Football matters in our community -- and that would make Jerry Johns proud

Jeff Neal

There's something very special about the first Friday night of high school football.

Whether you're a player, a coach, a cheerleader, a parent, a sports journalist or just a rabid fan, the atmosphere is electric.

I'm a few years -- more than I like to admit -- removed from covering prep football for the Commonwealth Journal. I've left that wonderful chore in the capable hands of CJ Sports Editor Steve Cornelius, my son, Chase Neal, and longtime contributor Michael Childers.

But even as I watch the occasional game from the stands, get text reports from Chase about how the Jumpers are doing or follow the games on the radio, I get the same butterflies as I did for years, from high school right up through being in the press box watching our local teams wage war on the gridiron.

It makes me think back to the very first football coach I interviewed as the Sunday Sports Editor of the Commonwealth Journal in 1984 -- the late, great Jerry Johns.

I had a meeting set up with Jerry, who at the time was in the process of building the Pulaski County High program from scratch.

I walked into his office -- a very small little space beside the PC gym -- and there was coach Johns, sewing up one of his player's jerseys.

He looked up at me over those dark-rimmed glasses.

"You'll never see John Cain doing this," he quipped.

Cain, of course, was the head coach of the already historic Somerset High program. And coach Cain, I'm sure, did have someone to handle those tiny little tasks, like sewing up jerseys. He was guiding a state-title contender on an annual basis.

Johns was trying to teach Pulaski kids the fundamentals of football. The Maroons played on the very same field they inhabit today -- but there were no bleachers. PC Field was dubbed "Lawn Chair Stadium" at the time, because fans brought their chairs and blankets for seating.

Pulaski improved under Johns -- but trying to compete with established programs was difficult to say the least. Jerry's wife, Margy, often sat in the Pulaski press box beside me during those games in '84.

"It's going to be a long night," she would often say.

But strong roots were established, thanks to coach Johns and the young men who toiled on those early PC teams.

Football Fever spread from Downtown Somerset out into the county.

I covered Somerset High, too, during my first fall at the CJ. And, yes, comparing the tradition-laden Jumpers to the upstart Maroons was like night and day.

The Briar Jumpers were loaded -- they hovered around the No. 1 mark in the Louisville Courier-Journal LIT ratings all season, despite being a Class AA program.

Somerset was strong in every facet of the game. On defense they shined with guys like Mark Mounce, Bubba Perkins, Chad Girdler, Karl Crase and Jerry Starnes leading the way.

On offense, linemen like Chris Perdue, Mounce and Perkins opened holes for the incredible duo of running back James Fletcher and quarterback Tony Massey. When Massey went to the air, he had tremendous targets in Randy Mills and Tony Lewis. But with Fletcher and Massey running the football, the Jumpers rarely had to throw.

To this day, Fletcher is the greatest high school running back I ever laid eyes on -- and I've seen the likes of Archie Griffin, Gordon Bell and Mark Higgs play on the prep level.

Massey, of course, would go on to play at Kentucky for coach Jerry Claiborne as a defensive end in his "wide-tackle 6" defense. He just missed out on making an NFL roster with the Colts.

Somerset advanced all the way to the state semifinals that season, before falling to Newport Central Catholic at Clark Field.

All these years later, we now have three solid football programs in our community.

And the history of the programs are incredibly intertwined.

Coach Johns was an assistant under the great Jim Williams at SHS, and then took over as the Jumpers' head coach for several years. He then built the PC program, and was later an assistant at Southwestern High and back at Somerset High, under one of his former players, Jeff Perkins.

Cain went to four state championship games at Somerset High and then moved on to Pulaski County and pushed that program up a notch before turning the reigns over to current coach Johnny Hines, who played for Cain at Somerset and coached under him at PC.

Somerset is still rich with tradition and looks again like a state contender. Some things never change.

But Pulaski County -- that upstart from 1984 -- is now a perennial state contender as well. And coach Hines -- the former Briar Jumper player -- led those Maroons to this community's first state championship in football. Who would've thunk it?

And Southwestern High football is always in the hunt for a postseason berth as well.

I have a feeling coach Johns is smiling down on us as the new season kicks off.

Football matters throughout Pulaski County. And that would make old Jerry proud.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.

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