Forty-five years ago, the Ashland football team nicknamed “JAWS” was undefeated and ranked No. 1 yet faced a long bus ride to Paducah for the Class AAAA State At-Large championship.
Even with chartered buses, this would be no easy trip.
“Why don’t we fly?” asked super booster David “Dirk” Payne during a meeting of boosters. They all looked at each other, saw he was serious, and began putting in motion a first in Kentucky high school football history.
The late David Payne loved his Tomcats like few ever have and he wasn’t joking. With those four words, a fundraiser began. Ashland Oil was still in Ashland and they helped secure the Southern Airlines flight that was going to cost $10,000 to take the team, cheerleaders and some boosters from Tri-State Airport in Huntington to Paducah. They would be in the air about an hour, maybe less. They would have been on a bus closer to 10 or 12 hours.
It had never been done before in Kentucky because high school football teams don’t travel by air.
Unless you’re the Tomcats.
They unbelievably were able to collect enough money to pay for the flight as businesses and individuals gladly donated. The Tomcats left on the day of the game and then made those donations good with an inspired 13-7 victory over a highly talented Paducah Tilghman to become State At-Large champions. The next step was St. Xavier in the overall Class AAAA championship.
Ashland was trailing Paducah 7-6 late in the fourth quarter when speedy Gary Thomas followed some great blocking and turned on the jets for an 85-yard touchdown run. I wonder if the Tomcats had made a 12-hour bus ride across the state how the fourth quarter may have played out?
The Tomcats had collected the support of a community and then showed it on the field to improve to 14-0.
For many players on the team, it was their first time on an airplane. Many of them were nervous. Remember, this was only five years removed from the 1970 Marshall plane crash tragedy that took 75 lives and the flight was leaving and coming back to that same airport.
Ashland loves a winner even more than most people. That’s why when they reached out Sunday night to start a fundraiser to help defray cost for one night’s stay before Saturday morning’s championship game against Elizabethtown, Tomcat Nation began opening their wallets and their hearts.
They did so in grand fashion. It was interesting to watch and interact on Facebook as they donated for friends, for their class, for former teammates and for the 2020 undefeated Tomcats who have provided us something good in this COVID-marred year. They have given us something to cheer for when the world seems to be in a perpetual boo since March.
Even the Tomcat opponents have donated. I know one friend who gave $25 from Red Devil Nation and another from Fairview donated. I’m sure there were many others. They are rallying around a great team even while wearing rival colors. How cool is that?
There have been lots of challenges for classes to match donations.
I don’t know how much has been raised but keep giving. Everything helps the cause and maybe $10,000 could be the goal for 2020 too? You’ve dug deep already? Dig deeper. These opportunities at state championships don’t come around every year – it’s been 30 years for the Tomcats. Give them every chance to bring back that title from Lexington and, if there’s money left over, maybe we can size them for some championship rings.
In a normal year, this wouldn’t have to be done. But these Tomcats have played in mostly empty stadiums this season, so the Ashland coffers are empty, too. Empty stadiums, but full hearts.
I love how the Tomcat fans have stepped up, just like they did in 1975 when the late David Payne said, “Why don’t we fly?” If Dirk were here today, he’d be leading the charge to make sure these Tomcats each had a room to themselves and breakfast in bed. You know that’s true. (By the way, Dirk got the last available seat on that plane ride).
How much more ready will the Tomcats be to wake up Saturday morning in Lexington instead of climbing on a bus at 8 a.m. and driving two hours? It might be the difference in a late touchdown and winning or losing.
Just ask those JAWS Tomcats what being fresh can mean when it really matters.
Fly high 2020 Tomcats. This community is behind you.
HOW TO GIVE: Checks can be made out to Ashland Athletic Department and mailed to Donna Suttle 1520 Lexington Ave. Ashland KY 41101. If you would like to pay electronically, you may pay in the following ways: