MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The last time I’d spoken to Rick Harshbarger, the West Virginia Mountaineer fan from Keyser who proclaims his love for the team though his NO1WVFAN license plate was five and a half years ago.
At the time, we were putting together a column on the fact that he had attended 368 consecutive Mountaineer home games, not having missed a game since mid-January 1987, when he had some friends over to his house and they stayed longer than he thought, so he shrugged and figured he’d just watch them play Massachusetts on television.
“I started keeping records because I was so upset the last time I missed a game, I said, ‘I’m going to see just how many games I can go to in a row,’” he recalls.
And as we ended that conversation, he said he would be shooting for 500 straight games, a Cal Ripkenian effort, if ever there was one.
First of all, it would be an amazing streak if he were coming from Clarksburg or Fairmont, but he’s coming from Keyser and beyond and because of it his streak is almost always in jeopardy.
But he finally got to No. 499 last year, as memorable an experience as he could have had at the Coliseum as the Mountaineers beat No. 4 Baylor on March 7 to end the regular season.
“I was really bummed out because I was going to have to wait until the last of this November when the new year started,” he said, referring to waiting for No. 500.
Football season started without him due to the virus.
“This year, the Eastern Kentucky football game, that was the first home game I ever watched on TV. And then when we played the first home basketball game, it was the first game from the Coliseum I’d watched on TV since January of ‘87. It’s so weird. There were a lot of outer body experiences. I mean, I wasn’t in Section 105, Row 22, Seat 110.”
As he waited for this year to begin, things changed for him.
“I got prostate cancer and had that out in May and you start worrying about your mortality and one of the things that crossed my mind was, ‘Hey, I may not be here next November,’” he said.
He was here and basketball season was here, but so was the pandemic and no fans were allowed into the Coliseum.
“I talked to some of the people over at WVU I know so well and they told me the streak keeps going if they won’t let me in. That made me feel better,” he said.
There were times, of course, as he waited that he thought back to some of his trials and tribulations to keep the streak going.
The closest he came to missing a game at the Coliseum was in 2001, the Mountaineers in the midst of a terrible season. The opponent was Providence and Drew Catlett was coaching for Gale Catlett.
“I was in the hospital having foot surgery in the morning. I basically took off my gown, wrote a note and left it on the bed for the nurses, telling them I went to the game and I’d be back after it, and I snuck out,” Harshberger explained.
West Virginia won that night, their only Big East win of the year, and he was there to see it.
Then there have been some travels across I-68.
“I drove through some blizzards. I drive through snow good,” he said.
Even when I-68 was closed. Made no difference to Harshbarger.
“I’ve probably been on I-68 a dozen times when it was closed,” he once said. “I’d get to the entrance ramp and they had the horses up there saying the road was closed, so I just went around them. I always had a good four-wheel drive vehicle. Most of the problems I’ve had weren’t wrecking or getting stuck, but with the snow so high the headlights weren’t bright enough to see.”
There was the day he attended the Mountaineers playing Syracuse at Yankee Stadium for the Pinstripe Bowl.
“The game ended late and there was a noon tipoff the next day at the Coliseum. I got in the car and drove straight though, parked across the street from the Coliseum and went to sleep in the car until almost game time, woke up and went into the game,” he explained.
Then there was the time his father-in-law was in a hospital in Washington, D.C., for bypass surgery. He was there in a hotel, got in his car and drove to Morgantown for the night game, drove back after it and was in bed at the hotel by 2 a.m.
If it wasn’t one thing, it was another … or the same thing.
Two games in a row, in two different cars, he had a flat tire on the way over.
“I wrote a letter to the people who run the courtesy vehicles. The same guy — and he must work for a NASCAR pit crew — both nights stopped and changed the tire, each time in less than 10 minutes,” he said.
And then there was flu or injury.
“I remember my back was out big time. I have disc problems,” he explained. “My brother-in-law made a bed in the back seat of the vehicle and I laid down. Every bridge we went over, it was like someone was shooting an electric shock down my leg. It was the longest trip to Morgantown that we had.”
Now, he’s managed to get tickets for this game, No. 500. It’s been a long time coming.
“I’m 62. I was 28 when this streak started. That’s 34 years. I was just a kid when this started,” he said.
And it’s not over yet. He says he may go for 600 games.