By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
In the syndicated sitcom “The King of Queens,” lead character Doug Heffernan once tried his hand at semi-pro football. He didn’t last a full game before he realized his body couldn’t handle the beating like it could when he was in high school, and he ran off the field like a scalded dog.
Closer to home — and in real life — a local group of former gridiron stars are dabbling in the sport, but with much more success.
The Beckley Panthers are two games into what coach Donald Barnett considers their first real season. They are 1-1, dropping their season opener with the West Virginia Storm in Summersville, then beating the Williamson-based West Virginia Miners 34-0 last Saturday.
“We had a team last year but it was rinky-dink,” Barnett said. “We played a couple of games and folded. Now we’ve got a different group of guys playing this time. Last year I think some people were looking to make some quick dollars and get out of the way.
“This year we are trying to recruit some younger guys and let the older guys get everything organized and started for a year or two, then get out of the way so people can have something to watch.”
The Panthers compete in the nine-team Imperial Football League, which is based in southwestern Virginia. The league is divided into two conferences — Appalachian, which includes the Panthers, and Southern. Teams from West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina comprise the league.
Four more teams will be added in 2014.
Beckley, which had 10 games scheduled but lost one after a team folded, plays its home games at Independence High’s George D. Covey Field.
The regular season will conclude June 8, with the playoffs starting June 15.
The Imperial Bowl will be played June 29 in Bristol, Va.
“We started (practicing) in January, around the first of the year, and we would have 10 to 15 players show up,” Barnett said. “As time has passed, we now have 25 to 30, which really makes a difference.”
Barnett, 37, not only coaches the team but also plays. He is a backup quarterback and defensive back.
“It’s a little different,” Barnett said. “It’s neat to have the experience as a coach. But at 37, the wheels are not as quick as they used to be.”
Barnett is joined by the likes of former Marsh Fork player Steve Beller, who is 39, and Shady Spring alumnus Travis Crook, 34.
The Panthers also have a unique pairing of 2009 Independence graduate Jake Justice and his father, Doug, 42.
“They are probably the only father-son combination in football anywhere in America,” Barnett said.
Other players include Independence alumus Stephen McBride, quarterback Jeff Edwards (Mount Hope), Jimmy Adkins and Timmy Wynes (Summers County) and Daniel Bailey (Liberty).
Barnett said the team is looking for alumni from high schools from all over the area.
“We have been all over Facebook and the internet to get more interest,” he said. “We’re reaching out to guys from Wyoming East and PikeView and any other schools that could help out.”
The Panthers’ next game is set for Saturday against the Lecher Wolves in Fleming-Neon, Ky. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Anyone interested in trying out can contact Barnett at 304-763-4089, or visit the team’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/beckleypanthers.
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