Former Kentucky great Joey Couch passed away on December 15. I got a phone call on that Friday night, but I didn’t want to believe it. You see, the news that cracked my heart had yet to be confirmed. I cried; Jen worried. Later that night, John Pelphrey called and said he’d heard the same. John and Joey were teammates at Paintsville High School. I was still holding onto a glimpse of hope that it was another person by the same name or somehow he’d be ok. He wasn’t. It was true. My college roommate of five years passed away far too soon at the age of 49.
My birthday was Saturday, December 16. I also turned 49 and feel guilty by even including that information into this post. Seems selfish. You see the Couch and Maggard families go far beyond the University of Kentucky. His dad, E.A. Couch and Big Fred (my dad) played together on a legendary high school basketball team that captured the hearts and imaginations of the entire Commonwealth by winning the 1956 Sweet 16. Joey’s uncle, Jim Calhoun, was also on that team. My roomie’s mom was a cheerleader. Our roots, much like our bond, ran as deep as a Harlan County coal mine.
A Combination of an Underdog and Superstar
There’s something to be said about an underdog who was actually a superstar. Joey Couch was and still remains the only Kentucky athlete to be selected for and participate in the Kentucky-Indiana all-star basketball game and the Kentucky-Tennessee football game (he was named the game’s defensive MVP). Couch was a superstar at Paintsville High School. His Tigers won tournaments and made three appearances in the Sweet 16. He led the football team to a state title appearance and was all-state in multiple sports.
But, early on in his college days and in the SEC, he was a JAG (Just Another Guy) or an underdog. Undersized for the line of scrimmage but not fast enough to play linebacker, Couch was a tweener. He was unhappy. A move to defensive guard by Jerry Claiborne to play in the Wide-Tackle-Six proved fruitful and a boost of energy. And much like he’d done throughout his life, he again began to star. Only this time he did so as a defensive lineman. For one straight year after curfew in the dorm room I had to act like an offensive lineman and come out of my stance so he could work on his new position’s technique. You have to imagine this nightly ritual. Our dorm room was the size of a decent size closet (for UK grads, we lived in Kirwin 3).
264 career tackles, second all-time amongst Kentucky nose tackles, followed as well as 12 quarterback sacks. I’ve seen many Wildcats that are portrayed as “effort” guys and being hard-nosed. I’ve said that same phrase many times and have watched a lot of UK Football in my time. Truth is there’s never been a UK player that maximized his size, talent and ability and played with more heart than Joey Couch. He played every snap in 33 consecutive starts as if it was his last. Couch was named All SEC, preseason All American, and voted as the league’s Most Underrated Player. He was 6’2″, 240 lbs. Yep, 240 playing nose tackle in the SEC was no easy chore. Joey Couch starred in that role; no, he thrived in it.
We graduated. Life happens. Families, jobs, kids and such dampen most college friendships. We kept in touch. We texted. We called. Occasionally, we met for supper. I’m going to miss him.
The next few days are going to be challenging. But, through it all know this: Joey was a beloved Wildcat and treasured the University of Kentucky more than anyone I know. His smile was infectious; his accent priceless. He was a loving husband and father of two wonderful sons, Braxton and Tyler. There are several former Wildcats traveling to Paintsville from all parts of our nation in order to say their final goodbyes. We’ll laugh. We’ll also cry. Mostly cry. Did I mention that he was elected as a permanent team captain by our teammates? Folks gravitated towards Joey in life and now, they do so in death.
There were times that Joey called that I was too busy to answer the phone. I’ve kicked my own butt a thousand times in the past 72 hours for that. I can also remember another time seeing him at a UK event and walking the other way because I was running late for another occasion. A mini-reunion would have gone on for hours. I was too busy. Busy. In a hurry. Man, oh man. Don’t do that. Don’t be me. We’re not promised tomorrow. You never know when you’ll get a call like we did on Friday. Don’t avoid conversations. Take that call.
I’m going to miss him.