By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Football. It’s a man’s game. It’s a tough man’s game. Where broken bones, blood and sweat aren’t signs of weakness; they’re signs of a job well done.
Of those who have made a living on the gridiron, few are tougher than Mount Hope’s Lonnie Warwick.
The Mt. Hope native, who spent 15 years in the National Football League, 10 with the Minnesota Vikings, three with the Atlanta Falcons and two with the Washington Redskins, was among the figures at the fifth annual Sports Legends Reunion on Friday at the Beckley Moose Club.
“It’s a pleasure to be here,” Warwick said. “You see these guys around this room here and remember when we were playing in high school. There are some here that were before me and some afterwards, but man, you just look at them and you think... I believe a lot of these guys could play today!”
The 71-year-old Warwick was honored in May for his time at Mt. Hope High School with an induction into the West Virginia North-South Football Hall of Fame, during the North-South Football weekend in Charleston.
“It was a really nice event down there,” Warwick said. “I got to see a lot of the old friends that I knew. It was a good weekend for me.”
Warwick was quick to recall his favorite memory from his time in high school. It was the 1959 state championship, when the Mustangs and the Mullens Rebels did battle at Van Meter Stadium. The muddy conditions, and staunch defense left the two teams tied 0-0 at the end of the game to crown the two now defunct schools co-champions.
“If they can’t score, they can’t beat ya,” Warwick said. “You’ve got to score to beat them. That’s the way it is.”
It was that defensive effort that helped Warwick continue his career at the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Tech before heading to the NFL to help make up the feared “Purple People Eaters” of the Minnesota Vikings.
“That was also our saying with the Purple People Eaters of the Vikings,” he added. “If they can’t score on ya, they can’t beat ya. That’s defense.”
Warwick was part of a Vikings team in 1970 that played in Super Bowl IV, a 23-7 losing effort to the Kansas City Chiefs, but a memory that Warwick carries with him everywhere he goes.
“Those guys like Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, a lot of those guys never played in the Super Bowl,” Warwick said. “A guy coming from Mount Hope, West Virginia, and getting him a college degree and playing in the Super Bowl was a great experience.”
Warwick also recalled the toughest player he ever played against as the Green Bay Packer great and NFL Hall of Famer Jimmy Taylor, but said the best were Sayers and Cleveland Brown superstar Jim Brown.
“Both of those guys were unreal,” Warwick said. “They were really hard to tackle. Jim Brown was 6-foot-3, 230 lbs and ran a 4.4 40. I mean, that was just tremendous. But of course he had already played 10 years when I got to play against him. There were a lot of tough guys back then.”
It’s a different league now, though. Players are fined and penalized for the type of play that made Warwick famous.
“I probably wouldn’t even draw a paycheck now with the way the rules have changed,” a wide-eyed Warwick said with a smile. “But I still enjoy it. If I had to do it over, I’d do the same thing.”
And just as any old pro, Warwick still tunes in on Sundays to check in on his former teams, and admits to being impressed with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but there’s another quarterback who has caught his attention — one that plays for his former team.
“Ya know, with a guy like Robert Griffin III, who can run and throw the ball really good, that puts the pressure on the defense,” Warwick said. “He’s really fun to watch. That’s enjoyable to me.”
The pros are the only football catching the eye of the legendary Warwick. He also spends a lot of time watching area high school football and offers his advice to the next generation of area football legends.
“The number one thing that I think could help these high school kids now is speed,” he said. “You have to have really good speed. If you can run a 4.5 40, somebody will take a look at you in the big times.”
Warwick mentioned one player in particular as having what it takes to make it.
“I watch Oak Hill a lot since Mt. Hope closed, and Jaylon Jones could be a really, really good player,” he said. “He’s fast. Real fast. And if he keeps his nose clean and gets a little more experience he’s going to do really well and go far.”
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.