Imagine if Ashland’s football team returned from Lexington on Saturday night and they didn’t celebrate that fabulous victory over Elizabethtown.
No party at Putnam Stadium.
No band greeting the team with the fight song.
Not so much as a “Go Tomcats!” cheer.
Fifty-three years ago, when the Tomcats came home after defeating Elizabethtown 19-14 for their first state championship in the playoff format, it was a subdued celebration in Ashland.
The year was 1967 and it was a day after the damp Friday night finals in Louisville. The Tomcats spent the night and were coming home to Ashland on Saturday for what was assumed would be a big celebration, complete with a firetruck ride around town and adoring fans patting them on the back.
They thought that because that’s how championships were celebrated in the 1960s here and the community had the format down.
Ashland’s Little League teams won state titles in 1961, 1963 and 1964, the basketball team had captured the state championship in 1961 with one of Kentucky’s greatest teams, the Tomcat baseball team in 1966 finished a perfect season (that’s right, we had an undefeated season in that sport too) on the way to the first of three consecutive state championships.
So the football players knew the drill and they were looking forward to their turn. It was a big deal.
But when the buses neared Grayson, only about 30 minutes from home, Tomcat coach Jake Hallum motioned for captains Paul Hill and John Radjunas to come up and speak with him at his seat. Hallum told them there wasn’t going to be a celebration out of respect to the family of Joe Franklin, the young man who was killed in an accident near Farmers on Friday morning. Hallum wasn’t really asking his captains but more telling them. Even though they wanted to celebrate, because that’s what you did, the captains understood the message given by Coach Hallum.
But in a day when mobile ‘phones were only on “The Jetsons” and texting wasn’t yet a verb, the message that there wasn’t going to be a celebration didn’t quite get communicated to everyone in Ashland. When the bus carrying the team reached the city limits, cheering fans were lined up on U.S. 60 to celebrate with their newly crowned champions.
But instead of stopping, the bus drove on over to the front of the gym at Paul Blazer High School’s campus. Several hundred fans followed them there and gave polite applause as they unloaded the bus. The coaches spoke briefly, as did Mayor Everett Reeves, who was the only one who made mention of the death. And that was that.
No celebration, no firetrucks, no party.
Nobody was in much of a mood to celebrate. They were feeling the shock that comes with loss of young life. It was a cold reality of how fragile life could be. Joe Franklin was the All-American boy, a good athlete who had a bright basketball future, who was a brother to two older sisters and a well-mannered son to a hard-working father and mother.
It was such a horrific loss for the community that it brought a pale over any kind of celebrating a football game. The coaches had already voted to cancel a Tomcat Booster Club celebration planned for Central Park.
The championship game win came a day after Thanksgiving and Franklin’s funeral would be Sunday. Everybody was stunned over this tragedy.
Basketball practice had started and those Tomcats had to deal with stark reality of death, too. Franklin was a teammate and three other basketball players – Tim Huff, David Staten and Jerry Owens and manager Burl Kegley – were in the car with him. Kegley was badly injured but the others miraculously escaped major harm.
The team didn’t learn about the accident until after the championship game ended when Coach Hallum climbed on a chair and told them the sad, sad news. A once-jubilant locker room became nothing but the sounds of cleats clacking on the concrete floor.
Forty-five years after the Tomcats captured that state championship, they got their celebration when the book Triumph and Tragedy was launched eight years ago. Donna Childers Suttle hosted a book signing party at her florist shop and the Ashland Fire Department brought over a truck for the players to take pictures around.
It wasn’t how they envisioned it 45 years ago, when their whole lives were in front of them, but the bond of teammates remained striking.
It’s part of what happens when a team goes through a championship experience whether they celebrate it or not. You’ll find that to be true 2020 Tomcats.