Family ties: Radjunas boys honored to accept for Ellis Johnson at HOF ceremony

The late Ellis Johnson, a former Ashland High School four-sport great and a member of the fabulous 1928 national champion basketball team, will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.

He will be getting an assist from a couple of other former Tomcats in Ed and John Radjunas. They are longtime family friends, both when he was a coach at Morehead State and as a businessman in Ashland.

Johnson’s son, Kenn, lives in Mount Sterling but is in poor health and is unable to attend the ceremony. He called Ed to ask if he would represent the Johnson family.

“I told him that of course I’d do that, I wouldn’t even hesitate,” Ed said. “Ellis was like a second father to me.”

Ed was given the details of the ceremony from organizer Ken Trivette, who said they would pay for his hotel expenses. Ed asked him instead for a favor. He wanted to have his brother, John, who lives in Lexington, come with him for the ceremony. “He said, ‘I know John and would be glad to have you both come and do that.’ So that’s what we’re doing,” Ed said.

The Radjunas-Johnson family connection began in the 1930s when Johnson recruited Stan Radjunas – Ed and John’s father – out of Connecticut to play football at Morehead State. However, Stan had already been in contact with Kentucky’s coach about coming to Lexington. Stan told Johnson he was going to try UK. “Ellis told him, ‘If you ever need something, call me.’ Dad enrolled in classes and didn’t like it, so he called Ellis. He said, ‘I made a mistake, I want to come to Morehead,’’’ Ed Radjunas said. “He told him not to play, fake an injury if he had to, to keep his eligibility. He stayed the fall semester, but never played, and transferred to Morehead.”

Stan Radjunas played for Morehead and later coached eight seasons on Johnson’s staff there. The two men had families with similar aged children, so they became close.

When Stan Radjunas decided to leave coaching and move the family to Ashland, it wasn’t long until Johnson came to Ashland in 1953 to get into the insurance business before taking another coaching job at Marshall in 1963. The families lived near each other in Ashland on Elliott and Lawrence Avenues, which are about a block away. During that decade before taking the Marshall job he was one of several men who were instrumental in starting Little League baseball in Ashland in 1955.

Johnson retired from coaching for good in 1969 and was involved in cable television promotion in Huntington where he was a bowtie-wearing analyst for Herd games. He died in 1990 at age 79 in Huntington. He was posthumously put into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006. He was an inaugural member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and is also in the Ashland Daily Independent Sports Hall of Fame and the Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame. He was also an early Ashland Elks Sports Day honoree.

Kenn Johnson reminded Ed that he and John were with the Johnson family at the state basketball tournament when it was announced that Ellis would be a member of the first class of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. He said they even had their photograph taken with Johnson and put in the Courier Journal.

In 1933, Johnson became Adolph Rupp’s first All-American at Kentucky. He was the first athlete at UK to letter in four sports — basketball, football, baseball and track — in the same season.

Before his career at Kentucky, Johnson led Ashland High School to the 1928 state basketball championship and then the 1928 national championship. He also quarterbacked three undefeated Ashland teams that won or shared state championships. Johnson was a two-time All-American and an All-State performer in basketball and football for the Tomcats. He is largely regarded as the greatest athlete of that era in Kentucky.

He was named to the All-State team after the Tomcats won the state basketball title in 1928 and also took home the sportsmanship award. He was called for only two fouls the entire season!

Johnson became Morehead Teacher College’s director of physical education in 1936 and maintained that position through 1953. During that time, he coached basketball, football, baseball and track. MSU’s gymnasium, Ellis T. Johnson Arena, was named in his honor.

Johnson led the Eagles football team to a record of 54-44-10, and the 1941 baseball team to a 5-2 record. Johnson’s basketball squads went 176-158. His best year as the football coach came in 1937 when the Eagles went 7-1. His best basketball season was in 1937-38 when the Eagles finished 16-8.

Johnson coached at Marshall from 1963-69, compiling a 68-80 record. Johnson led the Thundering Herd to a 20-8 record and second-place finish in the Mid-American Conference in 1966-67 and a 17-8 mark and runner-up finish in the MAC in 1967-68.

Marshall’s 1966-67 basketball team was his best. Besides finishing the school’s best season in 11 years, the Thundering Herd grabbed 10 victories in 12 MAC games leading to Marshall’s first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden. The NIT trip was exciting as the Herd defeated Villanova and Nebraska before losing in the semifinals to Marquette in a triple-overtime heartbreaker and then to Rutgers in the consolation game.

Being inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame with him are: Coy Creason of Brewers, Wesley Cox of Louisville Male, Clarence Glover of Caverna, Joe Hamilton of Lexington Dunbar, Ronnie Lyons of Mason County, Rudy Macklin of Shawnee, Todd Tackett of Paintsville, Connie Goins of Western Hills, Kim Denkins of Nicholas County, Bill Mike Runyon of Paintsville, Bob Tripure of Lexington Henry Clay and Lexington Catholic, and Patrick Payne of Hazard.

Ellis Johnson joins former Tomcat greats Larry Conley and Harold Sergent in the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame. Conley and Sargent played on the 1961 championship team and Conley came back the next year and took the Tomcats to a second-place finish. Kenn Johnson was also on that team.

Ricky Dixon and Ashland Little League’s Summer of ’63

ASHLAND – Ricky Dixon owned the summer of 1963 in Ashland. He was the best player on what must be considered the greatest Ashland Little League All-Star team ever assembled.

Dixon and those Ashland American League All-Stars – many who went on to become state champions in high school with the Ashland Tomcats – advanced to the Southern Regional finals in Norfolk, Virginia, where they reached the championship game before losing to North Houston, Texas, 6-3.

The team from Houston would board a plane the next day for Williamsport to play in the Little League World Series for the fourth consecutive year.

Ashland’s memorable band of All-Stars came back home to ponder what if.

The subject comes up today because Rick Dixon, the hero of Ashland’s run to near baseball immorality, died in his sleep Wednesday. He had been battling cancer.

Nearly sixty years ago, he was on a magical run with his strong right arm and booming bat. He was an epic performer during that 1963 spring and summer. His tape-measure home runs and sizzling fastballs made him a double threat first for the Tigers, his league team, and then the All-Star team that went further than any team in Ashland Little League history. They were a win from Williamsport.

There were plenty of stars on this Ashland team but few shone brighter than Dixon, who turned 13 during the Little League state championship game in Lexington, where he was the star of the day. His size and maturity made him a giant even though Tigers was on the front of the jersey during his Little League season. He learned baseball from the master, the late Jim Stewart, who was a taskmaster that took the game seriously and taught it beautifully.

If you played for the Tigers, you practiced often and learned the fundamentals expertly. Jim Stewart would not have it any other way. Dixon was a product of that coaching, maybe even a prized product, for one of the greatest Little League coaches in Ashland history.

Rick Dixon and his mother after he won the state championship game for Ashland American in 1963. It was his 13th birthday. The photo shown is from the book “Tomcat Dynasty” by Mark Maynard.

Little League baseball was only in its ninth season in Ashland, but it was clear the city was falling in love with the game. Two fields were constructed on either end of Central Park, one on 17th Street and the other on 22nd Street. They were showplaces and a big reason why the Summer of ’63 was the most special year in Little League history.

The Tigers won the Ashland American league title in runaway fashion with Dixon playing a starring role. He was the best pitcher and hitter the league had ever seen. Because the Tigers were champions, their coach would guide the All-Star team. Four of Dixon’s teammates – Mike Tackett, Charles Jackson, Joe Mantle and Jack Daniels – joined him on the All-Star team.

The rest of the roster included Johnny Mullins (Indians), David Staten (Twins), Tim Huff (Yankees), John Brislin and Jocko Greening (Angels), David McPeek and Mike Griffith (White Sox) and Bobby Ison and Mike Johnson (Orioles).

Some of those players became key members during Ashland’s three-year reign as champions of Kentucky high school baseball from 1966-68.

But in 1963, they were young boys having the time of their lives. When they weren’t playing baseball they were sleeping. Their dedication was off the charts and it showed on the field.

In the All-Star season, which was single elimination, Ashland defeated Catlettsburg 7-0 and Greenup 2-1, scoring the winning run when Mantled singled and moved around the bases on an error, a passed ball and a fielder’s choice in the sixth inning to defeat a young left-hander named Don Gullett on their home field.

Ashland American played rival Ashland National and three two-run homers led to a 6-4 victory. One of those home runs came off the bat of Dixon, who had a flair for the dramatic. He then went to the mound in the district championship against Martin in Louisa. Dixon struck out 10 and Tackett blasted two home runs in an 8-1 victory.

It was on to the State Tournament in Lexington where Ashland defeated Middlesboro 9-4 and Cynthiana 9-2 to reach the finals against Louisville Buechel.

Dixon took the mound on his 13th birthday and was brilliant with 15 strikeouts – out of 18 potential outs – and also hit a two-run homer that gave Ashland American a 3-1 victory. He gave up a run in the sixth after walking two batters and then bobbling a grounder. But he finished the game off with his 15th strikeout.

The next round was the Southern Division Tournament and it was going to be played in Central Park. Five states came together – Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky (Ashland American).

Games were played at the 22nd Street diamond and 1,900 seats were provided around the outfield fences. Ashland got a break when it drew a bye.

Virginia blanked Maryland 2-0 and then had to play Ashland the following day. Ashland won 5-4. St. Albans, W.Va., defeated Delaware 9-4 behind Kim West, the nephew of NBA great Jerry West. He even wore West’s No. 44 on his back.

Stewart sent Dixon to the mound in the final against St. Albans and he delivered with a 10-strikeout performance while allowing only five hits in a 4-2 victory. He also blasted a towering two-run homer in the third inning that made it 4-1. That victory sent Ashland to Norfolk, where they defeated Sarasota, Florida, 2-0 behind Mike Griffith’s three-hitter and another home run from Dixon and David McPeek in the fourth inning.

Dixon was called on again for the championship game and he pitched well against a powerhouse team from Texas, allowing only six hits. He also rolled a single up the middle in the third inning to plate Ashland’s only two runs and its only hit against Mike Smithey.

The run was over, but it was some kind of summer.

Commemorative bricks for Putnam Stadium donor corner on sale until June 1

Ashland added to its football legacy with an undefeated 11-0 state championship season in 2020.

Now it’s your turn to add to that legacy but signing up to purchase a commemorative brick on the Donor Wall at Putnam Stadium to support the stadium restoration project. Plenty still needs to be done to finish off the stadium project, including lights, a sound system, field turf and the banked area behind the open end zone.

This fundraiser can help make some of those dreams come true for what is already one of the most iconic football stadiums in Kentucky.

Commemorative bricks are available for $100 (4×8)  or $175 (8×8) and they make a great way to honor the Tomcat in your life. The 4×8 brick gives you 3 lines and 20 characters and the 8×8 brick gives you 6 lines and 20 characters. It makes the perfect Father’s Day/birthday/Christmas gift.

You don’t have to be a football player or even an athlete to have your name – or a loved one’s name – placed in the donor corner of Putnam Stadium. Cheerleaders, band members and Tomcat fans have already put their names on bricks that adorn a special corner at the stadium around the statue of Coach Herb Conley.

Players who were a part of the 2020 championship football team, the 2019-20 undefeated basketball team and the 2019 Final Four girls’ soccer team seem like good candidates to have their names enshrined permanently in the donor corner as teams and individuals.

Those teams will be forever remembered in Ashland history for what was accomplished.

There’s plenty of room to add hundreds of bricks and support the stadium project in the process.

Ashland is riding a wave of momentum, becoming title town with regional championships in several sports during the past year and, of course, the Tomcats’ perfect 33-0 basketball season in 2019-2020.

Teams could be honored on the Donor Wall through the Tomcat Pride Club for $500.

The order has to be in by June 1 for the bricks to be made and placed by the start of the 2021 season.

PUTNAM STADIUM DONOR ORDER FORM

It is that time of the year again and we have a lot to celebrate in TOMCAT NATION!!! Do not let this opportunity to create a memory for your lifetime pass you by. If you would like to order a commemorative brick or have your name inscribed on the Donor Wall, please complete a form and designate Brick or Wall and write a check to the Putnam Stadium Restoration Foundation and mail to the address shown below:

The Putnam Stadium Restoration Foundation

c/o Christy Collins

P.O. Box 3000

Ashland, KY 41105-3000

For questions, please contact Greg Jackson at 606.922.0623

DEADLINE FOR THE NEXT ANNUAL ORDER IS JUNE 1, 2021.

This should allow us the time to place the bricks in the ground before the first home game this season!

Putnam Stadium

Donor Wall and Commemorative Bricks

Become a permanent part of Putnam Stadium.  This is your chance to permanently place your name and that of your family at Putnam Stadium, and at the same time, support Phase II of the Restoration Project.  We want to afford everyone the opportunity to be a part of this historic landmark.

For a donation of at least $500 you can place that family information (or other names to honor or place in memory of) on the Donor Wall in one of four categories for large donors as listed below:

TOMCAT TOUCHDOWN CLUB:                               $10,000 OR MORE

TOMCAT MAROON AND WHITE CLUB:                  $5,000 – $9,999

TOMCAT PAWS CLUB:                                             $1,000 – $4,999

TOMCAT PRIDE CLUB:                                             $500 – $999

For a donation of $100 or $175 you can have a brick placed in the Donor’s Corner with an inscription that you choose (name or family name, etc.):

4×8 brick:         $100            3 lines/20 characters each line (this includes spacing and punctuation)

8×8 brick:         $175            6 lines/20 characters each line (this includes spacing and punctuation)

Complete the order form with inscription and contact information, then send the form and check to the address above.

PUTNAM STADIUM RESTORATION FOUNDATION ORDER FORM

Check one of the two categories below (Donor Wall or Brick)

__   Donor Wall Inscription (For donation of $500 or more)         __  Brick Inscription

Donor Wall (if Applicable)

Name(s) as you would like it (them) to appear on the wall.  Please fill out the line below and submit the form and payment to the Putnam Stadium Restoration Foundation:

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __      

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (40 spaces, will be 1 line)

Inscription for the Brick. Please fill out the lines below and submit the form and payment to the Putnam Stadium Restoration Foundation:

4”x8” Brick ($100)                                                                 8”x8” Brick ($175)

Example                                                                                  Example

 John and Jane Tomcat                                                                       In honor of

        Class of 2021                                                                       Joe Football 

  Jim, Janie, and Joey                                                                 Class of 2021

                                                                                                2020 State Champs

                                                                                                     Quarterback

                                                                                                     Go Tomcats!!!

Inscription (3 (4×8 brick) or 6 (8×8 brick) lines)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

__    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    __    (20 spaces)

Name:                _______________________________

Address:              _______________________________tt

City, State, Zip   _______________________________

Home Phone:    ______________________ Work/Cell:   ______________________

Contributions to the Putnam Stadium Restoration Foundation are deemed charitable under section 170 (b) (1) (A) (vi) of the Internal Revenue code as an organization described in Section 501 (c) 3.  U.S. Federal Tax ID 26-1674277.  Please consult your accountant for any clarifications.

Clere vision for Tomcats: ‘Don was my hero,’ says legend Herb Conley

This statement from Tomcat legend Herb Conley should tell you enough about Don Clere’s impact on Ashland Tomcat football: “Don was my hero.”

Clere, who starred for the Tomcats from 1951-1953, died April 25 in Conyers, Georgia. He was a dynamite running back whose high-stepping, powerful running sent him from Ashland to the University of Kentucky where a broken leg ended his career.

“I thought he was the greatest football player who ever played in this town,” said Conley, the man who is certainly in the conversation of greatest Tomcat. “I went and watched him play all the time. He’d run over people.”

Clere ran with “high knee action” and barreled over defenders. Conley, who was five years younger, said he tried to imitate Clere’s running style when he became a Tomcat a few years later.

For several years, Ashland’s running game had a Clere vision. Don’s younger brother, Ralph, joined him on the Tomcats as a sophomore and started his junior and senior seasons.

“Ralph was a good football player, too,” Conley said. “And there’s not a better person in Ashland than Ralph Clere.”

It typically took more than one player to bring down the Clere brothers, who ran with similar power style. Don came through the hole in the line of scrimmage like a locomotive, legs pumping like pistons and head lowered. He was a punishing runner who left tacklers in his wake. You may bring him down, but you were going to feel it – maybe for days.

Don Clere gained 1,589 yards and scored 13 touchdowns during an era when the Tomcats played one of the top schedules around. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry for his career. It was also an era where the carries were equally distributed among four to five players. He only carried it about 10 times per game but made the most of them.

Don’s best game came during his senior season when he gained 190 yards in a 40-14 win over Ironton – the Tomcats only victory that season.

Conley began idolizing Clere at an earlier age when Don would put him on the front of his bicycle and go up and down Ashland Avenue to Central Park to play baseball. Little Herb Conley hung out with the older guys hoping to get put on a team. He usually held as own, as you might expect.

“We’d be going up Ashland Avenue and them muscles in his legs and arms would pop out,” Conley said. “I thought, this guy was superman. I went and watched him play (football). He’d run over people with his big thighs. I wanted to be just like him.”

Don’s best season individually was as a senior when he ran for 600 yards. He gained 469 yards as a junior and 520 yard with seven TDs as a sophomore when Ashland went 6-5. The Tomcats were 13-14-4 in his three seasons.

Clere and his brother were part of Ashland’s 1954 state championship track and field team too. Ralph started in the backfield his junior and senior seasons, gaining 900 yards with 10 touchdowns. He played two years on a strong Fort Bragg, N.C., team while serving in the military. Ralph also went through a spring practice with Bear Bryant at Alabama.

Most importantly, the brothers were men of strong faith. Don was a member at Unity Baptist in his youth and later a member of First Baptist Church in Conyers. Ralph is still a member at Unity Baptist.

Don Clere’s funeral will be May 6, 2021 at West Cobb Funeral Home in Marietta, Georgia. Burial will be at the Georgia National Cemetery.

Putnam Stadium, home of the Tomcats.