It starts early in the morning before 8 a.m. Football players pile into the school wearing their jerseys, cheerleaders in their uniforms. After noon, people line up outside Purple Rider Stadium to secure their seats for the football game – at 7 p.m. It’s game day in Martins Ferry.
The gates to the 5,550-seat stadium open at 5:30 and the 2,700 seats on the home side are filled by 6, an hour before kickoff.
“Friday night in Martins Ferry actually starts Friday morning,” said athletic director Kim Appolloni. “Friday nights in the fall are exciting days around here. People pack the home side every game. It’s an exciting time for the kids and the community.”
This working class town of almost 7,000 sits in the middle of the Rust Belt where steel mills once dotted the landscape along the Ohio River, extending from Youngstown to Marietta. Martins Ferry, the oldest settlement in the state of Ohio, was once home to 15,000 residents, steel mills, glass factories and coal mines.
Most of the jobs disappeared and the people left with them. At its peak, Martins Ferry had 3,000 jobs in steel mills alone. That number is now hovering at zero. But there’s no need to write an obituary for the city. The blue-collar work ethic remains even if the employers have changed. East Ohio Regional Hospital, Nickles Bakery and United Dairy continue to provide good-paying jobs.
The hardworking mentality is – or was – recognized on the football team with the No. 44. It was passed down to whoever was considered the toughest player on the roster. But the tradition ended when positions were required to wear certain numbers.
When Dave Bruney became the head coach in 1979, the enrollment at the high school was double its current number of 435. That hasn’t diminished the quality of the football team, though. The makeup of the community may have changed over the decades, but football has stood the test of time, its importance never wavering.
“They still come out for high school football,” said Bruney, who’s a member of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. “It means something in the community. The kids realize that at a young age and realize it’s something they want to be a part of. People know who you are and you develop an identity. We try and do a good job of selling to them that they aren’t just representing themselves, they are also representing the community and the school.”
For eight months out of the year, life in Martins Ferry doesn’t have the same buzz it has from August through November. There’s a noticeable void as the wind kicks up and snow pelts the Ohio River Valley. It can remain unspoken – everyone knows it’s football that is missing. But once practice begins in August, all is well again in Martins Ferry.
“When you go to work on Monday morning there’s more of a hustle and bustle,” Appolloni said of football season.
Downtown storefronts empty out and are decorated purple and white with the names and faces of that season’s senior class.
Martins Ferry, Ohio
- Where: 40.099, -80.725
- Population: 6,915
- Zip Code: 43935
- Area Code: 740
- Fun Fact: Oldest settlement in the state of Ohio.
“Everyone who’s ever thought anything about our town equates it to football when you run into them all over the state,” Bruney said.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author James Wright immortalized the town’s blue-collar spirit in the poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” It is now part of a sophomore English project at the school.
More than 4,000 people attend Martins Ferry home games. There is one section at midfield that has reserved seating.
“Some of these people have been sitting in those seats for 40 years,” Appolloni said.
And if the Purple Riders are hosting Bellaire or St. Clairsville, plan on wearing comfortable shoes. The rivalry games attract upwards of 9-10,000 fans eager to see one town conquer the other.
The three districts are separated by no more than 15 miles. The kids all associate with each other and even work summer jobs together, making the familiarity an added incentive for bragging rights.
Martins Ferry and Bellaire have met more than 100 times on the football field, making it the ninth-oldest rivalry in the country and fourth-oldest in Ohio.
“They were two of the bigger communities in the 30s, 40s and 50s,” Appolloni said. “The two communities are very similar in mentality. It’s a great rivalry and everyone looks forward to it, but it’s also a respectful rivalry. The two coaching staffs and the communities have a lot of friends between the two.”
Bellaire Week is a weeklong celebration that includes a spirit parade in downtown, complete with fire trucks, a pep rally and bonfire. And it’s not just a student activity; the entire town takes part.
“It’s one of the blessings about growing up in Ohio,” former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel told Eleven Warriors. “Everyone has their pride in wherever they grew up, but our good folks never forget about one another. They’re always there for one another. They invest their most valuable thing, which is their time, to help one another and help their communities.”
“If we’re playing on the road, you can roll the sidewalks up.”
The support doesn’t stop when the Purple Riders travel to one of the neighboring cities. Instead, the town loads up and is right behind them. Wherever the football team is, the townspeople are close behind.
“If we’re playing on the road, you can roll the sidewalks up,” Bruney said. “We have a pretty good following. Our fans are loyal even in the years we aren’t very good. It’s been that way as along as I can remember.”
The 2013 football season marks the 106th year of Martins Ferry football. The most prominent name during the century of success is Lou Groza. The Hall of Famer got his start at Martins Ferry and, ironically, captained the state champion basketball team in 1941.
The Groza family was well-known in Martins Ferry due to Groza’s Tavern, a restaurant and bar in town. The athletic prowess of Lou and his brother, Alex, made people accustomed to the Groza name, as well.
Alex was a star for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to two national championships and earning most outstanding player honors in two Final Fours. Groza also won a gold medal in the 1948 London Olympics and NBA rookie of the year honors. But his budding professional career came to a halt in an infamous point-shaving scandal.
Martins Ferry also counts Fred Bruney among its alumni. Fred, the uncle of current head coach, Dave, played under Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Bruney is still in the Ohio State record books with the second-most interceptions in school history – 17. His most notable performance came against Michigan in 1952, when he intercepted three passes in the first half. The game doubled as Hayes’ first triumph over the university he loved to hate.
Following his college career, Bruney spent the next 44 years as a player and coach in the NFL, the longest streak in league history until fellow Ohioan Dick LeBeau surpassed it. In another twist, it was LeBeau who replaced Bruney in the Ohio State secondary after the latter graduated.
That rich history is still invoked frequently in Martins Ferry with former players speaking to the team about the possibilities that lie ahead.
“We emphasize that our tradition and past is very, very important,” Dave Bruney said. “But the present is now and you’re making your mark and your history. So we don’t want to live in the past. We need to work and focus on the present and the future. We want to embrace the past, but not live in the past.”
The bygone days account for 663 all-time wins, among the most in the state of Ohio. That number is posted in the south end zone of the football stadium, on the banks of the Ohio River. On Mondays after victories, the team flips over the newest digits.
The man who’s seen more wins than anyone else is Bruney. He was born and raised in Martins Ferry and has been the head coach for 34 years. Now retired as a schoolteacher, Bruney continues to give back in the form of coaching.
The football complex at the high school bears his name and he’s the most recognizable member of the community.
“Everyone in town knows who Coach Dave is,” Appolloni said. “I think that’s what has a lot to do with how exciting it is, going from generation to generation. When Coach Dave gives a kid heck, he’s going to go home and deal with a dad that also played for Coach Dave.
“He’s an icon in our community, and deservedly so. He’s a tireless worker. I hope he coaches forever because he means that much to our community. He’s a special individual. He still has the same fire as he did when he was 25.”
The community support remains the same, too. Just as it was in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when Martins Ferry was a steel hub along the Ohio River.
Martins Ferry at night photo courtesy of Kyle Krajnyak.