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Barney Riggs, inspiring generations

When you think of sport coaching legends, you probably think of a favorite pro, college or high school coach.

Around here, a lot of athletic fans remember just one coach — a coach who meant more in their own lifetime than just about anyone outside of their family.

Barney Leland Riggs liked nothing better than playing ball and being a coach — or as some would call him, an athletic mentor. Just when he finally picked up that first ball isn’t known, but it couldn’t have been much later than when he took his first baby steps.

Born in California, May 3, 1926, his family brought him and his two sisters to Talent before Barney was 6. One can only assume that Barney quickly took to competitive baseball and football games with his neighborhood friends, but it wasn’t until he was 13 that he finally broke into the newspaper. It was 1940, and he was graduating from the ninth grade at Ashland’s junior high school and headed on to the Ashland High Grizzlies.

Barney had played guard on the school’s football team, and his coach, Al Simpson, was lamenting the fact that 19 of his starters, including Barney, were graduating and leaving. Ironically, in a few more years, Simpson would be Barney’s football coach all over again.

In Barney’s three years of high school, he played baseball and lettered in both football and basketball. He also played the sousaphone, one of those tubas that wrap around your shoulders, but he didn’t get very much newspaper ink for that.

His claim to fame in baseball came in May 1942, when he ruined a Jacksonville pitcher’s no-hitter by singling in the first inning.

Most of his high school headlines came from football — a simpler game in the 1940s — the offense most often in a T-formation. Barney was the team captain and starting 170-pound left halfback.

Barney had a field day in November 1943, taking down the Black Tornado with 130 yards rushing and two touchdowns. “He was literally unstoppable,” said a reporter.

As a 17-year-old hoopster, he helped lead the Grizzlies to the state basketball championship in 1944, and, a month later, April 12, as if to celebrate, he joined the Navy. He served two years, and when discharged he celebrated again by getting married and signing up for classes at Southern Oregon Teachers College, today’s Southern Oregon University. Again, Barney was reunited with Coach Simpson and taking the football team to an undefeated season.

After graduation, he began 26 years of teaching, always finding time for sports. From Talent Elementary to Medford at Lincoln, then Central Point, and finally, in 1955, Medford’s Hedrick Junior High, he mentored his way through the classroom and onto the field. Hedrick was a brand-new school, and Barney helped choose the cardinal and gold school colors. And, of course, he coached the football team.

Barney Riggs died Feb. 24, 2008. Gone is his positive, smiling, inspiring personality that left its mark on generations of students and student athletes — and for them, Barney will be missed.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.