The Upper Ohio Valley is situated between two major sports markets: Pittsburgh and Cleveland. But from East Liverpool, Ohio to New Martinsville, West Virginia, star athletes have emerged.
Joe Belancic is an avid sports fan who has lived in Wheeling his entire life. For decades, he’s collected the player cards of every pro from the valley.
“A lot of the stuff that you see in (Wesbanco Arena), a lot of the cards, pictures of the cards that were blown up, that came from the idea, the collection that I have of the local guys,” Belancic said.
Belancic and longtime sportswriter Doug Huff used their cards to bring the history of local sports to life.
If you look around WesBanco Arena or at the front wall of TJ’s Sports Garden on National Road, you’ll recognize a handful of notable athletes from this area.
Major League pitchers Joe and Phil Niekro grew up in Blaine, Ohio. Legendary Boston Celtics guard John Havlichek spent his childhood in Bridgeport.
Before hitting the home run that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates, Bill Mazeroski was raised in Tiltonsville. He’s a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Phil Niekro, Wheeling’s Jesse Burkett and two players who were born here but moved to California at a young age: Rollie Fingers of Steubenville and Glen Dale’s George Brett.
Like baseball and basketball, football also has a rich history in the valley.
“We’ve had seven athletes play in the Super Bowl from the Ohio Valley,” said Doug Huff, a longtime local sportswriter. “That’s pretty significant and we’ve had several assistant coaches being involved in that. Of course the most prominent one, or the most honored Super Bowl athlete we’ve had is Chuck Howley from Warwood High School and West Virginia University.”
Howley is the only player to win the Super Bowl MVP award as a member of the losing team.
Cleveland Browns legend Lou Groza has both the top college football kicking award and a portion of Ohio Route 7 in Martins Ferry named after him. But pro football in the valley isn’t limited to the guys who have played in the NFL. In the 1960’s, Wheeling Island Stadium was the home of the Wheeling Ironmen.
“Every game that you went to, there was a lot of people at the games,” said Belancic. “I mean, it filled the stadium.”
Some of the Ironmen came to this area to play football but ended up raising families and establishing careers here.
“It was good to see a lot of these guys come here and make it their home here,” Belancic said.
Belancic hopes that by sharing his story, people will look back at all of the great athletes who grew up in the Upper Ohio Valley.
“These guys left a big mark around here,” he said. “And I like to stress it to my kids to know these guys because they were fine, fine ball players and more importantly, they were real gentlemen. That’s the thing I liked about it. They were role models that we lack today.”