After strong WVU career, Wes Tonkery returns home
By Wilson R. Harvey
All the hours divided among class and football paid off for Wes Tonkery.
Striking a balance few could manage, the former Bridgeport football standout completed his degree at West Virginia industrial engineering with a minor in business and administration, all while earning a starting spot in the Mountaineer secondary under defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.
After graduating in the fall of 2014, Tonkery returned home. He currently works in operations for the Bridgeport office of MarkWest Energy Partners. For Tonkery, his West Virginia upbringing was instrumental in preparing him for his success at the next level, both on and off the field.
“My parents raised me with a good work ethic to outwork everyone else and achieve your goals,” Tonkery said. “I miss being that age where you’re with your friends all the time, enjoying your teammates and the company of the locker room, and going out on the field with guys you’ve played with since flag football. It meant a lot to play with those guys.”
It was early in Tonkery’s high school career that Bruce Carey, then Bridgeport’s head football coach, recognized Tonkery could be a special football talent.
“When he was young, he had good size and great speed, and he still liked to hit,” Carey said. “That’s why I introduced him to (former WVU assistant coach Steve) Dunlap as a sophomore in the hallway.”
It was perhaps even more rare then than now for a West Virginia football player to get a chance at the Division I level, especially at a school with the thriving power conference resume of WVU. Carey said that even among his perennially strong Bridgeport teams, not many players had a chance to suit up in Morgantown, citing former WVU long snapper Tim Lindsey as a rare example.
And yet, Tonkery played with a talented group of seniors at Bridgeport. Their only flaw on the 2009 season was a loss to eventual AAA state champion South Charleston in the semifinals, a game decided by just three points and played on the road. So what made him stand out?
“He had some of the intangibles, some size, and he was about 4.4 in his 40-yard dash time,” Carey said.
Those physical attributes, mixed with strong work ethic, a sense of humility and a willingness to play hard-nosed football were other factors noted by Carey in Tonkery’s rise. Leaving Bridgeport to begin his collegiate career, Tonkery impressed many with a much-chronicled moment early as a redshirt freshman, when he started in WVU’s Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
He became a full-time starter his senior year at linebacker, finishing third on the team in tackles. He said that his years in Morgantown were nothing short of life-changing.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “Football really taught me a lot about life and how to approach the work world whenever your time is done playing. You learn work ethic, time management and discipline.”
The game Tonkery called most memorable wasn’t the Orange Bowl victory. It was a 41-27 upset over then-fourth ranked Baylor in his senior season, 2014. The Bears’ vaunted offense, led by current NFL quarterback Bryce Petty, was held to only 318 yards by the defense to which Tonkery contributed.
“They were ranked high, and our team played strong,” he said. “The defense played strong, the offense played great and it was a great team game. That was one of my best games.”
Even more impressive to Tonkery, though, was the rush of playing in front of roughly 65,000 Mountaineer fans in Milan Puskar Stadium.
“Man, that home crowd. It’s a feeling you’ll never forget, stepping on that field,” he said. “I constantly think about third down in those games, when the crowd is rocking. And being around your teammates in the locker room, that’s the greatest thing.”
Although the Mountaineers no longer have Wes in their locker room, they didn’t spend long without a Tonkery. His younger brother, Dylan, is now with the Mountaineers, having spent last season as a redshirt at safety.
“It means the world to watch your little brother go out there and play the game,” the elder Tonkery said. “I have a whole new perspective after playing, being a fan now and also understanding what is going on out there. He was more prepared than me in high school and he should be more successful than me if he puts in the work, and from what I’ve seen he’s done that.”