SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: THE GOLD DUST TWINS

(11/07/2017)

By Sidney Underwood 2015
In my lifetime I knew many fine athletes that participated in sports at the old Calhoun County High School. There were many young men and women who had a natural talent for various sports. When I was a little kid on the late 1940’s, I remember hearing names such as Gerald Beckner, Ray Waldo, James White and Cecil Johnson whenever the talk turned to local sports. Later in the early 1950’s, Fred Lowe, Delano McCartney, Bull Williams, Jim Riddle and Bob Bailess were well known athletes.

It was an exciting time when several great athletes were on the same Calhoun teams. The Red Devil teams were always competitive in football, basketball and baseball. But when there were exceptional athletes together, something almost magical happened because those athletes inspired average teammates to perform at their highest level. A personal example of that involved me because I was an average athlete. In my era, I remember playing football with Dave Hathaway, Don Burch, French Stump and others my junior year in the late 1950’s.

As a substitute wingback who shared that position with Howard Linville, I lined up behind Jack Gainer who was our right end. Generally, Linville ran the ball from that position while I was used as a blocking back. We rotated and carried in plays from the bench. Play #22 was designed for Hathaway to carry the football and run toward my side of the line and cut sharply up field. When that play was called in the huddle by quarterback, Kyle Hayhurst, I set up quickly at wingback position with great anticipation.

As the ball was being snapped, I dove forward to block the outside linebacker and other times double teamed the defensive tackle with Gainer depending on the defensive alignment. Being left handed and left shouldered, I was in a situation where I could really thump someone with that shoulder striking low and hard. It was the one thing that I could do well and I took pride in my blocking ability. When I think back to that time, I remember the collisions that sometimes caused the top edge of my helmet to slam down on the bridge of my nose.

Other times, my helmet would be spun around and I would be temporarily looking out an ear hole. Yes, all of that was uncomfortable and often amusing to my teammates. Thankfully, it only happened two or three times. I remember the smell of the grass at eye level and the weight of a tangled pile of bodies.

When I heard the roar of the Calhoun crowd, all that effort and discomfort was acceptable because I had done my job well and been part of something good called teamwork. I remember Hathaway ran through the space that I had occupied just seconds before. Occasionally, a stubborn defender would fight us to a standoff. When that happened, Hathaway would be forced to leap over the pile and continue down field. By the time we untangled to see what was happening, it had already happened.

It was really a matter of pride that my teammates and I enabled him run to the end zone so often that he scored 165 points his senior year. But, what I just described was not unique to when I played as it happened several times over the years and that leads us to the Gold Dust Twins and that football season of 1956.

Harry Vannoy (left) and Lowell Shaffer
in practice uniforms. The Gold Dust Twins

The Gold Dust Twins were natural athletes with God given talent. So named by Brad Kincaid who was a sports writer for the Parkersburg Sentinel at the time. Kincaid was very influential in publicizing the sports action in the Little Kanawha Conference and each August made a point of visiting each LKC school’s football camp. After watching Harry Vannoy and Lowell C. “Tom” Shaffer practice one afternoon in a scrimmage, he stated that in his column he would suggest a name that he thought was appropriate for the two football players. He urged everyone to be sure to read his sports column the next day. Kincaid’s column was always titled NOTES WHILE WINDING MY INGERSOL and was published five days a week in the Sentinel.

Sure enough, the next day’s Sentinel sports page had a photo of Shaffer and Vannoy with the sub-title of The Gold Dust Twins. Kincaid described them as senior running backs, each standing 5’10” and weighing 170 pounds. He felt that they complemented each other in ability and predicted that they would be among the scoring leaders in the conference.

There had been concern on the part of the Calhoun coaching staff during the summer that Shaffer would not return to school for his senior year. It was rumored that he had followed an older brother to Barberton, Ohio and gone to work. It was known that he had purchased a late model Ford car and only came home on weekends. Having played mainly defensive back his junior year, Shaffer was projected to be the starting tailback with Vannoy as the fullback. Vannoy had distinguished himself as a tremendous player while only a sophomore when he racked up 360 yards rushing in a one sided game against Sistersville in 1954.

I remember what a relief it was when Shaffer showed up for opening day practice in mid August of 1956. The coaches could not keep from smiling when they saw him easing along the sidewalk in front of the old gym. The other members of the team embraced him like a long lost brother. He grinned and said, “ I’m glad to see everyone. It must be old home week.”

The twins had similar ability in speed and power. Both had the toughness and blocking ability that was expected of Calhoun running backs. However, each was unique in their outlook and the way they played the game. Vannoy was introspective and serious. He practiced hard pushing himself to the limit. He played hard leaving everything he had on the field. He was the only player that I knew of who broke his own helmet making a tackle against Harrisville his junior year. You could always count on him to get that extra yard or first down when needed and he was such a force on defense. You could really hear the ”leather” crack when he hit someone.

Shaffer, by contrast, took everything in stride and was always so cool with it. Usually loafing through practice and joking around much to the consternation of the coaches, he delighted in being the center of attention. In the dressing room before a game when teammates were tense and nervous, Shaffer remained unaffected and appeared to be relaxed and confident. It could truly be said that he saved his best for the game when he really turned it on.

Football was fun for him. I remember seeing him run with the football, cut up field, receive a glancing blow, spin, get hit again, start to fall, put a hand on the ground, regain his balance and run across the field making tacklers miss and finally being forced out of bounds after picking up 20 yards on a 35 yard run. Where Vannoy took hard hits as a running back, Shaffer never gave anyone a clear shot at tackling him. He had the ability to evade at the last moment and I think he was actually grinning all the time he was playing football because it was so easy for him.

Vannoy was raised at Millstone and his father was Kester Vannoy. His family lived near the base of the Sand Ridge hill. Shaffer’s family lived on the West Fork near the Clay County line. He had an older brother, Roy, and a younger brother, Mitchell, who also played football for Calhoun.

Calhoun lost three games that season of 1956 when the Gold Dust Twins played their senior year together. But, that won-loss record in no way indicates a lack of ability on their part. The LKC at that time was a very competitive and respected conference. Opponents such as Spencer, Ripley, Harrisville, Ravenswood and St. Marys always brought their A game when playing the Red Devils.

I don’t have rushing and scoring statistics for the Gold Dust Twins during their season together; nevertheless, I know that without their contributions that season’s record would have been much worse. People tend to link great athletes to undefeated seasons. In truth, it seldom works out that way.

Harry Vannoy went on to play college football at Salem College {WV} where he starred as a defensive back and punt returner. Later, he had a brief career as a defensive back in the Canadian Football League. After that, he moved on to teaching and coaching at various high schools in West Virginia and Virginia. He coached for a short time at Calhoun and later served as an assistant coach at Parkersburg High School. He is retired and currently lives in Virginia.

Shaffer moved to Ohio after graduating from high school where he found employment and never played football again, although he had the ability to play on the college level.

Billy Wilson played football with Shaffer and Vannoy. Billy, who lives beyond Big Springs, told me a story one time that involved Shaffer. This story illustrates Shaffer’s carefree outlook very well. Billy was visiting relatives in Akron or Barberton, Ohio sometime in the 1970’s. It was a warm summer day. Billy went into a local bar to enjoy a beer. He ordered a cool one and sat at the bar relaxing with not a care in the world. From the back of the room, someone starting talking rather loudly about how stupid West Virginians were.

Billy overheard that remark, dismissed it, thinking it was some ignorant Buckeye just spouting off. When that voice further stated that the people from Calhoun County were especially stupid, Billy decided he had heard enough. He jumped off the bar stool, turned around and demanded, “All right, who is the S. O. B. that made that last remark?” From the back of the room, Lowell Shaffer slowly stood up grinning and came forward. The two former Calhoun football players had not seen each other in years. Both grinning now, they embraced in what was actually a bear hug. They sat at the bar and reminisced for several hours.

I learned last summer at the All Class Reunion that Lowell C. “Tom” Shaffer had passed away in December of 2011. He and Harry Vannoy were tremendous competitors and made that 1956 season very exciting. I feel that I was very fortunate to have seen them in action during that time when I was a freshman and they were the Gold Dust Twins. Today, they belong to the lore of Calhoun football of a time that was.

I would recommend to anyone interested in Calhoun sports history to visit the new Calhoun High School and go to the wall that contains Sports Hall Of Fame. You could spend hours looking at the photos on the wall. You will see pictures of people you know or have known such as Glen Fowler, Bunk Stump and Leon Yoke as well as athletes of the modern era.

Also, I highly recommend Robert Bonar’s written history of Calhoun’s football program and the Underwood Museum. Over the years there have been many memorable moments for the teams and individual players of all sports. When you do visit the Hall, please take the time to seek out the varsity football photo of the class of 1957. Look closely and you will find the Gold Dust Twins and their teammates who so unselfishly contributed to their success.


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