In sports you often hear the term teammates forever. In the case of former Connellsville football standouts Bill Herrington and Mel Washington, that is a true statement.
Herrington and Washington started their football careers as bitter rivals. Herrington was a offensive and defensive tackle for the Connellsville Cokers under coach Bill McCandless on squads that went 2-8 in 1964 and 3-6 in 1965.
Washington, an offensive tackle and defensive end, was a member of the Dunbar Mules under Stan McLaughlin and part of Dunbar squads that posted records of 5-4 in 1963, 8-1 in 1964 and 9-0 in 1965. In 1965 they didn’t have enough Gardner Points to qualify for the playoffs.
In 1966 bitter rivals Connellsville and Dunbar merged to become the Connellsville Falcons and Herrington and Washington became teammates. McLaughlin was named the head coach and nipped any lingering remnants of the rivalry in the bud.
“We went to Seven Springs for the first football camp,” Washington recalled. “We all got together in a room and just sat there and talked. McLaughlin and the staff said if you are good enough to play you will make the team. He had to address any potential problems early. He knew the situation and everybody just sat and talked.”
“With the record Dunbar had and we knew we were with a new coaching staff and things would change,” Herrington said. “The majority of the coaching staff were Dunbar coaches. McLaughlin and Tom Sankovich were Dunbar coaches and Lou DiSimone and Gary Barnett came in.”
The first year of the merger Connellsville posted a 9-1 record with the lone loss to Kiski, 7-0. Coming into the season the team didn’t have those high expectations.
“We all just got along together,” Washington said. “We tried to pull it all together. I think it was the coaches that made us play well. We had to like each other, there wasn’t going to be any bickering, it was a team, it clicked.”
“I was at an explorers convention in Bloomington, Indiana, and we were coming back and the van broke down,” Herrington said. “I missed the first day of practice. I showed up the second day and coach Sankovich said what are you doing here? I said I’m here to play football. He said you missed the first day. I said I had a legitimate reason and he said you’ve got to make that day up. He would keep me after practice for a half hour and after three days I think I wore him out.”
McLaughlin commanded a lot of respect from both players.
“He was a no-nonsense coach,” Washington said. “It’s his way or else. He was fair.”
“I think we needed a change,” Herrington said. “All the Connellsville coaches going back to Dan Hamel he had a fairly good team. But everyone after him didn’t have much success. I think discipline was the main problem. This new staff was no-nonsense.”
Connellsville had the benefit of some star power. Jim Braxton fashioned a great season in 1966. He accounted for 78 points and was second only to Larry Piazzi of Norwin in both district and Foothills Conference scoring. His senior year he racked up 1,485 total yards. Switching to fullback he carried the ball 154 times for 794 yards gained from scrimmage, an average of 5.15 yards per carry. In addition, he caught 14 passes for 279 more yards and returned six kickoffs for 186 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run at Jeannette. He completed nine of 14 pass attempts out of the fullback option for 180 yards and three touchdowns, and returned two punts for 46 yards.
The biggest game of the season occurred on Oct. 28, 1966 at Uniontown. The Falcons, under McLaughlin coaching his first game in the series, rolled into the game with a 7-0 mark. Uniontown, which had a murderous schedule, was facing an unbeaten team for the fifth time in seven games. The Red Raiders were 3-3 coming off a tough loss to Mt. Lebanon.
The game was played at Uniontown in front of an estimated 7,500 fans. Uniontown athletic director Bill Power called it the biggest home crowd ever for the Red Raiders.
The game lived up to it’s billing. Brad McLee scored a first quarter touchdown giving Uniontown a 7-0 lead. Connellsville got a second quarter TD from Bob McLuckey, but a penalty moved the extra point back and Jim Braxton missed the PAT.
Connellsville in the fourth quarter moved from its own eight-yard line before stalling and setting up a 27-yard Braxton field goal, putting the Falcons on top 9-7. The Red Raiders in a last-ditch effort moved down field, a couple of big losses moved them back and John Hull was going to attempt a better than 50 yard field goal with one second remaining. Hull took a direct snap, fumbled, picked the ball up and moved to his left, then shoveled a pass basketball style to Pete Lampley who was downed at the 10-yard line. It was a wild finish to a great football game, the Falcons prevailing, 9-7.
“They hurt a lot of guys,” Washington said. “A lot of our ballplayers got hurt in that Uniontown game. Braxton got hurt, Norman Craggette got hurt, I got hit by John Hull and I was out. That’s why we lost the next game to Kiski.”
Herrington played basketball and was on the track team. Washington played basketball as a sophomore and junior at Dunbar.
When Herrington graduated from Connellsville in 1967 he wound up going to Parsons College in Iowa.
“They offered me a scholarship,” Herrington said. “I had a few other offers, my dad being in the produce business knew someone in Tampa that knew the head coach at Parsons. My dad said you are going out there and that was it.”
“I was pumping gas and coach Barnett, he asked what I was doing.” Washington said. “He asked if I wanted to go to school. I said my dad can’t afford to send me to school. He said I will get you into school. He told me about Salem, and I went down on my own. I went down a second time with my dad and I decided to go there.”
Things were not going well for Herrington at Parsons.
“I transferred after Mel told me about Salem,” Herrington said.
A 6-foot, 190-pound defensive end, Washington was part of Salem squads that went 5-3-1 in 1967, 5-2 in 1968, 8-1 in 1969 with the lone loss to Fairmont State, 16-8. The Tigers were 5-3-1 in Washington’s senior campaign in 1970. After sitting out a year, Herrington, a 6-3, 193-pound tight end, played for the Tigers in 1969, 1970 and in 1971 when Salem went 7-2-1.
Washington garnered All-WVIAC honors while at Salem and was an honorable mention All-American.
The 1969 squad was inducted into the Salem University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.
Former West Virginia University Athletic Director Ed Pastilong was an assistant at Salem under Donnie Young in 1969 and later became head coach at Salem. Pastilong has fond memories of Herrington and Washington.
“It was a pleasure to coach Herrington and Washington,” Pastilong said. “They were hardworking and dedicated players. They were a great definition of a student athlete.”
After graduation, Washington and Herrington played one year of semi-pro football for the Youngstown Hardhats.
Washington, 71, went to work at Anchor Hocking for 33 years before retiring. He divorced after 32 years of marriage and has two sons and three daughters.
Herrington, 70, came back to Connellsville and worked at The Community Center for seven years. He worked construction in West Virginia. My father was in the produce business and he started working for him and took that business over along with a greenhouse. He retired from the greenhouse business in 2014 and put Bill Herrington Apple Brokerage in his wife’s name and it is still going strong. He has been married for 33 years to his wife Dody and they have two sons and he has one grand daughter.
Athletics were good to both Herrington and Washington and they remain teammates for life
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.