Remembering a Tomcat great from famed 1961 champions

Harold Sergent, one of Ashland’s greatest athletes and a shrewd businessman who made and lost fortunes during his lifetime, died alone in a nursing home in Florida a little more than a year ago.

A tremendous basketball and baseball player at Ashland High School and Morehead College, Sergent is best known in Ashland as the starting point guard for the 1961 state champion Tomcats. Some still consider that team the greatest champion in Kentucky high school basketball history. He later was a record-setting player at Morehead where his number 50 was retied and hangs in the rafters.

Sergent was a reclusive person in his later years and especially after the death of his wife, Linda, in 2009. They were married 46 years.

Good friend and former business partner John Stafford learned of Sergent’s death in July after doing some research through a friend who is an attorney. They learned he died July 26, 2021, in a nursing home near West Palm.

“They had no history who he was,” Stafford said. “Here’s a guy who was an All-American, point guard of the 61 Tomcats, a Phillips 66er and someone who played in the Pan Am Games. So many achievements he had, and nobody knew about them.”

Stafford became concerned because Sergent had spent many weeks with him at Stafford’s home in Ormond Beach in Florida. Sergent lived in West Palm, which was a close drive. The two of them were former business partners who worked together for years.

“I lost touch with him about two years ago,” Stafford said. “All of the sudden he just dropped off the map. I kept calling the phone numbers I had for him but none of them worked. He had gotten sick. Harold was a real introverted person. The last time he stayed with me, he couldn’t go upstairs to the bedrooms because of his legs that were in such bad shape. He went back home and that was the last time I saw him.”

Stafford later learned Sergent had been living in a one-bedroom apartment and couldn’t drive.

“We did business together, made lot of money together,” Stafford said. “He had some rough edges, but I gave it right back to him. You either loved him or hated him. They cremated him but I don’t know what they did with his ashes. It’s a shame for him to die like a pauper.”

Sergent and his wife lived a lavish lifestyle that included multiple mansions and a beautiful horse farm in Lexington. His life was most certainly lived in the fast lane. Stafford said he was a dynamo in the board rooms.

After helping Ashland win the 1961 state championship on a team loaded with talent, Sergent went on to star at Morehead from 1962-65, scoring 1,469 career points that included 363 free throws. He was a first-team Ohio Valley Conference selection three times and finished his career with a 23.2 scoring average. He was inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.

Sergent had 25 scholarship offers and he and teammate Gene Smith initially signed with Virginia Tech but backed out after a coaching change. They visited Florida State’s campus where Hugh Durham was the freshmen coach. Florida State had just changed from an all-female school so the ratio of male-to-female was still greatly tilted to the feminine gender, which suited Sergent and Smith (who ended up at Cincinnati). But neither went there.

Kentucky wasn’t one of Sergent’s offers as Adolph Rupp gave his last backcourt scholarship to Owensboro’s Randy Embry, a decision he may have regretted after Sergent’s sterling career at Morehead.

On the freshmen team at Morehead, he averaged 37 points per game, setting the stage for a big varsity career. Freshmen were not allowed to play on the college varsity level then.

Sergent scored 52 points (without the aid of the 3-point shot) against Middle Tennessee in the 1964-65 season and was named OVC Player of the Year in 1963, the first year that award was given. His No. 50 jersey was retired and hangs in Johnson Arena.

He also played baseball for the Eagles, becoming a first-team OVC selection when he won 10 games in one season.

Sergent was an outstanding baseball player for the Tomcats as well, growing up in Ashland when organized baseball was starting. He was a fire-balling pitcher who was hard to hit. But basketball was his calling card. While he averaged 15.2 points per game for the Tomcats in 1961, it could have been much more. Sergent and Larry Conley were considered the most talented players on that team. Conley was a junior and he led the Tomcats back to the state tournament as a senior where they fell in the finals to Louisville St. Xavier, 62-58.

Sergent and Conley’s point totals were also held down in 61 because coach Bob Wright often didn’t play them for more than a half in many of the lopsided victories. But they compiled a 36-1 season and dominated everyone in the Sweet 16 with four consecutive double-figure wins, including 69-51 over Lexington Dunbar in the finals. More than 60 years later, that team is mentioned among the all-time best because of their teamwork.

A book by the same name, Teamwork, commemorated the 1961 Tomcats on their 50th anniversary in 2011. That’s where I first encountered Sergent, who was friendly and open about the team, sharing many interesting anecdotes including how he was almost cut by Wright as a junior.

Sergent or Conley could have averaged 30 or more per game in 1961 but the beauty of that team was how well they worked together. Nobody cared who got the points, if the Tomcats got the win. Sergent was a natural athlete who was good at whatever he played.

“Anything he did athletically, he did well,” said Stafford, an athlete himself who was co-captain and an end for the 1962 Tomcats’ football team. “They’d play in the old YMCA on 13th Street on that small basketball floor where there was not room to walk around the court. They had a track over the top. All these great players would meet and play virtually every day together. They knew each other so well. People would line up on that railing to watch them play.”

Stafford said he admired Sergent and wanted to get to know him better, which he did.

Being about 5-foot-11 and wearing glasses, some may have questioned his athletic ability at first glance even but you did so at your own peril. Even later in life, Stafford said he could beat anybody in a game of P-I-G and he’d shoot in the low 80s in golf after not playing for a year. “His hand-to-eye coordination was amazing,” Stafford said.

After finishing at Morehead, he played for the Phillips 66ers in the Amateur Athletic Union, which at the time was the premier amateur basketball league in the United States. Playing in the AAU allowed players to still compete in international competitions like the Olympic Games and Pan Am Games because professional athletes were not allowed to participate. Sergent was twice named an AAU All-American in 1966 and 1967.

Sergent was inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 but didn’t make it to the ceremony. The 61 Tomcats are the last boys’ state championship team from the 16th Region. Ashland has since been runner-up twice, in 1962 and 1996, and Rowan County was runner-up in 2011.

Sergent was the second starter from the 1961 Tomcats to pass away. Bob Hilton, who scored 24 in the state championship game, died in 1980. Conley, Steve Cram and Smith were the other starters. Dale Sexton and Jerry Daniels were the top subs, making up what was called “The Solid Seven.”

Beating the odds: Sullivan shines brightly in athletic, professional careers

David Sullivan defied the odds to become one of the best receivers in University of Virginia history and a professional football receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

His career – both athletically and professionally – is so bright that sunglasses should be required.

Sullivan succeeded in both through faith, dedication, believing in himself and believing in teammates. Those are the hallmarks of success for Sullivan, whose accolades on and off the playing fields is a success story worth hearing and make him one of the greatest overachieving athletes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, high school football history.

He was a 6-foot, 165-pound senior at Steelton High School when his high school coached moved him from running back to flanker. He quickly adapted to the position, learning to run pass routes with proficiency. Sullivan’s soft hands and speed made him an instant success and paved the way for an improbable career.

Dave Sullivan was a record-smashing receiver at the University of Virginia. That helped him play two years in the NFL with the Browns.

In his first season as a prep receiver, Sullivan caught 35 passes for 672 yards and five touchdowns during Steelton’s 1967 season. A star was born and he caught the eye of the University of Virginia, which overlooked his frame and looked into the heart. They signed him to a college scholarship, believing they had found a diamond in the rough.

He became a rare find as Sullivan’s intellect and determination to succeed would take him all the way to the National Football League. He proved himself invaluable on the college level, becoming an AP honorable mention All-American and first-team Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver his senior year at the University of Virginia. Some have called him one of the greatest players in school history. The first-team All-America wide receiver in Sullivan’s senior year was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, proving he was in good company. He may have moved further up the All-America ladder had the Cavaliers produced a winning season.

Sullivan led the ACC in catches and receiving yards, becoming the only Virginia all-league player that season. He had 51 catches for 662 yards and seven touchdowns – all top marks for Virginia receivers in a single season – despite a revolving door of quarterbacks at Virginia. He was often the player that opposing defenses tried to take away but his uncanny route running ability and good hands overcame many double-teams.

For his career, Sullivan amassed 120 catches for 1,568 yards and 12 touchdowns, the first two setting Virginia records. He played in the Blue-Gray and Senior All-Star Games and began to draw the attention of professional scouts.

Another characteristic for Sullivan was his leadership abilities. Even though he was one of the best receivers in college football in 1972, teammates saw the same man they knew when he entered college. He was humble and generous – traits that would serve him well later in the business world. Sullivan was a winner who he did it within the team concept. He took that same attitude into his professional life after football was no longer an option.

When Sullivan was entering his senior year of high school, he wasn’t on anybody’s recruiting radar. But once he was moved to flanker and worked relentlessly to learn the position, not even his small frame or age was a deterrent. When he signed out of high school to Virginia, he was only 16 years old. He worked hard in the classroom too, ranking 22nd in a class of 152 in 1968.

By the time he was a senior at Virginia, he was 6-foot and 185 pounds – a far cry from the 155-pound receiver that went mostly unwanted by most major colleges. His size and speed – he ran 40 yards in 4.7 seconds – was under the radar by most pro scouts. But few in college ran routes better or had better hands than Sullivan, giving him a chance to become an NFL player.

Sullivan has been defying odds since he was a slender 115-pound sophomore trying to make the varsity at Steel-High. Two years later college after college passed on him because he was too small for their programs. All except for Virginia, which found a playmaking receiver.

Cleveland took Sullivan late in the 1973 NFL Draft, taking him in the 15th round. That didn’t deter him from believing he could make the team and contribute or even start. He played in seven NFL games, starting three and would have had a much longer career if not for a third knee surgery that proved to be too much. He caught five passes for 92 yards in his two-year career with the Browns.

In his finest game with the Browns, he caught two passes for 52 yards from Brian Sipe in a 26-16 loss to the Steelers. Sullivan was being defended by Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount in that game at Cleveland Stadium in 1974.

His degree from Virginia was in educational psychology, but he quickly learned the business side of the death care business. He liked the competitiveness aspect along with the traits of strong character, integrity and compassion with the customer.

He joined Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. in Indianapolis in 1977 and rose to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing. He stayed with that company for 18 years. Sullivan has 47 years in the sales and marketing end of the business and formed Saber Management in January 1998.

He was named the 2002 Ernst & Young Heartland, Indiana, Entrepreneur of the Year and led Saber Management to even bigger successes over the next 15 years before selling to Park Lawn Corp. in 2017 for $65 million.

Sullivan is also recognized for his philanthropy. He has been a consistent and generous donor to the nonprofit Amy For Africa, a Christian organization in Uganda, since 2014 – not only through his businesses but personally with wife, Sara. He has also been involved in many other charities promoting needs for children and others in need through both his business contributions and personally.

New book ‘DIVINEPLAN’ carries simple message: Follow Jesus’ plan for your life

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:1-3

The first line of Christian Villers’ new book offers a thought-provoking punch: “Imagine if you had only one hour to live.”

“Will it matter how many followers you have, how much money you’ve made or what kind of clothes you’re wearing?” he asks.

Villers is only 24 years old, a part of Generation Z, already a successful businessman, and someone who is pursuing a life of significance for Jesus Christ. Now he can add author to his title, although he strays away from all the tags except follower of Jesus. To him, that’s the only one that matters.

“When we understand what He has done for us, that’s where we find life,” he said.

Villers isn’t a theologian, a new pastor or even a seminary student. He’s also not a well-known writer or blogger but his book, “DIVINEPLAN,” he believes, can have an impact on young adults and others who are conflicted by the culture in today’s world. The book is written for believers and especially the non-believers who Villers said will understand who Jesus after reading the first chapter.

“For someone who doesn’t know a thing about Jesus, they’re going to learn about him,” he said. “I want them to understand what is significant. Significance isn’t found in money and fame and trophies. That stuff dies the day we do. The book is written to encourage people to live life of eternal significance. Each chapter shows how you can do that. It brings the light of Christ into every chapter. There’s 19 chapters and I really think there’s something in those 19 chapters for every single person. Whether you’re a 17-year-old or a 70-year-old, people have trouble finding purpose and meaning in life.”

Villers calls it an inspirational Christian book full of God’s truths. His business, also called “DIVINEPLAN,” is a Christian clothing company that gives young adults throughout the world something that “looked good and had a gospel message.” But, he said, “I realized God had so much more.”

While talking to people from around the world, he often found them gravitating toward life’s problems and away from Jesus. He would send them heartfelt messages peppered with God’s truths via Instagram that seemed to be making a gospel impact. The feedback he received was eye-opening. “They were inspirational messages to help lead them to Jesus,” he said. They wrote back to him that his messages were “encouraging and inspiring them to get right with Jesus.”

The messages kept coming and he provided the answers that some were seeking, and they almost always involved Jesus. He doesn’t claim to be a prophet or even a counselor, but the messages were hitting home.

“God gave me the opportunity to talk with people from Ashland to Australia who were struggling with anxiety and anger, and told me how much these messages helped them. A lady from New York said for the last six years has struggled getting a relationship with God. After our conversation, she was inspired to make things right. That’s when I knew God was using this to point them to Jesus.”

Many of those inspirational stories are part of “DIVINEPLAN.”

Villers said writing has come naturally, even from an early age when Mrs. Evans, his first-grade teacher at Oakview Elementary, would give the class writing assignments asking what are you thankful for? “A lot of my friends were saying video games or cheese pizza but even at that young age, I always used the opportunity to glorify Jesus, hoping it was a blessing to my teacher. So, I guess this is not all coincidence.”

He said he was working out with a basketball – another passion for him and his family – when that realization came over him. He said God was telling him that he was going to write a book. There was no mistaking the message. He began the process in March 2021, a year after the pandemic brought the world – and Villers – to a standstill. Villers said it was during the pandemic, when everything was taken away, that he truly came to realize the importance of being a true follower of Jesus. While he comes from a Christian home and attends church regularly at Ironton First Baptist Church, where his uncle Eric Barnes is the pastor, and came to a belief in Jesus at the age of 9, it took the pandemic’s deadly clutches to fully understand what it meant to truly follow Jesus.

“God formed and created me and surrounded me with what I say is the greatest family on earth,” he said. “My parents, John and Leigh, my extended family, my brothers, they were all so instrumental in my life. Even the community He placed me in. My whole life, I’ve been a Christian, but until age 22, until the pandemic hit, I wouldn’t say I was truly alive. I could check every moral box. According to the world, I was a good person. But I’d lost a little perspective of walking in God’s will for my life every single step. He has transformed my life.”

Villers’ goal with the book is to help others have a transformative life in Jesus Christ as well.

“I think this book is going to be a real eye-opener to people,” he said. “It puts things into perspective. We are only here for a short amount of time. They have eternal effects. From the first page to 214, I think it’s going to really inspire people to make the most of a life led by Jesus.”

“DIVINEPLAN” is available in Kindle or paperback on Amazon. Villers and Barnes are working on a study workbook that would go with it.

Any college group, church youth group or civic group that would like for Villers to visit can message him at Christian Villers on Facebook.

Ashland resident asks hard questions on gambling issue

The letter below was penned by Dave Williams, an Ashland resident and a close Christian friend of mine who is asking informed questions about the potential dangers of gambling coming into the community.

Dave is a bulldog and a watchdog, looking over the Ashland and Boyd County community with the best of intentions and trying to keep it the family friendly community we all remember. He only wants what is best for the future of his children and yours. He researches and asks questions, which is what everybody needs to be doing when culture shifts like this are hurriedly put into place.

Dave has provided links from legitimate sources, including one from Danville, Virginia, a community just a little bigger than here, and the impact casinos had on them. It’s not all fun and games. Gambling can and has ruined lives and wrecked families. Nothing this impactful on a community should be done in such a hurried fashion. That’s not in anybody’s best interest whether you support or oppose the issue.

Take the time to read this thoughtful and informative letter. You will be better prepared to understand what is truly at stake. And let your voice be heard.

Dave isn’t on social media (yet) so I’m putting this out there because, even though I’m no longer a resident of Ashland, it will always be home to me. I support Dave, who is running as a candidate for City Commission in Ashland this fall, 100 percent. He’s ringing the warning bells on gambling. Hopefully people will start listening. It can happen before you blink.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Boyd County residents,

This week Judge Eric Chaney and our three elected commissioners (Larry Brown, Randy Stapleton and Keith Watts) voted to approve beginning lease negotiations with Revolutionary Racing, based in Boston, Massachusetts, to lease the old Sears building at Camp Landing to open a gaming casino with 400 HHR,  Historic Horse Racing Wagering Terminals (aka SLOT MACHINES). 

The proposed lease was first read on May 10 and read a second time two days later on May 12 during an emergency meeting called by Judge Chaney. The quick rush to implement gambling into our community seems unimaginable, but it truly happened. Both meetings were filmed and posted to the Boyd County Fiscal Court Facebook page, if you want to confirm. 

The Fiscal Court repeatedly stated the second vote on May 12 was just to start the process of negotiating a lease and allow Revolutionary Racing to begin applying for a license to operate a horse track in Boyd County, and not a final approval. Fiscal Court was asked to have future public meetings in the evening when residents can all attend, but no assurance was given.

Concerned citizens voiced opposition at the May 12 meeting about social issues like crime, social cost associated with gambling addiction, and potential drug use, to name a few. We know the data from a 20-year-old clinical study that examined gambling’s impact on behavior within a community raises questions and concerns not being considered by the Fiscal Court. Refer to the link to access the 1999 University of Chicago report.  

A similar community in Danville, Virginia referenced this clinical study to determine the impact a potential casino would have on residents. Counties with casinos attributed 8% of their crime directly to the casino, noting 765 property crimes and 50 violent crimes per 100,000 people annually. Complicating crime data is the fact casinos provide 24-hour security to internally handle criminal complaints. Do we honestly think Boyd County will be immune to the escalated crime and drug issues sweeping our nation if gambling is approved?

Danville’s report also noted the entire county would see 2,200 gambling behavior addictions among its 60,000 population that would cost $3.2 million in social cost annually. 

Boyd County is close in population to the Danville / Pittsylvania County area so it’s easy to think similar risks are a possibility here, too. Keep in mind this data is 20 years old and likely underestimates the real risk. The attached link below details Danville’s report that each resident was made aware of before voting for gambling.

What is the economic benefit for Boyd County if the casino is approved?  Revolutionary Racing is committed to spending $50 million for this project. How much is for land acquisition? With building cost increasing at a record level, is it fair to question what kind of horse track can be build for $50 million? Will it be a smaller track for quarter horse racing for now to open the new gaming emporium inside the Sears building?  What kind of jobs will Boyd Could see from such a project? Will it be lower-wage jobs that are not family sustainable? We know Kentucky has one of the lowest tax rates for slot machines and therefore can be attractive to gambling corporations with only 8% tax rate going into Kentucky’s General Fund.  

The attached article from the Kentucky Center of Economic Policy clearly shows how little Kentucky receives from HHR (slot machines) and makes one question how much local government taxes would be?

“Churchill Downs, which owns about half of the HHR facilities, already pays much higher tax rates on its slot machines in other states. It owns two casinos in Pennsylvania which has a 55% tax rate; a casino in Ohio with a 33% rate; one in Illinois with a graduated rate up to 50%; another in Florida with its 35% rate; one in Maryland with a rate of 40%-61%; one in Maine where the rate is 39%-46%; and one in Louisiana where the rate is 21.5%-35%. But in Kentucky it pays only 8% to the state’s General Fund.”

We need County Commissioners that promote better understanding of this issue before approving gambling leases. We need transparency so citizens know all the facts and risk before moving forward. No four-person Fiscal Court should have sole authority to change our community and neighboring counties in such a way without a vote. 

The first opportunity to show your concern comes in Tuesday’s primary where the District 1 commissioner seat is up for grabs. Make an informed choice. My vote will be going to Joseph Blair, a fair man who will look out for the community.

We must understand the issues surrounding gambling and move forward as a majority of 45,000 and not four.