First off, congratulations to Mayfield High School, State Single A Football Champions, again. I have been in Mayfield high school seven or eight times out of the last ten years for breakfast before the Fancy Farm picnic nearby. It is probably the prettiest small high school building I have ever seen and it is maintained by staff and students at a level rarely seen outside the Midwest. You could eat off the floors. They have the best Class A team I’ve seen and deserve to be champions, however tired the rest of the state may get of it. They earned it.
That said, I don’t think Santa Claus is going to bring much to the players, coaches, and fans from Mayfield High School Football this year. Just when my Fairview Eagles (Class of 1969, Hall of Fame) were driving for a go ahead touchdown early in the state finals, they were overcome by the generous spirit of the season. They proceeded to turn the ball over six times. Against a team like Mayfield that is that. It takes some good fortune and no bad fortune to beat an opponent that good and with a back like Johnathan Jackson, my candidate for Mr. Football.
Mayfield learns the lesson of winning, hard work and talent are rewarded. But there are other lessons that last as long as those pleasant ones. For Beechwood and Louisville Country Day, for Pikeville and Hazard, and all the other teams from the West Virginia border over to Mayfield, which is close to Missouri, there are a lot of lessons you can learn from competition on the way to a big stage, like the state finals.
I was in the fifth grade and was the best speller that I knew. I was invited to a system-wide spelling bee involving children from the fifth grade through the eighth. I studied my words, and went to the competition. I had practiced with my mother, and I thought I was ready. When that big tall High School Principal, Webb Young (Allstate basketball VanLear HS 1940-41,wounded POW) with one arm confronted me and gave me my first word to spell I lost the moment. I couldn’t see it in my head, I couldn’t sound it out, and just went over and sat down. That was a bad experience.
Three years later I could spell words the announcer couldn’t pronounce and finally intentionally misspelled “rutabaga” in order to avoid going to Huntington, West Virginia on a Saturday to spell words pronounced by a local TV personality they called Mr. Cartoon. I wanted to go fishing with my father and did not want to spell any more words. That is the confidence and control that comes from experience.
I was in college before I ever even got a uniform on a team with a winning record. But, over the years I have had a lot of opportunities. The first time I did things, I often did them badly. Often it is just the inability to focus on the moment and the task at hand because of external pressure. But most times, if I got a second chance, I did better. You have to learn how to function under new pressures in new situations.
My first Court argument in a case of any size was against now Congressman Hal Rogers about thirty years ago. Of course, then, he was running for Lieutenant Governor. I had colitis for two days and probably slept thirty minutes over that time. When we both showed up in Circuit Court, fighting over a coal tipple worth a couple of million dollars, bleary-eyed and fatigued though I was, I was much better prepared than the Congressman and did very well. In between the fifth grade and that day, there were a lot of blank moments, though.
So much of life is expectation, both your own and that of others. One of the most successful coaches I know well, is Dudley Hilton. He has won state football championships in Kentucky at both Bourbon County and Bell County. He is a great motivator and confidence builder. He came to Bell County after three small high schools had consolidated into a larger high school. None of them had won many football games in the last fifty years. However, he got a program together, began to win.
The year he won his first state championship, his team was playing in the mud at Covington Catholic High School. Covington Catholic had been a perennial power in Three A football as long as there had been Three A football. However, a good Bell County team beat them nine to six. At the end of that game, he stood in the mud and told the Lexington Herald, the Middlesboro Daily News and anybody else who would listen “When things got tough today it came down to our tradition and our tradition is what prevailed.” Well, Bell County kids whose brothers had played three years before had won a lot of games, too, and they didn’t realize that Bell County didn’t used to be any good. They felt like they belonged.
The year before in the state semi-finals, playing in venerable old Putnam Stadium at Ashland, where my grandparents were custodians for thirty years, Juan Thomas and the Ashland Tomcats eked out a narrow victory as the Bell County Bobcats were learning how to win it all.
Ashland won the state championship that year, Bell County the next and Bell County has been in the hunt ever since. They believe in a tradition, that is now over twenty years old.
Lessons of athletics can be lessons of life.
And so, I congratulate Mayfield. But, all the who played hard I congratulate, as well, Country Day, Hazard, Beechwood, Pikeville and all the others. Fairview is the smallest school in Kentucky that plays football. Those Eagles are the children of the children I ran with on those sunny fields a lifetime ago, and I am proud of them. They had to go all the way West to find a team that could beat them.
They were a joy to watch. They had a great season and with experience one day can win a championship. Though I have not been back for more than a few days for many years now, since I left for the Army during the Vietnam War, it is still the small, blue-collar community of ridges and hollows where I grew up, where I studied and fought and played and prayed, and where others first dreamed for me, the dream of this great life I’ve lived. Kudos to all the winners, but win or lose, I still believe in the ‘Wood, the Day, the Dogs and all the children who played, who cheered, who believed.
Hayes is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor practicing law inand the Eastern District of Tennessee, with an office in view of the Virginia mountains.