts and the fact that when we ran it before as part of our “40 for 40” series no one challenged the accuracy, it appears the all-time leading rusher in Bridgeport history is Steve Stout. Stout ended his highlight packed career with a Class AAA state championship and 3,724 yards.
The record has stood since the 1973 season. That’s more than four decades if my math is correct and it means it’s a huge mark that’s been on the books a long time.
Here’s the thing. It’s about to be broken. And it could be broken with plenty of yardage to spar.
Senior Jake Bowen is set to go where no player has gone before. After the Oct. 19 win against Keyser, Bowen’s totals for his career were at 3,651 yards and we know for certain that it is the most since 1997 when Travis Jones took over broadcasting duties and statistics became an art form.
That only leaves Stout, who by every account was an absolute beast on the football field, in front of him. And he’s only in front of him by 73 yards.
Barring something unfortunate or perhaps an alien abduction, the record will be Bowen’s when the year ends. Considering he’s averaging nearly 169 yards per game as part of a year where he’s already rushed for 1,517 yards he should get it this coming Friday against Lincoln. In that particular game, he should also be well rested and healed up from any bumps and bruises thanks to Friday’s off week.
Assuming he doesn’t, he still would have at least one more crack at it. The Indians, for a state record 26th consecutive year, have clinched a playoff berth.
Considering all that, one might think Bowen is ready to blow his own horn.
“It’s awesome to know you’re that close to something so special with this program. You can’t do it without a lot of great teammates and you can’t do it in our system without guys who want to block because when you see some of those long runs I know it’s not usually possible without the linemen making some pretty big holes,” said Bowen. “The other thing that’s good about this is I’ve spent countless hours and the field and put my whole life into Bridgeport football. It’s a good feeling to know my hard work is paying off.”
You won’t get any arguments from his teammates who mobbed him after the huge 28-19 road win against Keyser when some thought he broke the record and others knew he had the mark for the modern statistical era by passing up Wagner. You also won’t get an argument from Coach John Cole who blocked for, watched and has coached some of the greatest backs in BHS history.
“I’m a line guy so I know how important the line is to any rushing record and I know if you ask Jake he’ll tell you that,” said Cole.
Of course, Bowen went directly there in the quote above. But Cole knows not everything is because of gaping holes setting things up.
“His ability with his vision and his speed to break runs is phenomenal to watch. The line just needs to give him a little and he turns it into a lot,” said Cole. “Trust me, there’s also been a lot of big runs where he’s turned nothing into something or even something spectacular.
“What’s most important is the example he set with his work ethic. In practice, whether it’s the conditioning drills or sprints, almost all the time he’s the won leading the way,” said Cole. “He’s not the kind of kid that just shows up on Friday or sandbags it in practice. He’s invested year round. You’re seeing the results of that.”
Cole remembers his senior year as a member of the Indians. He blocked for junior tailback Shawn Marshall who also put up some big numbers, while also being part of unit that did blocking for John Yeater.
“There’s been some backs like Chris Marteney and Brian Berry that put up numbers and guys like Mike Honce, who was injured, that would have put up big numbers,” said Cole. “The first running back I remember was Charlie Fest who played with my brother in law (quarterback Robert Marra on the 1979 ‘AAA’ title team). “Fest was the ultimate grinder and stepped up big in playoff games. Honestly, I can go on all day about guys I watched or played with or coached. There have been that many that were talented.”
Bowen’s memory isn’t as long as Cole’s memory, which is a result of the fact he’s still in high school. But, like Cole, he remembers his favorites.
“I lived my whole life at those games. Dylan Tonkery and Dante Bonamico where the guys I really paid attention to when I was younger,” said Bowen, whose father Forrest was a player at Marshall University. “Even before watching those guys, I wanted to play tailback. When I picked up a football for the first time, I wanted to run with the ball and be the running back. I’m glad it’s worked out.”
It would be hard to argue it hasn’t worked out. During his junior season when he was the feature back, the Indians went 11-2 and made it to the Class AA semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Bluefield. This year, the Tribe is 8-1 and ranked No. 2 in ‘AA’ looking for a chance to host for as long as they’re in the playoff field.
Where the season ends is unknown. What is known is when it concludes for him as an Indian it will likely begin somewhere else. Bowen, who Tony Caridi said during the Indians televised game with Fairmont Senior that Bowen has been closed in the mid-4.5s in the 40-yard dash, is being courted by more than just a few schools.
“I’ve talked with Marshall and West Virginia University,” said Bowen, who has been a sideline guest with both schools. “Ohio University also has been in touch and a lot of state schools. Right now, I’ve only had two offers and they’re from Glenville State and West Virginia State. I’m up in the air about where I’ll end up, but I do want to play.”
When he goes, he’ll likely take the tag of two-time all-stater with him. And again barring something beyond anyone’s control, he’ll have the tag of all-time leading rusher in Bridgeport High School on his resume as well.
“You know what makes it more special? He gets along with his teammates and does things beyond sports at the school. He’s a good kid. That’s what adds to it,” said Cole. “I’m not going to lie. It’s been pretty fun to watch, especially at a school that prides itself on running the football and has done so before I was born. To be able to say you’re the leading rusher is pretty special.”