By MARK MAYNARD / Mark My Words
I’m so honored to be this year’s Distinguished Tomcat Award recipient.
Having written about most (all?) of the previous honorees, it’s easy for me to say I’m not worthy! Not trying to be humble, just real. I’d be proud to even be mentioned in the same breath with these greats who all gave so much more than I ever did.
These are awards you never expect to receive so when Ashland AD Mark Swift called me about a month ago to tell me the news, I was floored. “You sure you have the right number?” I asked. He assured me he did. I was still floored and even more so when he told me the committee’s vote was unanimous.
Here’s why. Take a look at this list of past honorees:
2001-Ralph Felty, All-State football player in 1937 for the Tomcats who went on to play in the Rose Bowl for Duke.
2002-Charlie Reliford, major league baseball umpire who is still regarded as the best “rules man” in the game.
2003-Brandon Webb, major league baseball pitcher and a Cy Young Award winner for goodness sake!
2004-Bob Wright and the Lynch family, a state championship coach of the famed ’61 Tomcats and a family whose talent – and class – was unmatched in Ashland sports. Billy and Bobby Lynch are two of the greatest athletes to ever wear maroon and white.
2005-Salyers family, Greg, Phil and Bryan, all great basketball players and great people who loved their Tomcats.
2006-Conley family, George, Larry, Joe and Linda. Some of the best of the best be it coaching or playing.
2007-Jerry Henderson, one of the greatest all-around athletes in Tomcat history and one of the greatest gentlemen in Ashland history.
2008-Harold Cole, outstanding basketball coach who knew how to win.
2009-Dr. Garner Robinson and David Green, who helped Ashland become the state’s first school with certified trainers.
2010-Dr. Loren Ledford, a diehard Tomcat who starred in basketball and was later a passionate supporter and team doctor.
2011-David Payne, Mr. Tomcat. Need more be said? Dirk Payne did more for the Tomcats than anybody on this list, period.
2012-Dicky Martin, The Voice. He is a strong part of the tradition and will fight you if you say anything bad about a Tomcat. He can say it, because he’s family. But don’t you try it around him.
2013-Mike Johnson, football and baseball player for the Tomcats who gave much back to Ashland’s youth as a baseball coach.
2014-Herb Alban, a 60-year Tomcat fan who has seen a lot during his 98 years. An amazing man whose life could be a movie.
2015-Steve Gilmore, whose lifetime has revolved around the Tomcats as a coach, teacher, administrator, superintendent and now huge fan as he works as mayor of the city.
2016-Herb Conley, an all-sport athlete and a football coach whose legacy is unmatched. Anybody else have a statue?
So how in the world does Mark Maynard make that list? It boggles my mind.
No matter if I was writing about the Tomcats or somebody else in the area during my 42 years at The Daily Independent, it was most important for me to be fair. However, I did grow up on Tomcat sports in the 1960s – a golden era in Ashland history. I watched the great baseball champions in Central Park and was faithful to the Friday Night Lights before they ever called it that.
My dad took me to the 1967 state championship football game in Louisville although I was only 10 and didn’t know about the Joe Franklin tragedy until years later. I can remember when those Tomcats would give kids on the field their chinstraps coming off the field. I may or may not have snagged one from John Radjunas, who helped me write Tragedy and Triumph a few years ago.
My dad and I often frequented the Sweet Sixteen when Ashland made the trip, which was often during those days. I died with them in 1969 during that last-second loss to Ohio County in the state semifinals and was stunned whenever they didn’t win the 16th Region. (That loss to Russell in the regional finals in 1972 was especially disturbing).
My love of sports developed through watching the Tomcats.
I’ve written three books that are Tomcat specific – Teamwork (1961 state basketball champions), Tragedy and Triumph (1967 football champions) and Tomcat Dynasty (1965-69 baseball teams, including the state championship 3-peat) – and all of those occurred during the fabulous ’60s.
I owe the Ashland sports tradition a lot for giving me a passion for something that turned into a career.
My first byline was the 1976 Kiwanis Bowl between Coles and Putnam Jr. High and it started one wild ride for me that included three trips to Final Fours, covering the 1990 National League Championship Series and World Series (not to mention the Tomcats football championship that year), interviewing Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan and watching Christian Laetner break everybody’s heart in 1992.
I covered thousands of stories for the ADI, as it was called when I started, and earned respect throughout the area, not just in Ashland, which was important to me. I was so blessed to learn under the best – the late, great Mike Reliford. He was my mentor and taught me how to communicate not only in print, but in person.
He taught me to write from the heart, write what you believe and have a tough skin because “you’re going to need it.”
That “tough skin” may mean not tearing up Wednesday night before the first game of the Ashland Invitational Tournament.