A night they would never forget

(This is a chapter from the book Tragedy and Triumph about the 1967 Ashland football season. It was written in 2012).

The week of the state championship game was an exciting one in Ashland. The community was buzzing about the Tomcats as families began to prepare for Thanksgiving on Thursday and a trip to Louisville on Friday for the big game against Elizabethtown. It was an unusually damp and cold fall in Ashland and would continue to be in the days leading up to the finals.

Ashland was used to playing in the mud and muck with precipitation coming practically every Friday night throughout the season. The Tomcats were actually good “mudders” and some of the students thought they even played better in the mud.

“The muddier, the better,” said Cathy Goble, a senior majorette in the band. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It seemed like it rained every Friday night.”

Coach Jake Hallum was always big on family and he wanted to make sure the team was able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with their families on the eve of the state championship. They practiced early that morning, putting in some final game preparations and working on special teams, before being dismissed. The next day, he told them, they would eat a pre-game meal together at Paul G. Blazer High School at 11:30 a.m. and leave for Louisville around 1:30 p.m. It was about a four-hour drive to Louisville since the interstate didn’t yet come all the way to Ashland.

The Tomcats had a good week of practice and a lot of hype in the newspapers. Both teams maybe had to have a bit of a swollen head from the accolades that were being showered down on them from the opposing coaches.

Vince Hancock, coach of 12-0 Elizabethtown, called the Tomcats “the most underrated team the state has ever seen … they’re so big they could be mistaken for a college team. Belfry’s coach (Al Vipperman) told me Ashland is the best high school team he’s ever seen.”

Elizabethtown and Ashland were ranked only No. 8 and No. 9, respectively, in the final Associated Press regular-season poll. Obviously both the Panthers and Tomcats, a combined 24-1, came into the championship a bit underrated. There was only one poll in those days with all the classes combined. Most of the teams that were ahead of E-Town and Ashland were in the higher Class AAA division, which was made up of Louisville schools.

But nobody expected either of these teams to be in the championship game. It was shaping up as a dandy with Elizabethtown’s speed vs. Ashland’s strength. Hallum said E-Town reminded him of Harrison County except “maybe faster. They will probably be the best team we have played. They are a tremendous football team which does everything well.”

What the Panthers did best was utilize their skill players in a wide-open offense that was triggered by quarterback Gary Inman. E-Town was a big ahead of its time with a nice mixture of passing and running. Fullback-linebacker A.C. Thompson, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior, averaged five yards  a carry. He was considered the team’s best overall football player. While much of the attention was focused on a high-powered offense that averaged 37 points per game, it was the defense that was even more impressive. The Panthers had given up two touchdowns in a game only once all season, during a 55-12 victory over Shelbyville. Opponents averaged less than a touchdown in a dozen games.

Those were similar averages that Harrison County was putting up before coming to Ashland in the opening week of the playoffs. Hallum said the Panthers were even better than the Thorobreds, a team he said the Tomcats may have only beaten 1 in 10 times.

Inman was a three-year starter and two of the speedy backs, tailback Joe Welch and wingback David VanMeter, averaged 10 and 7 yards per carry, respectively.

E-Town’s soft schedule had come under some scrutiny but playoff victories over Henry Clay (30-0) and Mayfield (14-6) proved to most that it did belong in the finals. It didn’t matter what anybody thought anyway. The Tomcats and Panthers were in the championship game whether anyone thought they deserved to be there or not.

The talking was over. It was time to play.

On the day of the game, the Tomcat players started coming to the Blazer campus earlier than the 11:30 meal time. They were liked caged animals, ready for the long drive to Louisville and even more ready to play for a state championship. Only a few weeks earlier the Tomcats played Louisville Western on the road, winning 29-0. That successful trip was still fresh in their minds and put positive thoughts in their mind for the road ahead.

Little did they know that as they were arriving for the pre-game meal, the car accident that would take a classmate’s life had already happened. Joe Franklin was killed that morning around Farmer’s when the yellow Chevy Supersport he was driving collided with a truck. Franklin died at the scene and four other students  – three basketball players and a manager – managed to survive but were injured.

Franklin was popular in school and a former football player who had been the junior varsity quarterback in 1966 and even went to Camp Arrowhead in Hallum’s first season. He chose to quit football to concentrate his efforts on basketball, the sport where he excelled the most. Franklin most likely would have been a two-year starter for the Tomcats basketball team. They won the 16th Region title in what would have been his senior year of 1969 and reached the state semifinals.

The game plan was set for Friday night but the game plan for preparation would make some drastic changes after the coaches heard the tragic news about Franklin on a planned rest stop break in Mount Sterling. They talked about what to do and it was assistant coach Herb Conley who insisted they not tell the team the horrible news.

“It was definitely the right thing to do,” reflected Hallum nearly 45 years later. “It was tough to do, but it was the right thing. I remember being at the rest area. We told them we needed to get on to Louisville.”

While on the bus, only the coaches knew what had transpired. The players were focusing in on the task at hand. There was safety on the bus but once they unloaded, the coaches had to keep everyone with any knowledge of the accident away from the players. That meant nobody could be around them.

Once they pulled into the Fairgrounds Stadium, they hurried them to the locker room even though the original plan had been to watch the first half of the Class A championship game “to get a feel for the atmosphere.” That plan was out the window. If the Tomcats went into the stands, they would surely hear the news from fans who already knew. The assistant coaches guarded the door to the dressing room, making sure nobody got in. It was breaking news in Ashland even before the team left for Louisville but word didn’t travel instantly like it does today. There were no cell phones or Smartphones with text messaging capabilities, no instant access to the Internet – there wasn’t even an Internet at all. The coaches knew, if they were careful enough, they could keep the players focused on the game and away from the horrible news that could affect how they played.

Ashland’s team happened to be on the side of the Fairgrounds Stadium field that didn’t have stands behind it. Toward the end of the game, though, some fans lined up behind them and Hallum suspected that the news got relayed to a few players. Forty-five years later, several of the players said they had found out during the game.

However, even if they knew, it didn’t affect their play, at least not in the first half.

The Tomcats threatened to turn the state championship game into a rout by building a 19-0 halftime lead. The offensive line – center Bill Culbertson, guards Larry Johnson and Tom Lyons, tackles John Burton and Les Lyons and tight ends Jim Lyons and Russell Jones – were blowing open huge holes for Steve Scott, Tony Mulvaney and Paul Hill.

Hill, who had played sparingly since the regular season ended because of a knee injury, was back in the lineup and running strong again. Quarterback John Radjunas worked the ball-control offense to near perfection. The Tomcats ran 45 of the 62 offensive plays in the first half with short-yardage runs that kept the football out of E-Town’s hands.

Ashland liked nothing better than to ram the ball down the opponent’s throat. “Nobody could play power football any better than us,” Les Lyons said.

Scott, Hill and Les Lyons made pounding runs at the E-Town defense, which was almost helpless to stop the Tomcats, who had 177 yards rushing before intermission.

Ashland marched 59 yards on 13 players after taking the opening kickoff to assume control of the game. Hill’s 12-yard burst out off a block from tackle Les Lyons was a key play. Radjunas completed a pair of passes for 20 yards, including a 16-yard gain to Robbie Keeton, and scored the touchdown on a one-yard sneak behind the ever steady Culbertson. Hill’s extra point kick was to the left and the Tomcats led 6-0 with 7:48 left in the first quarter.

The play that Lyons brought in from the sideline was supposed to go to him but Radjunas changed it to a quarterback sneak. “When I first became a fullback, I fumbled a lot,” Lyons said. “When I was a junior, I got in against Catlettsburg to run the ball and dropped it twice near the goal-line. I took the play in and said, ‘Belly 6 Johnny.’ He said, ‘Oh no. We can’t take a chance on fumbling down here. Quarterback sneak.’’’

Ashland was on the move again on its second possession, this time driving 68 yards on 12 players to make it 12-0. Scott went over from six yards out on the option after left end. Hill’s kick for the extra point again sailed left. Meanwhile, the Tomcats’ defense was putting the clamps on a highly explosive E-Town offense. But mostly, the game of keepaway was what was keeping the Panthers at bay.

A 65-yard drive, this one on nine plays, brought Ashland its final touchdown just 1:29 before halftime. This time the Tomcats used some play-action passes for some big gains. Radjunas connected on a pair of passes for 32 years. The payoff was a 22-yard pitched to the speedy Mulvaney, who dashed to the end zone to make it 18-0. This time Hill connected on the extra point to make it 19-0.

The game was played in perfect conditions – at least as far as the Tomcats were concerned. It was a chilly and rainy night and players were covered in mud. Hancock believed the rain may have hampered E-Town during the first half. “The rain got us mentally down before we even started because we rely so much on our speed and quickness,” Hancock told reporters afterward. “We needed to pass to do well, but the kids just made up their minds in the second half to forget about the weather and play football. I’m proud of them.:

Ashland majorette Cathy Goble remembers coming out of her boots when it was stuck down in the mud. The but the game fit Ashland’s style perfectly. The Tomcats were doing what they do best – controlling the football and playing physically on defense.

E-Town’s first-half numbers were staggering: the Panthers had only three yards rushing and 16 passing.

But it was a different team that came out in the second half.

Elizabethtown got back into the game in a hurry, scoring two touchdowns in a 38-second span. From that point it was iup to the defenses in a championship game that had fans from both teams buzzing.

Safety Rick Ricketts ignited the explosion by returning an Ashland punt 48 yards to the 25 early in the third quarter. Inman, who was 1-for-8 passing in the first half, completed three for 16 yards on the short drive that ended when he swept right for a touchdown from four yards out. He also added the conversion run (then worth only one point) to pull the Panthers within 19-7.

The slippery football gave E-Town a huge break a few seconds later. The ball popped out of Scott’s hands while he was attempting to field the kick. It squirted forward and was recovered by E-Town’s Larry Daniels on the 35.

Ricketts gained 14 yards – the Panthers’ longest run from scrimmage – and Inman connected on a pass to Jim Hartman to the 10. The flanker took it the rest of the way in to complete a 21-yard touchdown play. Inman’s second conversion run made it 19-14 with 3:32 left in the third quarter.

E-Town had dominated the third quarter like Ashland had the first half, running 28 plays to the Tomcats’ nine in the quarter. The drama was just beginning.

The Panthers were on the move again early in the fourth quarter, going from the 50 to the Ashland 25. However, an Inman pass was intercepted by Hill on the 20. Hill said it was actually a wrong read on his part but when he turned, the pass came right to him and he cradled it softly. On the play prior, Radjunas had intercepted a pass but it was nullified by a penalty.

“I was pretty discouraged then,” Radjunas told The Courier-Journal after the game. “But Hill saved us on the next play.”

Hill said he was expecting a screen pass, which the Panthers had executed perfectly in two earlier scoring drives. “But I just cut across the field and there was the ball. I just tried not to drop it. It was like a gift from heaven.:

The clock showed 10:36 remaining at that stage and that’s when Ashland launched its last time-consuming march. While it didn’t result in points, it did chew up most of the time. The Tomcats grudgingly gave up possession on the E-Town 10-yard line with only 1:53 remaining.

Inman, who was 15 of 25 for 151 yards in the second half, completed three passes for 34 yards but the big play was one that goes down statistically as an incompletion. But it could have been a game-changer or probably a game-winner.

With the seconds running out and the ball on Elizabethtown’s 30, fleet-footed Joe Welch managed to get completely behind the Ashland secondary on the latter’s 35. Inman had time to throw but the pass, which had touchdown written all over it, was overthrown by about five yards. It felt harmlessly incomplete and the Tomcats – and especially Radjunas, who had been beaten on the play – breathed a sign of relief.

“This is the greatest win I’ve ever had,” Radjunas said. Then he rhetorically asked, “What did Coach Hallum do to change Ashland into a power? He created enthusiasm in our football program. Before we came down there, there were signs all over town encouraging us.”

Jim Lyons, the fine blocking tight end, was thrilled to have a part of the championship, too. “We set our goal to win this thing two years ago when Coach Hallum first came to Ashland. It’s hard to believe it’s ours now.”

With that, Hallum called all the players over to huddle up around him and then told them the grim news about Joe Franklin’s death. The celebration that had ensued on the field and spilled into the dressing room was finished. There was nothing but stone silence, except for the shuffling of cleats on the concrete floor as the Tomcats took off their uniforms, some for the last time.

They had won the game they wanted to win but a friend’s shocking death made it all seem so hollow.

It would indeed be a night they would never forget.

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