I need a camera. Who knew we could get this many Baptists in the Elks Lodge?
You know, I’ve looked at those pictures on the wall for the past 40 years but not until my own picture went up there did I know what that really meant. I’m going to tell you a story and if your name happens to be mentioned, I want you to stand up and stay standing up until I’m finished. Don’t worry, this literal off-the-wall story isn’t long but it’s worth hearing.
Last night was the first time my photo was in the room. And let me tell you, when everybody had cleared the building, that wall came to life. I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Ernie Chattin and Bo McMillen were the first to pop down off the wall. They said it was time to start playing ball and invited the rest of us to get down off that wall and follow them to Central Park.
One by one, they started coming off the wall. They were all so fit, hardly an ounce of body fat among the bunch of them. I mean, they were in PRIME shape. I was in shape too. Round’s a shape, right Dicky? Ernie and Bo were so excited. They went outside and you’d think it would be pitch black. But it wasn’t. I mean it was the most perfect blue sky I’d ever seen. Once everybody finally shoved their way out the doors, Ernie and Bo announced that we’d be running to Central Park. Uh-oh, I thought to myself. I may hang out with young marathoners now, but that doesn’t mean I run. Thankfully, I was hanging toward the back and behind me I heard a BEEP! BEEP!. It wasn’t the roadrunner, it was Tom Cooksey in a golf cart. I didn’t even know golf carts had horns. He told me to hop in and he’d drive us over. Tom’s a good driver on the golf course but don’t turn him loose on the streets of Ashland. Just sayin, Tom, you made a couple of crazy hairpin turns that nearly toppled me out of the cart.
But he got us to the park. Everybody else was just getting there too. When we got there, a bag of bats and balls were jammed in an old Army duffel bag leaning against the visitor’s dugout on the main diamond. It didn’t matter to Jerry Henderson because he brought a basketball, baseball bat and glove, football and track cleats with him because he wasn’t sure what we were going to play and, as we all know, Jerry was good at all of them. He was Ashland’s version of Bo Jackson.
Ellis Johnson and George Conley brought a special guest with them – none other than Mr. Adolph Rupp, because they both knew him so well – Ellis as his first All-American and George as a referee that Rupp used often in the SEC. Coach Rupp looked like he was drooling over the talent that was assembled.
I looked over to the home side of the baseball field and Bill Lynch and Don Gullett were engaged in a game of burnout. At least that’s what I think they were doing. I couldn’t real see the ball, only hear it. SSSSSSSSS!!! SSSSSSSSS!!! It was either that or we have a major snake problem in Central Park. It was a certain sizzling sound and a blur of white coming out of their hands. Bill Selbee came up flipping a softball, asking if he could play since burnout and unseen pitches used to be his specialty, too. Chigger Adkins said he could vouch for how hard Selbee could throw a softball although he wasn’t certain if he’d really ever seen one of his pitches either. Charlie Reliford said there wasn’t enough umpiring equipment in the world for him to officiate this showdown between Lynch, Gullett and Selbee. Nard Pergrem said he’d do it, and without a mask. His brother Buck called him crazy and said to go ahead and do it. “It wouldn’t matter if a ball hit you in the face anyway,” he said, and they wrestled near home plate, creating a cloud of dust and messing up the batter’s box. What are you going to do with brothers?
Then I looked around and noticed Bobby Lynch manicuring the pitching mound. Everything was just right as he piled the sand around the rubber and worked on the place where his knee always grazed the dirt when he pitched reminding us all of Tom Seaver. And why wouldn’t Bobby take special care of this sacred place? You know he never lost a game there. Really. Not one.
Jim Host is flashing that million dollar Pearly white smile again as he rubs up baseballs in the dugout waiting for his turn to pitch. He hollers for the Pergrem brothers to stop rolling in the dirt and grab a bat. Pearly is also busy getting a patent on naming this Elks reunion The Final Forty-Four.
In the outfield, a football game is about to break out with coaches Herb Conley and Vic Marsh trying to pick teams and arguing over who goes first. Herb finally gives in and lets Vic pick twice. He takes Ralph Felty and J.C. Kennard. Obviously, Vic is going for some toughness. Herb picks himself. Nobody argues with the selection. In right field, Chuck Anderson and Nick Jordan just collided in a blocking drill. There were no survivors. Somebody called Dr. Marvin Keeton and Dr. Leo Dickinson who, if you didn’t know, helped develop penicillin. Leo told the coaches they better make room for him in the game and Dutch Berry and Eck Allen do the same, saying their days of Tomcats were the best. John Caine was there too, waiting to be picked while going over the playbook and ordering the uniforms because that’s what the best ADs do.
Buffalo Hopkins and Paul Reliford found a connection and it’s not surprising. They keep throwing footballs to each other because that’s what they remember about their playing days with the Tomcats. J.D. Ison, whose nickname was The Hand, tries to get a hand on one of their passes as he stands between them. No luck but he never stops trying. And if The Hand ever even gets a finger on one of those tosses, it’ll be his for sure.
I walked over to the park basketball courts and watched Larry Conley go behind his back and over the shoulder to Brother Adkins for another basket. Five people are trying to guard them to no avail. They are like basketball magicians. Freddie Simpson and Steve Gilmore, a couple of Holy Family hotshots, each have their own balls because neither one of them ever saw a shot they didn’t like. They can make them from anywhere, including the old Bayless gym that they’d broken into a few times to fire up some baskets. Darryle Kouns, who knew how to score too from his days with Army, is begging – make that ordering – Freddie to pass it to him just once. Gilmore just laughs and says ‘Why do you think I brought my own ball?’ Then the heavily guarded Simpson, with two players draped on him like a bad sports coat, launches another one from 25 feet out that rattles the chains that are used for nets.
Jimmy Anderson, Jack Fultz, Marvin Meredith, Jeep Clark and Bob Wright are not only putting on a Hall of Fame coaching clinic near midcourt but they’re telling the best stories you’ve ever heard. But they’re like a bunch of fisherman: We’re not sure how many of them we can believe.
Al Atkins is launching golf balls the length of the park and Tom Cooksey has organized another youth golf event by giving kids a Central Park cherry snow-cone if they will bring back some of Atkins’ long blasts, including some that went up and down over the Indian Mounds.
Meanwhile, they’ve put in a diving pool and 10-meter board for Meg Neyer, whose perfect form has everybody cheering. She’s the only girl in the club – and also the only Olympian. She’s good as gold and as close to the perfect athlete as we’ve ever seen around here.
Lus Oxley is challenging anybody in the park, young or old, to a game of one-on-one basketball because he never met an opponent he didn’t want to beat.
Fred Rigsby is sitting back and taking it all in. He’s got the oils out and is painting a group photo of the 44 honorees and George Stout is begging him to let him have it for the next Sports Day program.
The last pick for the games? That’s me, until they realize I’m the guy who puts their name in the newspaper and then everybody wanted me on their team.
For the past 43 years, I’ve not scored any touchdowns, made a game-winning basket or hit a home run, but I’ve been a eyewitness to sports greatness in the Ashland area. Look around this room at those standing. Now you’re a witness to greatness, too. Give these gentlemen a round of applause.
When trying to understand my place on that wall, I’ve figured it’s because they need somebody to tell the stories, to be that eyewitness of unprecedented sports greatness. The amazing feats of these men – and Meg – should never be forgotten. They are part of a tradition of greatness that rivals any in the country. We are the coaching cradle with some of the greatest basketball, football and baseball coaches in Kentucky history, we have All-Americans, Olympians, major league umpires, world champion pitchers and even a Cy Young Award winner.
I was young when I started recording history and never understood its importance until my days of covering sports daily came to an end. That’s when I started writing books and I experienced four Tomcats who still had passion burning inside of them. They taught me and inspired me and motivated me to tell the stories of their teams and the special seasons they encountered right here. Dale Sexton, John Radjunas and Bill and Bob Lynch were the inspirations behind my books on state championship Tomcat seasons in basketball, football and baseball. It was important to them still and it didn’t take much convincing from any of them that it was important to me, too. Those seasons now have a book that chronicles what happened and why. It’s a history lesson of how greatness can be obtained not because of any one person but a group committed to nothing short of excellence and winning every time they competed. They did it the right way and the only way. They did it together. The most successful TEAMS are just that. They are teams. These men understood that.
I’ve had the best seat in the house for some of the greatest events in our area’s history, including watching a future Cy Young award winner make the first major league pitching start of his career in Shea Stadium while sitting next to his nervous father who had coached him all his life on Ashland’s baseball fields. Brandon Webb won that game, striking out 10 Mets in seven scoreless innings. His father Phil sat next to me listening to the Mets broadcast of the game on a portable radio I’d happened to bring. He was in his own special world. I was a witness to that event and it’s the favorite story I ever had the pleasure to tell, including me driving my mini-van down the wrong way of a one-way street in New York City on a Sunday morning when, thankfully the city that never sleeps, was caught napping.
When Brandon won the Cy Young award only three years later, guess who was the first media person he spoke with? What an honor. I was also on the other end of a phone call talking to the umpire from Ashland who was involved in a crucial call of the 2000 Subway Series when he prevented a riot after stepping between Mike Piazza and Roger Clemens, handling it the way professional umpires handle things the right way. I was the first and only media person who spoke to him about the story. How about that?
I was witness to other big events and rubbed shoulders with celebrities. I covered three Final Fours, the Christian Laettner game – we’ll just leave it at that – watched the Reds win the World Series in 1990 and had interviews with Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Rick Pitino and even the great Mickey Mantle. But nothing trumps watching a young man hit a two-out, three-run home run to win the state baseball championship or watching a father and his daughter win a state basketball title for their little town, or following some of the greatest football teams in Tomcat history when JAWS was a theme song and when Juan Thomas was running roughshod over everybody, or watching Boyd County win a baseball championship with coach and son making a dream come true. And, you know what, there was always something special about those sticky hot opening nights at Putnam Stadium. When it happened to any one of you, that’s what gave me a special spark. I loved being your eyewitness all these years.
I do wish my father, who died 16 years ago, could be here tonight. He’d have loved this. He came with me to probably 20 of these Sports Day events, if not more. We’d sit back there around George. Dad loved it. My mother passed away just last week. She’d have been the proudest person in the room. My hope is they get to watch this together tonight. And George, I know you can’t officially count them, but my father has probably been passing out tickets for two months. He doesn’t have Facebook. He has Heavenbook so he doesn’t have to worry about fake news. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are here and they consider me not just a son but their son. It wasn’t until their three beautiful daughters were married that the sons came along.
You heard my big brother do the invocation. Of all the great athletes and people in the room, and there are a lot of you, none of you measure up to the hero status of Tim in my eyes and it has nothing to do with sports. The guy is a rock in my life and my spiritual mentor. My faith and my family are my calling cards and if you never knew anything else about me, I hope you knew that.
I’d have never been able to take this ride without my wife Beth and God’s provisions on our lives. When we were dating, I had to teach her a little about sports. She quickly learned who was in every division in major league baseball. Then they went and changed it. She became a fan of all sports – what choice did she have? – and put up with a lot because the life of a sportswriter means night shift, low pay and a lot of ESPN. But she never complained and made plenty of sacrifices because she knew I loved it, and how many people really love their job? I’m one.
My son is a sports lover like me and a student of every game. He was a good athlete and an outstanding baseball player and we loved every single game of catch we ever had. Those are indelible memories for fathers and sons. And remember the dogpile at West Carter, Stephen, when Rose Hill broke a long two-year losing streak? It’s not always about winning championships. Sports will always be a connection for us. It’s that unbreakable bond, that something you say when there’s not really anything to say. We can turn a simple phone call into an hour-long debate on what the Reds, Browns and Wildcats should be doing.
My daughter Sally understood her daddy was involved in sports too. As a little girl, like 5 or 6, she thought when I went to “cover the game” that I was responsible for tarping the field. She later learned what “covering the game” meant. When she was a JFL cheerleader, I quizzed her about what she was cheering in regard to “sack that quarterback.” She had no earthly idea. So I began teaching her the game and today she’s as knowledgeable as anybody and is an avid UK football and basketball fan. We text throughout nearly every UK game.
They both have wonderful spouses, Suzette and Derrick, and my only grandchild, Brooks, came tonight too. You may have seen his picture on Facebook. Well, if you have Facebook and follow me, you definitely have seen him over and over and over again. He’s the next sports eyewitness in the family. His dad was raised on St. Louis Cardinals baseball, but they live near Great American Ball Park, so I’m telling you, there’s a chance…
I know God has a sense of humor. There was one sport that I never loved covering over the years and that was track and field and especially the 1,600 and 3,200 races. So in the last five years, what does God do? He has me work with a pair of marathon runners in a mission organization called Amy For Africa. My wife and I have become marathon groupies. Beth is like a human GPS. When Amy ran in the NYC Marathon, Beth navigated us through the subway maze, even though she had never been to New York, so we could, almost like clockwork, catch glimpses of Amy running through the city. But mostly we’ve watched in wonder and amazement at God’s movement 8,000 miles from here through Amy For Africa. Chris and Amy Compston are like family and, as most of you know, this Amy For Africa mission has become a passion in my life. In fact, if you buy one of my books at that table over there before you leave, every penny of that money will be going to our mission. Amy and Chris will be over there manning the table if you have any questions for them.
I’d like to share one last thing before I hand over the mic to Dicky. George Stout, would you come forward please? This is George Stout’s last Sports Day as chairman and I couldn’t let it go by without honoring him. You guys have some big shoes to fill replacing George, who has kept this event alive with his tireless work. This plaque says: To George Stout, ELKS SPORTS DAY ALL-TIME CHAIRMAN of the BOARD. Thank you, George, for everything and thank you everyone for honoring me with your presence tonight.