Life in the mountains is tough.
“In Eastern Kentucky, you’re in the mountains. Unemployment is bad anyway even before COVID came and closed down other businesses,” said Johnson Central radio announcer Scott Ratliff. “You’ve got the fast food industries and the department stores and things and if those are not allowed to be open it’s a struggle for everybody. It’s the same struggle that everybody has been going through with their unemployment this year. The money is just not there. They have just been hanging on for what they can.”
But football has been a bright spot. I wanted to know more so, on the opening day of the state playoffs, I headed to Johnson County, home of both Paintsville and Johnson Central. The schools, located only a mile apart, each played in the state championship game at Kroger Field last December. In fact, Eastern Kentucky schools won four state football championships last year. Pikeville knocked off Paintsville in an all-mountain Class A final, while Somerset (2A), Belfry (3A) and Johnson Central (4A) also brought home trophies. All four teams (five including Paintsville) are legitimate championship contenders again this year.
Friday was another good night on the field for the Johnson County schools, with Johnson Central topping Harlan County 46-8 and Paintsville rolling over Betsy Lane 55-8. The Paintsville Tigers have played in three state finals (1978, 1985, and 2019) and have won at least ten games each of the last six seasons. The school’s notable alumni include country music star Tyler Childers, UK Unforgettable John Pelphrey and UK linebacker Kash Daniel.
Johnson Central’s success has come recently. They have been the gold standard of football in Class 4A over the last five years, making the state finals five years in a row, winning two. The Golden Eagles hold the state’s longest active winning streak with 23 straight victories. That’s more than nationally-ranked Louisville Trinity, a 6A perennial power.
Johnson Central head coach Jim Matney grew up in the mountains. His Golden Eagles are showing the state — and the country — what mountain football is all about.
“We teach our kids in the mountains that life is not fair, and it’s never going to be fair in the mountains,” Matney said. “And number two, we teach our kids to not blame everybody else, and to grow. That is what I’m trying to do and that’s what this program is trying to do. Every time we take the field, we tell (our team) that we are going down there to show the rest of this state, and to show the rest of this country and world, what mountain people are really about.”
“(As a little boy) I kind of noticed how the kids of the mountains they were treated a little different,” Matney said. “You could go into a city or a town somewhere and you were kind of looked down upon. I understand it. We didn’t have a lot of money. We probably were a little uncouth. I get it. But I vowed that I would come back to the mountains and give my life for the kids in the mountains. But now in all fairness, I’m only doing what people did for me.”
— Troy Howell (@teeroyhowell) September 26, 2020
Matney noted how this has been the most difficult time of his 37-year coaching career. He has faced the pressure of coaching for state championships in wrestling and football, but the pressures faced today are even stronger.
“I see people all the time and they say, well if they can’t do this and they can’t do that that then why are they allowed to play football,” Matney said of the KHSAA’s decision to play football. “We want to do whatever is the safest, but I think if anybody really wants to look at the science, if they want to dig deep enough what they are finding is that the suicide rate is skyrocketing. Depression is skyrocketing. The things that are happening are leaving places in the soul of our kids that may never be filled in.”
The pandemic combined with challenges that the area was already facing makes for an extremely dire situation.
“I think that we are fighting for our lives,” Matney said. “The industries have left. The kids are struggling, families are struggling. I think that the mountain kids want to do as well as they can in whatever they can. This is one of the few things, athletics, football especially.”
— Troy Howell (@teeroyhowell) November 20, 2020
When asked about how mountains teams have been able to have so much success on the gridiron recently, he pointed to intangibles.
“We don’t have per se, a whole lot of tall people, we don’t have a whole lot of real fast people, what we have got is tough people. You get these kids with big hearts and you say look man we are fighting for our very existence.”
Mason Lawson, a sophomore running back for Johnson Central, talked about the importance of being able to play football despite the pandemic.
“It would have been horrible if (seniors) wouldn’t have been able to finish out their last year because some of them are not going to play in college, that would have been it. That would have affected everybody.”
Lawson said some of the players are desperate for a football offer and would accept an opportunity to play college ball even without much of a scholarship.
“For sophomores and juniors who are trying to play college ball, you take away a whole season from them, that is a year of eligibility, that is a year of film, that is year of opportunity.”
That exposure has helped guys get college offers, like junior Grant Bingham who is a highly recruited tackle on the Golden Eagles deep and talented offensive line that is nicknamed the Pancake Platoon. He has offers from Notre Dame, Michigan, Kentucky, and a host of others but has not been allowed to take official visits this fall due to the pandemic.
Johnson Central, like several other teams, has had to navigate schedule changes with several opponents being reshuffled at the last minute and even dealing with game cancellations and virtual learning. Schools, coaches, and the community have been involved in helping as much as they can.
“The school has bent backwards, everybody here (has helped),” Ratliff said. “The schools have fed the kids even when they have been closed. They do bus routes. They deliver the food. It has just been a struggle. Eastern Kentucky has been a struggle anyway. We’ve always had to give a little extra effort for what we’ve got.”
The Golden Eagle team has been dealing with adversity on several fronts. During a pep-rally last year a Boyle County school employee joked that, “People in Johnson Central can’t even count to 100,” a comment that Johnson Central didn’t take too kindly to, using it as motivation in their 21-20 triumph over the Rebels in the state title game (to Boyle’s credit they did issue a sincere apology.)
Johnson Central played at Simon Kenton earlier this year in the KSR Game of the Week. During the long bus ride to the game the team got some heart-wrenching news.
“It was a long trip. One of our players’ father passed away while we were coming here. But it is life in the mountains. It’s tragic, but it’s wonderful,” Coach Matney told KSR after that game.
Matney said that the player’s father did not want his son missing any games because of the sickness.
— Troy Howell (@teeroyhowell) September 26, 2020
Lawson spoke that night about the emotions of the team.
“(This win) means a lot. Our team overcame a lot of adversity tonight, a lot more than what people know, and I just feel so blessed to be out here with my brothers,” Lawson said after his 4-TD performance in the victory over Simon Kenton. “Especially with what happened earlier here today. Just want to be able to play the game I love and make the most of my opportunity.”
While Johnson Central’s success has come recently, Matney’s alma mater, Belfry has been an Eastern Kentucky powerhouse for years. The Pirates have made 14 trips to the state finals, winning 7. Coach Philip Haywood, the winningest coach in Kentucky history, was at the helm of all seven championship teams. Belfry radio announcer Bobby Norman spoke about how important football is to the community and why the atmosphere at home games, before COVID hit, was one of the best in the state.
“If you go back to the days that really built Belfry football, there wasn’t anything else to do,” Norman told KSR earlier this year. “There’s still not a whole lot but you had no roads that were really open for easy travel to the outside. At the time, you had three mountains that you had to cross to get to Pikeville that was 25 miles away. The other direction was right over into West Virginia and it was not easy travel at all. So on Friday nights it became the thing to do. This program is over 90 years old and it is still the thing to do on Friday night. It creates a special atmosphere. A small hometown school that has done very big and can really play. They have proven over the years that they can play with just about anybody.”
Belfry’s county rival, Pikeville, is also a team that combines a proud history with recent success. On the Hail Podcast, former Panther Heath Robinson told me about what the perception was like before and after Pikeville’s run of three state titles in the late 80s.
“The only thing (the outside media) would talk about is poverty, despair and coal and how bad coal was and everything else. Then all of a sudden in the ‘80s, the ’87 Panthers came and just killed everybody. I tell people all the time, when I saw the ’87 Panthers play it was like watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.”
He noted that now when he comes to Lexington, to the Fayette Mall wearing a Pikeville shirt people will take notice and strike up conversations about how Pikeville has a great football team. His brother, J.r., spoke about the importance of football to the community.
“In this town it is not a very big town, we live for each other and we live for this football team because that is our boys and we all feel like (that is) our kids, too. So, when we go watch a game, we feel like ours boys are out there,” J.r. Robinson added.
Matney noted that this golden era of mountain football won’t last forever, but the players and coaches will never stop fighting.
“It is not going to be that way every year. I mean the population base in Appalachia is not huge, so we are bucking all the odds. For four eastern mountain schools to win a state championship is probably a-million-to-one. We are very thankful for all that has happened, and we are going to do our best to keep it going because we are fighting for our lives here in Appalachia. So, we are going to continue on this pace as long as God allows us to. We are going to keep battling and pushing and trying to be the best that we can be.”
Don’t be surprised, however, if Kroger Field hosts several Eastern Kentucky teams again this year. Pikeville, Paintsville, Raceland, Somerset, Belfry, Ashland, Johnson Central and Corbin are some of the squads that could easily make a deep run. That goal of reaching the state finals is why the players make so many sacrifices during the season, according to Lawson.
“It’s that feeling of greatness of being on Kroger Field with the state championship. Everybody is hungry to get back and I feel like that is what everybody knows and understands what it takes to get there and we are all just going to keep fighting whatever is coming to get back to feel that feeling again,” Lawson said.
So yes, life in the mountains is tough, but there is hope.