Putnam Stadium looked better than ever the other day. The turf was brown but the big maroon A at midfield still looked good on this sunshiny day. It was almost as if the old man that is Putnam Stadium was smiling. So, shaking off my shyness, I went up to him and started up a candid conversation.
So I heard you had a state championship victory party here last week. How did that go?
“Oh man, it was great. I’ve been waiting 30 years to have one like that again. I remember the last one – 1990, right? – those boys were so excited. They rolled the bus right onto my turf, through my back gate. I’m not sure how the driver did it, but he did. It was so cool. I remember the young kids chasing the bus like they were the Beatles or something. How old are those guys today, like 50? Man was that bunch fun to watch maul people.”
The Tomcats played a lot on your turf this season, which I know nobody enjoys more than you, but how did you hold up? Two of those games were in December!
“Oh, it was great! It’s lonely over here on Friday nights when they play somewhere else and winter is always hard on me. I wish every game was here and I loved having two here in December. When these guys come off the big yellow bus and walk in that locker room, I get all tingly inside, even after all these years. When Dicky (Martin) comes through the gates, it’s like seeing an old friend. I love that guy because he loves me. He tells me all the time…. I sure do miss having Dirk Payne around with him. He loved me too. You know who else I was happy for the other night? Coach Tony Love. That guy has been around here a long time. He deserved to celebrate like this more than anybody. What a class act. He was proud of this team and, let me tell you, I’m proud of him … he does things right.”
Do you need a tissue?
“No, I’ll be all right. The other guys, Steve (Conley) and Joe (McDavid), they love me too. I get better care than most front yards in Ashland. I mean those guys really, really care about how I look and they coddle this old man’s every blade of grass. I dare anybody to find better looking real turf anywhere. That’s all natural, you know. Even after that real muddy game, they got me looking good for the next week. You’d never known it was a mud bath a week earlier. I don’t know how they did it. I mean, I’m 83 years old!”
Did you know the Tomcats have won 21 consecutive games here? That’s the best streak ever here.
“You think I didn’t know that? I’m counting every one of them. Wasn’t that last one something else? Those Belfry boys are good football players and they came in here looking for a fight, but my Tomcats were better. And when those Belfry games were disrespecting me at midfield, I was so mad. But guess who came to my defense? They smacked them right in the mouth! That was an old school game, the kind I really like to have played on my turf. Reminded me a lot of that 67 team with the Lyons boys, Radjunas, and those guys. I remember that Belfry coach then called them brutes. He was right.”
This was a different kind of year for you – heck, not just for you, for all of us! I mean, you looked great as always, but I’ll bet it was kind of lonely. The fans couldn’t come because of the pandemic. A lot of us wouldn’t have had the chance to watch these guys play if not for a Facebook broadcast. You probably don’t know about Facebook.
“Well, you know, it was kind of lonely. I kept wondering where everybody was. This team sure was fun to watch. It’s too bad so few people got to see them in person. I never knew what was going on but everybody who came in seemed to be wearing something on their face. I thought it was something I did.”
No, no. It wasn’t you. It was a virus that was called COVID-19.
“Well, that’s a relief to hear. I was beginning to wonder if my turf was putting off some kind of allergic reaction. And, yes, I’ve heard of Facebook. I don’t live under a rock you know … Steve and Joe don’t allow rocks on my turf.”
The sights and sounds of Friday night were a lot different. But were there some familiar things about it for you?
“Yes, they were, especially with so few people here. I love hearing Chuck Rist’s voice after every play. He makes me feel good, like a comfort food for the ears. We have tradition here and people like Dicky and Chuck well, you know, they’re a big part of it. They tell us what’s happening. I saw we had some new guys who were broadcasting the games, too, on Facebook as you said. That one young fella, Tyler (Rowland), sure does get excited when the Tomcats do something good. I could hear him screaming myself so I can’t imagine how loud it must have been over the airwaves. It was a sweet sound to me though. I guess it was good that we had them since so few people were allowed to watch this great team play.”
It has been 62 years since the last undefeated team and 78 years since the last unbeaten and untied team. Do you remember the 1958 and 1942 teams?
“I remember every team. I was just a young place watching that ’42 team, only five years old. The place didn’t look like this. The turf was fresh but Spencer Heaton, Doc Rice and J.C. Kennard could sure tear it up. You should have seen that team! Nobody was out-toughing those guys. I get excited thinking about them. Then in 1958, Herbie Conley – man do I love that guy – and his buddy Dick Fillmore were so exciting to watch run up and down this field. They called them Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. What thrills they provided me here! I love that Herb overlooks us here still. I feel very safe with him up there on the concourse.”
You saw this team performing all year. What did you like about them?
“I tell you, as much fun as watching some of those long touchdown runs from (Keontae) Pittman and (JT) Garrett was, the defense is what I liked most about this team. They chewed up people and I’ve not seen anybody play like the (Hunter) Gillum boy did. He was everywhere! Nothing came easy with these guys. When Jack Alley pulled down that interception against Belfry to lock up the win, I thought this old guy was going to cry. It had been so long. The only thing I missed about that night was the fans rushing the field like they did in 1990. You have no idea how good that feels on the turf. I was so sorry they didn’t do that.”
You got a facelift in 2014, so how are you holding up?
“Well, I’ll be honest. I don’t see as well as I used to so maybe some new lights are in order. And, you know, my hearing ain’t so good anymore either. We could use a better sound system. As much as I like this original turf, I could stand an upgrade there too. Steve and Joe aren’t getting any younger. Greg Jackson is another guy that sure means a lot to me. He’s made me look good for the last six years when I really started aging, maybe even dying. He gave me second life. Greg put up those banners of all the champions – even his 75 JAWS guys. I loved them and they will forever be a state champion to me and even have a trophy that says so. Whatever anybody does for me is fine, I’ve certainly had the best life. I’ll always be Putnam Stadium no matter what they do to me. Do you think we can we plan another victory party for next December?”
Well, that’s not up to me. But I think the Tomcats may be planning on it.