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Rifle course no barrel of laughs

December 16, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

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I like to say that I studied marksmanship under Olympic rifle gold medal winner Ed Etzel. Which I did, just not very successfully.

Etzel was coach of West Virginia University's rifle team when I was there, and shooting was also offered as a phys ed course (this is West Virginia, remember -- I think they had a major in 12-gauge shotguns).

The rifle team was wildly successful, having won multiple NCAA national championships. But the sport was dropped in 2003, along with four other "minor" sports, seemingly so the funding could be used on the more visible athletic pursuits of basketball and football, according to a story this week in the Washington Post.

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The story details how a hillbilly rebellion of sorts inspired "one of the more improbable comebacks in college sports" that has led to reinstatement of the team and a rise to past glory.

"Instead of aspiring professional athletes, the key players were rank-and-file taxpayers, disillusioned parents and students, and small businesses such as Donnie's Citgo and Bub's Bar and Grill that mobilized a grass-roots fundraising campaign and lobbying campaign and forced the university to change its mind," writes Post reporter Liz Clarke.

Being an unreformed hillbilly myself, I would have joined the fight too, had I only known about it.

I suppose things are different today, but in my time, all journalism majors sought out two (required) physical education classes that offered a minimum of education and even less of a physical element.

Billiards/table tennis was the top choice. Some went for bowling, but to me that seemed to involve too much heavy lifting. So I happened to twig on the rifle course under the idea of "how hard can it be?"

The rub was that it was only offered at 8 o'clock in the morning, which -- I need to be truthful about this -- was not the time of day back then when I was at the top of my game. I won't say what went on the night before, other than to apologize for certain unspecified transgressions.

Marksmanship requires a steady hand, and at that time of day -- well, as I recall, the coach said the movement of my gun barrel "looked like I was stirring apple butter."

Nor had I reckoned on the noise. This was before ear protection, and at 8 a.m., boy, did my ears need protecting. If I had signed up for a phys ed class known as "Getting Hit Over the Head With a Shovel," it would have caused less pain.

To make matters worse, we were paired off with another shooter, and my luck, I'm matched up with some Elly May Clampett from the southern coal fields. I'm better about these things now, but back then, getting waxed by a girl every other morning was a blow to the soul.

I remember my first shot. Through bleary eyes, I was able to make out a rectangular sheet of paper at the end of the range. The .22 went "Crack!" and the paper moved a bit. With pride, I turned to Elly May.

"Nailed it," I said.

"Nailed what?"

"The paper."

"But you missed the target altogether."

"The paper had a target on it?"

It was pretty much understood at the time that in phys ed classes you got an A for merely showing up. I showed up. I received a B.

But it was still better than bowling.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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