WHEELING - The once mostly barren concrete walls of WesBanco Arena are brimming with Ohio Valley athletics history spanning from the early 1900s to present day.
The Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Sports Museum includes more than 100 display cases full of memorabilia, photographs, jerseys, trophies, medals, banners, helmets and much more donated by individuals and school districts from across the valley.
The museum, which opened in 2005, is free and open to the public during the arena's hours of operation - 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays. People already attending sporting events or concerts at the arena also can check out the displays while there.
Two of the museum's creators - Tom Rataiczak, OVAC executive secretary, and Doug Huff, retired sports editor for The Intelligencer - described the museum as one of the Ohio Valley's best-kept secrets. They hope more people will visit the facility not only to learn about the region's and world's greatest athletes, but about the history of the valley as well.
"You can't walk away and not be impressed," Rataiczak said during a tour of the museum. "There's something here that affects everybody in the valley."
Among the thousands of artifacts, the museum also includes one wall full of photos of OVAC Hall of Fame inductees, including Huff who was added in 2005. A few computerized kiosks dot the hallways and allow visitors to search for specific athletes, coaches and schools and read about them in detail. Rataiczak is working toward cataloguing each photo and item in the museum so people can do a search at the kiosk and find an item's exact location inside the museum.
Collecting the items has been quite an undertaking. But many of the photos and some memorabilia Huff already had collected during his many years as sports editor. For example, Huff used his personal baseball card collection and copied and enlarged them to add to a display case that also includes one of his original Niekro brothers cards.
"We wanted every school to have a case," Huff said. "We had to track a lot of it down."
Other items were donated by family members of athletes, the athletes themselves or by schools. The solid wood cases were crafted for free by Carpenters Local No. 3 apprentices. Since the museum has room to expand at the arena, people still can donate items or money to help with the upkeep of the display cases. Call (740) 671-3269 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The maintenance staff here has been phenomenal. They've given a lot of time and energy," Rataiczak said, noting scaffolding has been erected several times to hang banners and signs from the arena's ceiling.
Huff said they have worked to include items from every school in the conference, of which there are 50, and 20 former schools that have since closed for various reasons including consolidation. Many of those OVAC standouts went on to compete in college, the Olympics or as professional athletes. For example, Bridgeport High School alone produced baseball greats Joe and Phil Niekro, Olympic wrestler Bobby Douglas and NBA star John Havilcek.
While they continue to preserve relics of the past, Rataiczak said the museum must remember to start collecting today's items because they also are a part of the valley's history.
"When you look at it, it's a mind boggling, Herculean effort," Rataiczak said of the collection.
While showing her granddaughter, Alexis Nice, 11, of Steubenville around the museum, arena concessions Manager Robbie McCroskey said she enjoys looking inside the display cases.
"I love it. Every chance I get I look around. There's some very talented people here," McCroskey said.
Rataiczak said he also would like to have an OVAC museum website to allow former Ohio Valley residents - and the rest of the world - to see photos of the museum's offerings.
In addition to Huff and Rataiczak, other museum committee members include Linda Myers, Rick DeLuca, Dennis Magruder, Bill Hinegardner and Ron Mauck.