The Boys of Autumn

updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even as progress comes to the hills and hollows of Appalachia, bringing such necessities as European body-wrap salons to the towns and Brie en croûte to the malls, one thing never seems to change: the fortunes of the Pikeville (Ky.) High School football team. Last season the Panthers won all 14 games and averaged just under 50 points a game. This season they were undefeated again going into the annual big game against their archrival, Paintsville. Such heroics have made head coach Hillard Howard, 41, about the most respected man in eastern Kentucky never to make a couple of million dollars in coal.

"We have to take care of Hillard. He takes care of our kids," says Ralph Roop, a Cadillac salesman and father of a 270-lb. lineman, handing over the keys to a 1983 Fleetwood Brougham d'Elegance, once owned by an elderly widow and passed along to Howard at cost. The coach walks around it once, checks the gas tank (full), starts the car up and heads for home, spitting H.B. Scott's chewing-tobacco juice into a paper coffee cup as he drives, not a drop marring the plush blue interior. "I'm still not used to a car with good brakes," he apologizes as the Cadillac lurches to a halt at an intersection. "Before I started getting all these nice new cars, I had to hang one foot out the door to stop." The Cadillac looks real nice in the driveway, shaded by a willow tree and parked next to the 1987 Pontiac Bonneville that the grateful people of Pikeville bought Howard last year, right after his team won the Division A state championship.

Of all the love affairs in sports, none is quite so special as that of a small town with its football team. Maybe it's the weather that does it, the combination of autumn leaves and summer grass, the air as crisp as a tight spiral. Maybe it's the sacrifice, the glory of young men throwing their bodies into the struggle, asking nothing for it but a letter to sew on a funny jacket that some of them will wear the rest of their lives. Only in football are the memories so vivid. Marley Newsom, 62, a Pikeville barber who was quarterback of the 1941 team, remembers "crying like a baby down on the field" the day his team suffered its sole defeat of the season. Only in football are the bonds so enduring. Henry Stratton, 63, a tackle in the '40s, has eight lawyers in his local firm, and six of them played football for Pikeville.

As one autumn follows another, small-town people watch their children grow up. They see them as grade-schoolers, playing pickup football behind the bleachers. They see the same kids years later, competing under the Friday-night lights. Sometimes the kids end up playing a better game of football than even the most bright-eyed booster would dare to expect. "People were always telling us they couldn't wait until we were juniors and seniors," says Greg Hackney, Pikeville's star halfback. "When we were seventh and eighth graders, only three or four teams even scored on us, and we were playing middle schools with ninth graders." Most of the seniors on the Pikeville team have been starting for six years, on various teams, and in all that time they have lost only one game.

The Panthers are a Division A team; Pikeville has about 300 students in grades 10 through 12. A school like Henry Clay High in Lexington, rated Division 4A, has about 1,800 students in the same three grades. In 1987 the two teams played, and Pikeville won by 13 points. This year Pikeville won again, by 15. "For the last two years, Pikeville has probably been the best football team in the state, regardless of size," says Jake Bell, the coach at Henry Clay. "They have a run of really great athletes. It happens in small towns."

It seems that for the past few decades a lot of good things have happened in Pikeville. The hills of eastern Kentucky remain for the most part a bastion of fundamentalism and poverty, scattered with signs reading You Need Jesus and families living "on the draw." The dominant architecture of Appalachia is still double-wide trailers, although some of them are in yards with swimming pools. "We've got the haves and the have-nots, a mixture of $200,000 homes here and $20,000 shacks there," says Gene Davis, 57, a former Pikeville football coach, now the vice-president of a local bank. Pikeville is a pocket of relative prosperity in all this, a city of about 5,500 people that functions as a regional service center. If the local economy is not oblivious to the booms and busts of the coal industry, it is at least partly shielded from them.

It is shielded as well from some of the harshness of the times and the sense of old values quickly eroding. Coach Howard, who has a master's degree in education and doubles as the assistant principal at Pikeville, says the worst discipline problem he comes up against most days is tardiness. The secret of all this serenity might just be that every kid in town who is big enough or mean enough to get in trouble ends up playing football instead. There are more than 50 players on the squad, and each one who sticks out the season, no matter how little he plays, gets a letter. There isn't much else for a kid to do in Pikeville, except cruise the shopping plazas along the four-lane. "Football is everything here, for everyone, not just for us," says Hillard's wife, Marsha, 41. "You can't believe how football oriented the town is. We sort of coast through the summers, live for when the season starts."

To hear the people of Pikeville talk, last year's football team was the greatest thing to happen to eastern Kentucky since the coal boom of the early 70s, when prices went from $9 to $60 a ton in just 15 months. "The team last year was so good," says Howard, "that this year, after we won a game 37-0, I heard, 'Coach, what happened? What's wrong with them?' Every Friday, before the game, I hear, 'How many points are we going to score?' People have already decided we're going to win another championship."

People still talk about last year's game against Johns Creek, which was undefeated going into the game and touted a star defensive player nicknamed Doctor Death. Howard figured his team was in for a tough evening when he stopped at Jerry's restaurant, his favorite hangout in Pikeville, and heard from one of the waitresses that she had bet $10 on Johns Creek. "Hey, that's a day's pay," Howard says.

The stands in Badlands Field at Johns Creek were filled when the Pikeville team bus pulled up nearly two hours before game time, and there was such a throng of excited Johns Creek fans milling around on the field that the Pikeville players had to warm up in the end zone. As Johns Creek kicked off, the crowd was five deep along the sidelines. Pikeville's first play was an 85-yard touchdown run, and the Panthers went on to win 62-7. "I probably won't bet against Hillard this year," says Lisa Williamson, the waitress. When last year's team left for the state championship game, so many Pikeville fans followed them to Louisville that a sign was posted on a railroad trestle a few miles outside the city: Last One Out...Turn Off The Lights!

After the Panthers won the championship, the Pikeville Board of Education bought rings for every player. The Pikeville Football Boosters chipped in, too, buying jackets and plaques for the team. The Boosters help pay for meals and hotel rooms whenever the team travels, and they operate a Polish sausage stand at Pikeville's annual Hillbilly Days festival, donating the proceeds toward the cost of equipment and a summer training camp. "We're there when they need something," says Jerry McNamee, a coal broker. "We'll get to work."

Naturally, such intense local interest does not make Howard's job anxiety free. He keeps a blood-pressure cuff and a stethoscope in the bottom drawer of his desk and two kinds of antacid medication (liquid and tablet) within easy reach. This season, he's trying to find reasons for worrying about his offense, which was averaging 41.8 points per game going into the showdown with Paintsville, down from 49.6 last season. His "Big Dawg" defense, though, was still grinding opponents into puppy chow. Named for 275-lb. all-state tackle and linebacker Tim Honaker, who started barking in practice one day, the defensive team was giving up only about seven points a game, and most of those were coming in the second half, when the starters usually stay on the bench. "I actually don't mind coming out too much," says Jody Brown, the leading pass receiver on a team that seldom passes. "You can lay back, watch the jayvee play, wave to people in the stands, try to meet girls."

David Cox, the starting fullback, and Bobby Deramus, who starts at halfback on offense and noseguard on defense, say that to keep runaway games interesting, the offense sometimes devises play variations in the huddle, a form of spontaneity that does not have the blessing of the coach. "We've been at it so many years we know just about when we're going to get a touchdown," Deramus says. "Our offense will decide that we should take four plays to score, so that's what we do." Adds Cox: "Sometimes I get aggravated when we're playing littler teams. The first play, we score. We kick off, they fumble, and the kickoff team takes it in. Sometimes I loaf so I can play more. I know when we're way ahead at halftime I'll have to take my pads off." Cox, who is primarily used as a blocking back and usually grades out as the most efficient member of the offense, is so good-natured and easygoing that he has become the coach's nemesis, invulnerable to motivational goading.

"He's the worst fullback in America," sputters Howard loud enough for the passing Cox to hear. "All the guys have girls who wear their jerseys. Cox has to pay a girl to wear his." ("You know," says Cox of his coach, "he's like a good friend.")

Howard was raised in a coal camp near the Virginia border, one of 14 children of a man who worked 41 years in the mines. "It was tough," Howard says, "but we had enough to eat and we had nice clothes." The players call him Fred Flintstone—when he slouches, the resemblance is uncanny—and he rules with a management style that is a mixture of affection, devotion, sarcasm and left hooks. He was a two-time West Virginia Golden Gloves middleweight boxing champion, and when players misbehave, they are invited into the gym. "I had to go in about four times with him," says Sean Neeley, a 6'3", 235-lb. lineman nicknamed Captain Redneck for his propensity for getting into brawls. "He'll let you hit him, so you start thinking you're good, and you get careless, and then he pops you. That fourth time will be my last. I got one good shot on him, a lucky one, and then he beat me to death."

Howard's son Jason, a quarterback on the team, describes his father as arrogant, willful and too stubborn to ever admit he's wrong, but he adds, forgivingly, "You learn to like him the way he is, and he loves every player to death." On the evening before the state championship game, after his players were in bed, Howard switched on the television set and heard a sportscaster announcing the names of all the players on the annual Associated Press all-state football team. "Three of ours were named to the first team and one made second," Howard says, "but I was afraid the kids who didn't make it would be upset. So at 5 a.m. I went downstairs and bought all the papers in the lobby and for three blocks around the hotel, and I hid them in my room, mostly under the bed. At game time, no one knew who had made the team, not even our assistant coaches."

Only one coach in eastern Kentucky has a record to rival Hillard Howard's, and that is Walter Brugh, 62, of Paints-ville High, who has won more games over his 32-year career than all but one other coach in the state. "Hillard and I are friends," says Brugh, whose own team was undefeated going into the game against Pikeville this year. Friendships like this one bring back memories of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Says Jeamy Holbrook, the quarterback for Paintsville: "Coach Brugh would rather beat Coach Howard than eat."

Paintsville, which has about the same population as Pikeville, wasn't nearly as blessed with the federal funds that flowed from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Or, as Brugh puts it, "We had to work for our money." Paintsville is picturesque, more like a small town is supposed to look, with tree-lined residential streets and a dairy bar across the road from the high school that is painted in team colors and calls itself the Home of the Tigers. Three years ago, when Paintsville was on the way to a second-place finish in the state football tournament, the Tigers defeated Pikeville 48-21. The prevailing view is that Paintsville, which scored its 48 points after being down 21-0, ran up the score.

"With a minute and 27 seconds left to play, they were still throwing the ball," fumes Howard.

"We were just trying to play football," smiles Brugh.

Last year Pikeville won 59-0. This time Pikeville was accused of running up the score.

"What do you think?" asks Brugh, not smiling now. Howard recalls that after Pikeville won the state championship, Brugh was one of his few coaching acquaintances who didn't call with congratulations. Going into this year's Pikeville-Paintsville game, neither coach was predicting victory. They sounded as if they weren't even sure their teams would show up.

"Maybe once we see them, we'll turn and run," said Brugh.

"They're undefeated," Howard reminded his players after practice one afternoon. "If that scares you and you need to be home the night we play, let me know, and I'll give you the day off."

On the morning of the game, Howard received a telephone call from his brother, Eddie, 55, who said he wasn't coming to the game because Paintsville wasn't tough enough. "He's trying to aggravate me, that's what he's trying to do," said Howard. Later, when the coach stopped in at Jerry's for his usual pregame iced tea, a former player came over and said the betting line on the game had Pikeville favored by 29 points. "I should put $20 on Paintsville myself," Howard said in disgust.

A couple of hours before kickoff, he went home to change clothes. He came out of the bedroom wearing a short-sleeved white polo shirt and shimmering maroon slacks, the Pikeville colors. He had on his game face, the short-tempered one.

"Marsha, do I need a coat?" he asked.

"Yes, it's freezing," she said. "You should be wearing a long-sleeved shirt, too."

"Marsha, don't tell me what to wear."

The confrontation that Howard was calling the Thrilla in Pikevilla was drawing near. When the coach arrived at the field, he found fullback Cox in the school parking lot, adjusting the air filter on his Trans Am instead of preparing for the game. "Will you stop dinking with that junk," he yelled, waving for Cox to get inside. Once dressed, the players filed into a world history classroom, jamming their bodies behind desks not designed for 200-pounders in pads. On the blackboard was an outline of the rise and fall of Rome, but Howard provided his own history lesson, reminding his team of Paintsville's humiliating 48-21 win. "I don't want that ever to leave your minds," he warned.

Four times that night, Paintsville drives deep into Pikeville territory. Four times, Paintsville has first down and goal to go. The Big Dawg goal-line defense, so tough a pickup truck couldn't go through it, holds every time. Pikeville wins 22-0. The next morning, Howard goes down to Jerry's for breakfast. As he steps into the restaurant, he hears it, just as he knew he would. "Hillard," someone asks, "what went wrong last night?"

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