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Former WVU folk hero Schmitt continues to rock Morgantown

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A man once called a "runaway beer truck" has a rather predictable career.

Owen Schmitt owns a bar just outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, and plays a mean guitar on the side.

Well, not quite.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a good guitar player,” Schmitt said. “I’d say I know the basics.”

Schmitt’s Saloon is a quiet bar with a southern feel. It is Schmitt’s life. Since being constructed in 2013, it has been a platform for local musicians and a form of live entertainment for guests.

“My goal was to set out a great place where adults can be entertained, relax and go on with their day,” Schmitt said. “We’re trying to get some good, local, quality talent. I paid for the equipment, so we’re going to have good bands in here. It’s good to have that local atmosphere, to help them develop their talents and be seen and be heard.”

It is a simple life for Schmitt, but it was not always that way for the former fullback.

Schmitt has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the cover of the old EA Sports NCAA Football game. He shattered facemasks and punished defenders in his heyday.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound bearded baller is one of the most beloved football players in West Virginia University history.

The story of Owen Schmitt is one of perseverance and persistence. The Fairfax, Virginia, native did not begin his college football career in Morgantown, but rather, a 17-hour drive away at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, a Division III school.

After one season, Schmitt was searching for a way out of D-III and up the ladder of college football. After failing to receive any Division I scholarships after high school, he hoped he could try to find another way onto the highest level of college football.

After several schools, including James Madison and Maryland, shut him out, Schmitt got what he was looking for.

“(WVU) was the biggest school that gave me a ‘yes,’ that said I could walk on, so I said ‘I guess I’m going there,’” Schmitt recalled.

With that simple ‘yes,’ Schmitt kick-started his legendary story in 2005. However, in the beginning, there was some doubt. Schmitt was excited about joining the Rich Rodriguez-led Mountaineers, but did not know what his role would be.

“Obviously, I was a big fan of that type offense, but I didn’t know how I was going to fit in here,” Schmitt said. “They didn’t utilize the fullback that much before.”

What did Schmitt do so well to help the Mountaineers achieve such success?

“I created a different position,” Schmitt said. “It was just supposed to be for a halfback, but me, I could run a little bit. I could obviously block, that was my thing. I had decent hands out of the backfield. I knew I could be used as somewhat of a weapon.”  

Schmitt made his presence felt. He did not light up the box score with rushing yards. That task was for quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, who combined for 1,956 rushing yards that season. Instead, Schmitt blocked for them and was a valuable third rushing option. In 2005, Schmitt rushed for 380 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry.

If Slaton and White were the thunder and lightning to that WVU team, then Schmitt was the hurricane.

Under that “Big Three” of Schmitt, White and Slaton, WVU went 11-1 for the first time since 1993, won the Big East and won the Sugar Bowl over Georgia, despite entering as a double-digit underdog.

It would not be the last time that Schmitt and the Mountaineers won despite being disregarded by odds makers.

In 2006 and 2007, WVU recorded two more 11-win seasons and won two more bowl games. Schmitt combined to rush for 623 yards and his blocking helped keep the Mountaineers in the top five in the nation in rushing yards per game in those two seasons.

Schmitt did it all in his college career. He broke 10 facemasks, was tackled for a loss only four times, returned two kickoffs, punted three times, and caught two touchdown passes. He became a folk hero.

In the 2007 season, the Mountaineers nearly achieved the unthinkable: a national championship. After a 10-1 start and a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, all that stood between the Mountaineers and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game was a Dec. 1 date against a four-win team.

That four-win team was archrival Pitt in the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl.

WVU entered as a four touchdown favorite, but never scored a touchdown in the game. The Panthers’ 13-9 triumph ended the Mountaineers’ national title dreams.

Schmitt said the loss still stings today.

“We fucking blew it. That was our one chance to go to the national championship. So yeah, it’s fucking terrible.”

The 2008 Fiesta Bowl was the highest moment of Schmitt’s career. WVU, despite being ranked No. 9, entered as a touchdown underdog to No. 3 Oklahoma. The Mountaineers were coming off the loss to the Panthers and Rodriguez left the team shortly afterwards. On ESPN.com’s map of voting who would win, 49 of 50 states voted red in favor of the Sooners.

After interim head coach Bill Stewart instructed his players to ‘leave no doubt tonight,’ Schmitt and the Mountaineers pulled off the upset. In his final collegiate game, Schmitt galloped 57 yards to produce the game’s first touchdown, prompting Fox broadcaster Matt Vasgersian to compare Schmitt to a ‘runaway beer truck.’

“Oh yeah,” Schmitt said when asked if the nickname stuck on nearly 10 years later. “People always say it. It’s resonated in people’s minds.”

After the game, Schmitt endeared himself to Mountaineer football fans one last time. In the postgame TV interview, Schmitt referenced ESPN’s map.

“The only state, the greatest state in the nation, that was covered in blue,” Schmitt said, “was West Virginia and that’s why we won this game.”

For Schmitt, nothing was pre-planned about it. It was all pure emotion.

“I don’t think you can preplan that stuff. That’s just off the cuff, no one practices stuff like that. That’s just how I felt. When you put everything into something, that’s the results you get. When you put passion into whatever you doing, that’s the feelings and thoughts in your mind.”

Schmitt was drafted in fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks and spent five years in the NFL. He called his time in the league “fun.”

“I played as hard as I could and always gave the coaches what I had. I was lucky to play five years,” Schmitt said.

After pondering post-football options, Schmitt came back to Morgantown and started ‘Schmitt’s Saloon.” It started three years ago as a dual-ownership, but Schmitt has since bought out his partner and taken a “more serious approach.”

“It kind of was a spur of the moment thing but has evolved,” Schmitt said. “It was kind of like, 'What am I going to do? I’m not going to do anything.’ So, I put my efforts into this. My mother is out here helping me out now and we’re starting to see the top of the hill.”

So, with family by his side, Schmitt is not following the typical post-football career of color analyst or in-studio expert. Instead, he’s followed the country roads home to the one place that said ‘yes.’

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