One of Centre County’s biggest sports fans, Philipsburg’s Brian Wood loves the games

If you’ve been to a Philipsburg-Osceola High School sports event — it doesn’t matter what sport — you probably know Brian Wood.

No matter where the game is played, Little Woody or just Woody, as most people know him, is likely there.

As another year of high school sports is about to kick off, he just might be the biggest fan in Centre County, if not all of central Pennsylvania.

He’s a huge Penn State fan, but most of all he gives his support to P-O. Whether it’s wrestling, football, basketball or volleyball, you can find him at the games. He is especially there for the Lady Mounties softball team as a volunteer assistant coach.

“Woody means a lot to the program,” recent graduate and outfielder Chelsey Henry said. “I don’t know if he realizes that or not. I really enjoy having him around. He’s a good friend.”

He’s there for the program in so many ways, helping to prepare the field, putting together scouting reports, being an in-game go-fer or helping team members warm up before games or between innings.

And when the Lady Mounties win, especially a big win, he’s the first one onto the field to celebrate with the girls. In the first round of the PIAA softball tournament in early June, P-O trailed Steel Valley 5-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh inning. Haylee Hayward and Henry hit back-to-back solo homers to tie the game, then Hayward won it with an RBI double in the eighth.

“After that Steel Valley game, I’ve never seen a grown man cry that much,” Hayward said. “Seeing Woody cry after that game, you realize this is so much more important.”

Woody loves the Mounties.

“He’s more into the games than the girls sometimes,” former P-O standout and current softball assistant coach Chelsea Rex said. “You can tell he’s nervous sometimes, pacing or sitting there.”

Tough beginning

The start of Woody’s life was rough. He was just 12 hours old when he had his first surgery. He was born in Harrisonburg, Va., but had to be rushed to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, for surgery to repair an esophagus detached from his stomach.

Weighing a little over five pounds, he also had a hole in his heart. He spent the first three weeks of his life in the hospital.

“He had a rough medical start from Day 1,” said his father, Richard Wood, a longtime wrestling official and former athletic director at P-O.

A number of procedures followed, but at least there were no more surgeries until five years ago, when he had he had wires placed around his heart. Then the wires broke a few weeks later and he had to go back and have the procedure done again.

The conditions early in life left him smaller and weaker. He played basketball and wrestled early, but had to give them up by junior high.

It didn’t curtail his sports passions, however. He was still going to matches and games, cheering for brothers Cory and Brad and all his friends.

With his father officiating wrestling matches, he is almost always riding along in the car to matches. He went to his first PIAA championship meet in Hershey by sixth grade, and hasn’t missed one since. The same goes for the District 6 and regional meets.

“When I go to a match, guess who’s beside me?” asked Richard Wood, figuring they see close to 30 matches a year together. “He’s my sidekick.”

Woody rides with neighbors to Penn State football and wrestling events, and he and his father also hit the road for the NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis and New York in recent years.

With all those big events, when asked what his favorite game was that he’s been to, his choice is from a little closer to home.

“It has to be P-O-Bald Eagle every year,” Woody said. “It’s crazy. Big rivalry. … Football, wrestling, softball, whatever.”

Everybody knows your name

You name the gym or diamond, when Woody walks in, someone there knows him. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Bellefonte or Spring Mills, Pittsburgh or Harrisburg.

“Oh my gosh — how ‘bout that?” Hayward asked. “Honestly! He knows everybody. He always knows the gossip.”

“I’m not sure if anyone in Centre County doesn’t know Brian,” P-O softball coach and retired P-O teacher Jim Gonder said. “No matter where we go, he’s got someone to talk to — fans or associates, partners in crime.”

Gonder and the softball team take advantage of those connections. When the team gets into the state tournament, as it has done pretty frequently for the past decade-plus, Woody knows someone who can help with a scouting report. Plus, he combs the internet digging up as much as he can about opponents.

“He’s an encyclopedia of information,” said Gonder, who has picked up more than 600 wins and two PIAA titles at the school. “Players’ names, he does a lot of research for us when we get into the playoffs for other teams’ statistics and players.”

One of the many numbers in Woody’s phone belongs to Bald Eagle Area Athletic Director Doug Dyke, a frequent source of information.

Most of the time he’s accurate,” Dyke said. “He’s always checking with me on scores, rumors about coaching changes — he’s always got his ear to the ground. He’s got a lot of inside scoops.”

Dyke has known Woody for better than two decades, since before he took over the BEA athletic office, and describes Woody as “a whirlwind” when he gets to a game.

“Except for softball, when he’s in the dugout, he’s usually politicking the whole time,” Dyke said. “He’s well known across District 6.”

Politicking is fitting — he can certainly collect the votes if he needs them.

“If there was a president of Philipsburg athletics, he would be it,” Rex said. “He knows everybody, anybody, it doesn’t matter where we go.”

The impact goes beyond high school events.

After his heart surgery in 2011, he got a get-well message signed by most of the Penn State football team, thanks to former Mounties tight end JD Mason, who was with the Nittany Lions at the time. Even head coach Joe Paterno signed it.

“Man, that was nice,” said Woody, who turned 40 earlier this summer.

Bringing a smile

Rex graduated from P-O in 2011 and went on to play at St. Francis. Now back helping the softball program, she hasn’t known a time when Woody wasn’t a part of the team. She made a point of sharing her fondness for the school’s biggest fan, and also recalled her fondest memory of him.

At a district playoff game years ago, the team arrived at the field for the road game extra early, and the gates to the field were still locked. Wanting to get onto the field to start warming up, Woody was sent to climb onto a bucket, jump the fence and let everyone in.

“All I remember is seeing this image of Woody head over heels, in the mid air, flopping over the fence,” Rex said. “The bucket went out from underneath him and his feet were in the air.”

The scene was not a one-time occurrence either.

“It’s happened everywhere,” Gonder chimed in.

“I’ve seen Woody on the ground, falling over, more than I have actually seen him walking around,” Rex laughed. “It’s never graceful when he falls — it’s pretty entertaining.”

While there have been less-than-graceful episodes, there also have been a lot more times he has intentionally made everyone smile. Armed with jokes, the team stays loose thanks to Woody. Rarely, if ever, does he get critical of the girls, keeping positive.

“Woody’s always a good laugh,” Rex said. “He’s always keeping everyone up, energy wise. He is our secret weapon. Not many teams have a Woody. We are very privileged to have a Woody on our team.”

“It’s all about having fun,” Hayward said. “He makes sure we have fun every single day in practice, whether we’re picking on him or not. He takes it and we love him to death.”

Giving his time

Woody does a lot more than help the Lady Mounties softball team.

In the summer, he helps coach the under-18 travel softball team. He works at the Centre County YMCA in Philipsburg as a volunteer, he’s frequently a line judge at Lady Mounties volleyball matches, and also volunteers at the high school. Current athletic director Lee Fisher calls Woody “a jack of all trades” assisting his office and students in tasks big and small.

He used to be a manager for the wrestling team, and he devotes a lot of time to the school and community.

“It keeps me going,” Woody said. “Into the community, seeing people, talk to people.”

Meanwhile, the team has his back even if they are picking on him like a brother.

“Sometimes we get on him pretty hard,” Hayward said, “but at the end of the day we’re so appreciative of what he does for us. I don’t think he realizes his role is as strong as it is.”

A frequent topic for good-natured needling is Woody’s abilities with the glove. When he plays catch with the outfielders, the throws back to him have to bounce a few times before reaching his glove.

“His arm’s good. His catching — not so much,” Henry said. “We would throw him the ball, and maybe it’s two feet to the left. He’d be like, ‘Go get it.’ We’d all be like, ‘Woody, why don’t you move two feet? Help us out instead of having us run 50 yards.’”

But they also know they can count on him no matter what. He’s always there for encouragement and a good rumor, plus helping in so many little things. During games, if a player left something in her car, he is willing to fetch it.

It is quite certain, there is no one around here like Woody.

“I don’t think he knows the impact he’s had on the players and coaches that have gone through the Philipsburg program — in any sport,” Rex said. “It really means a lot. If Woody isn’t at one of our games, then it doesn’t feel right. Something’s out of place.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT