Photo by T. Paige Dalporto, the Register-Herald
By Tyler Jackson
LEWISBURG – For Colby Piner, 2019 was a tough year.
After earning Class AAA second-team all-state honors as a sophomore in 2018 while helping guide Greenbrier East to the playoffs, he was ruled academically ineligible for his junior season. As a result, he missed out on another playoff campaign as the Spartans hosted their first playoff game since 1998.
That served as motivation.
“Coming from my sophomore year I was expecting another big year as a junior,” Piner said. “It hurt so bad that I couldn’t make it on that team. I knew I had to get my grades up and play my senior year. I missed out on that my junior year and knew I had to make a statement my senior year.”
Piner did just that, rushing for over 1,000 yards and piling up 453 as a receiver. But he was just as dangerous on special teams where he returned 17 kicks for 715 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 42 yards per return while also returning five punts for 100 yards.
For his accomplishments, Piner has been named the Fulton Walker Award winner by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Finishing behind Piner in the voting were George Washington kicker Michael Hughes, Doddridge County’s D.J. Devinney and Wheeling Park’s Andrew Glass.
The award is named after Fulton Walker who played at WVU and later in the NFL as a cornerback and return specialist for the Dolphins and Raiders and is presented annually to the top special teams player in the state.
For Piner, It didn’t take long to cement himself as a candidate, returning the opening kick of the season for a touchdown against rival Woodrow Wilson.
“He was really determined to show his athletic abilities,” Greenbrier East head coach Ray Lee said. “He wanted to make up for that year he missed and we don’t like talking about it, but he came out with just a great attitude to make his senior year one of the best years with it being his last year. He worked hard at it and we commend him on it and really supported him through the whole ordeal and I think how he performed just really showed how motivated he was to get back on the field and contribute.”
Of course, returning kicks and punts can be one of the most volatile tasks in the game and it’s often forgotten about.
The perils of the position include keeping your eyes on the ball while the kicking team races at full speed down the field to clock you as soon as you catch the ball and attempt to return it. For Piner, that was never an issue or a fear.
“His love for the game and his attitude for the game were what made him such a good player there,” Lee said. “He had a desire to be successful wherever we put him. And there were things he worked on in practice to give him the confidence he had and make him more comfortable when returning kicks and punts. Those were just the little things he did that were extra. I think that just made him that much more confident in the job he had to do. And he was always determined to run a kick back for a touchdown. That was always his goal. He would always say he hoped they kicked it to him because he wanted to take it back and he made those statements and owned up to them and was disappointed when he didn’t score, but he always set us up in great position.”
Aside from his attitude, Piner’s love of playing special teams helped him excel in that facet of the game.
As a player who lined up at running back and receiver, and experienced success at both positions, he’s played enough to confidently identify where he likes playing the most.
“Kick returns are definitely my favorite part of the game,” Piner said. “I feel like if you win the toss you should take the kick every single time because if you make a play on the opening play of the game, it sets the tone for the rest of the game. Personally, I’ll play everywhere they put me because I love the game, it doesn’t matter to me. But special teams is where I love to play the most because you can make a big play and set your team up in pretty good position even if you don’t score.”
Piner became such a weapon in the return game that teams eventually stopped kicking to him, posing the challenge of how to get him involved with teams avoiding him. Lee and his staff were able to solve that issue.
“We talked about it a lot in practice,” Lee said. “We would put in decoys and try to hide him. Sometimes we had to guess when we saw they wouldn’t kick it deep to him. We saw that and we put him up close and then as the kicker would approach we’d guess and say he’d probably try to kick it over his head and would try to point him in the direction he needed to go and whoever was back there with him would do the same thing. I told him if I was playing against him I wouldn’t kick it to him and he’d get frustrated sometimes when he didn’t get that opportunity. We would laugh about it, but we tried to hide him and put in decoys.”
Those changes worked to get the ball in Piner’s hands as teams tried to avoid him. A prime example was East’s game against Sissonville, when Piner returned the opening kick for a touchdown.
“It was frustrating when teams wouldn’t kick it to me but we always tried to find ways to move me up so I could get the ball in my hands,” Piner said. “When it doesn’t work we do our best to get it done. We were still able to have success. The kick return against Sissonville, they moved me up two people because we knew they did that pooch kick over the middle and I returned the first kick of the game that they did that with so I don’t really think it mattered where I was. If I got the ball on a kick return, I tried to make something happen and that’s all I tried to do all year long.”
Piner will be presented with the Fulton Walker Award at the 74th Victory Awards Dinner May 23, 2021, at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.