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Friday Night Lights

Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel
Photo: Joe Imel

High school football games create culture and community

It might be Abe Lincoln holding the home team’s flag. It could be coaches indulging in “Frog Leg Fridays.” It can be stadiums, many with their own unique personality, packed with high school football fans. It’s more than 200 high schools celebrating in more than 200 ways.

We’re talking Friday Night Lights in the commonwealth.

“It’s the biggest opportunity you have to bring a community together,” says Harrison County High School football coach Ray Graham, who has been on the sidelines for 34 years and is now in his second stint with the Thoroughbreds. “High school football is one of the things you can be proud of as community.”

Fans show that pride on Friday nights and then critique the performance in diners or country stores on Saturday mornings. “A group of men gather at a barber shop downtown on the square (in Hodgenville),” LaRue County High coach Josh Jaggers says with a grin. “On Saturday mornings after we win, it’s fun, but on Saturdays after we lose, everybody’s got the answers.

“That’s what makes it special. People care.”

Friday night involves more than a football game. It’s a connection to your alma mater or to the kid who shares your pew on Sunday morning. It’s a passion that manifests itself long before the pep band strikes up the fight song and the home team takes the field.

“The marquees on all the businesses in town are always sending out good luck messages, especially in postseason play, and you will see signs along Lincoln Boulevard with shoutouts to the teams,” LaRue County superfan Pam Bowling says.

Meanwhile, inside the schools on game day, the ESPN trucks might not be outside, but the buildings are buzzing. “You can be walking the halls, and everybody is so focused on Friday night,” says Anderson County High quarterback Jagger Gillis, whose father, Randy, is a lineworker for Blue Grass Energy.

Traditions and rituals

In Harrison County, the team’s Thursday meal offering can vary, but it’s still a Thoroughbred tradition. “If we have a shutout, the following Thursday, someone in town provides a cookout. I bring my guitar and tell the kids to bring their guitars and we jam,” says Graham, an accomplished musician. 

The Spencer County High School coaching staff game day ritual includes a trip to a local grocery. “We go to Country Mart and in the fall, they will have Frog Leg Fridays,” says head coach Mike Marksbury. “They know all the coaches are coming in for frog legs, so they make sure they have them ready for us at lunchtime.” Marksbury says some fans have begun bringing the dish to pregame tailgate parties.

The store’s deli manager, David Jones, says the promotion is actually “Seafood Friday,” but frog legs are always available. “It also gives me a chance to wish them luck for the game that night,” he says.

Such small gestures make the games more than what happens between the sidelines.

“When I started coaching at Hancock County in 1999, I was surprised to go into the grocery store and people I didn’t know would say, ‘Good luck this week, coach,’” says Anderson County High head football coach Mark Peach. “I would have no idea who they were, but that was kind of cool.”

Scott County defeated Simon Kenton in last fall’s state quarterfinal matchup. Photo: Abby Jones

Faithful following, ups and downs

Fans start arriving long before game time, dropping truck gates and raising trunk lids for tailgating to rival the Saturday college experience. “We have a unique atmosphere,” says LaRue County’s Jaggers. “We have an old stadium with a track around it, so people bring their lawn chairs and watch the game. Some local DJs set up their speakers in one of the end zones and it’s a party out there.”

But the party is still about what happens on the gridiron where players, coaches and fans display varying levels of grief after losses and joy following the wins.

“When I came to Pulaski County as an assistant coach in 1995, they had the longest losing streak in Kentucky,” says Johnny Hines, the Maroons’ head coach since 1999 and a consumer-member of South Kentucky RECC. He’s led Pulaski County High to the Class 5A state championship game four times, winning the title in 2015.

“The second or third game of that 1995 season, we beat Mercer County. It was the first time any of those kids had won a game. People were crying and hugging their kids. It was like we had won the Super Bowl,” Hines says. 

In the playoffs, those emotions are amped even higher. Anderson’s Peach shed tears after his team suffered a last-minute loss to Hines’ Pulaski team in the 2013 Class 5A state semifinals. 

Jaggers’ emotion was at the other end of the spectrum when LaRue County rallied from a 25-6 deficit to beat Elizabethtown, 40-32, for a Class 3A regional championship last fall, its first since 1991. 

“When we got on the bus to come home, our fans lined up behind us. It was like that scene in Hoosiers, only it was football,” Jaggers remembers. “One of the banks has a big statue of Abraham Lincoln on the square downtown. The next week there was a big ‘LC’ banner hanging on it.”

Pride also was on display in Harrison County, where the Thoroughbreds won seven games and a district championship after failing to win a game the year before. “Oh, people were so excited,” Graham says. “We know how much people put into this program. It means something to them.” 

At Spencer County, the Bears won 10 games in 2015 but finished 4-6 and failed to make the Class 4A playoffs last fall. But they still played before large home crowds. “Many people in the community that have no connection to the school at all come faithfully, even travel (to away games),” says Spencer County fan Roxane Perry, a consumer-member of Shelby Energy. “There is a following.”

Lasting impact

The memories live on long after the pads come off for the last time. “Probably the most unique thing about Henderson County football is the guys who played for former coach Mojo Hollowell,” says Kevin Patton, who has written about high school sports for The Gleaner in Henderson for 23 years. “Hollowell had a nickname for each of his players; that’s a practice he continued after he left Henderson County (in 1986) and went on to a successful stint at Owensboro Catholic. It’s believed that he never used the same nickname twice. Those old Henderson County players are still known around town by their nicknames like ‘Radar,’ ‘Trapper,’ ‘Terrible,’ ‘Rattle,’ ‘Bam Bam,’ or whatever it may be.”

Stories like this demonstrate that high school football’s value can’t be measured in wins and losses or dollars and cents. In Harrison County, Graham is a beloved figure who has impacted countless young people. A licensed minister, he has officiated at weddings and funerals of former players. The records might be forgotten but the relationships remain, and the local pride can be priceless.

Jagger Gillis, the Anderson County quarterback, knows. “I remember several years ago, we were playing South Oldham on the road in the playoffs. It was like the whole town was there. It was unbelievable.” 

Believe it. It’s Friday Night Lights, Bluegrass style.

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