Local players, teams were among Kentucky’s best in fall of 68

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Ed Miracle led Lynch to four state titles and four runner-up finishes between 1959 and 1971, including the 1968 championship, the last for a Harlan County team.

John Henson, Managing Editor

(Editor’s note: The following story ran in the Enterprise 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1968 football season)
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It was a year to remember in many different ways for America, a tumultuous time when Richard Nixon was elected president and both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
In Southeast Asia, it marked the deadliest year of the Vietnam War with almost 17,000 troops killed.
In San Francisco, young people from across America marked the Summer of Love.
In Harlan County, coal was still booming and football was never better than in 1968.
The level of talent at the five Harlan County schools may have been unmatched with players such as Joe Washington, Larry Kirksey, Rex Estridge, Murph Howard, Ralph Clayton and Tim Saylor leading their respective teams.
At least a half-dozen Harlan County athletes went on to sign Division I scholarships, led by Washington, Kirksey and Estridge, who all went on to play for Roy Kidd at Eastern Kentucky University. Tom Johnson was an all-state lineman at Lynch who went on to play linebacker at Murray State University. Saylor, a junior in 1968, signed with the University of Kentucky and later transferred to Carson Newman College. Rick Fox, a sophomore for Cawood, went on to play at Morehead State University. Clayton signed with Jacksonville State in Alabama.
Kirksey and Washington were both second-team all-state selections on the Associated Press squad. Honorable mention all-state selections that season included Harlan lineman Mike Anderson and Mark Rice, Evarts lineman Preston McLain, Lynch fullback Mickey Roscoe, as well as Saylor and Estridge.
The Courier-Journal Class A all-state first team included both Washington and Kirksey, with Lynch end Ronnie Hampton on the second team.
“I’ve been around 58 years now, and I’m sure Larry Kirksey and Joe Washington would tell you the same thing — it was the best season,” Estridge said. “It was three of the best teams in the state.”
“There were some great athletes back then with a lot of talent,” Washington said when contacted at his home in Radcliff. “You had some guys who were pretty agile and some very tough individuals. They were tough because they cared. The desire and the respect of the game was there. You knew you were in a dogfight in just about every game, and you had to be at your best.”
Lynch won its fourth and final state title that fall under Ed Miracle, defeating Frankfort 14-6 on Stoll Field in Lexington as Washington and Roscoe each scored touchdowns.
The Bulldogs opened the playoffs with a 28-13 win over McKell in the regional finals, avenging a 24-0 loss the previous year.
While Washington, described by Enterprise sports writer Mabel Collins as “elusive as an eel” in a story about the game, was the Bulldogs’ star, Roscoe scored three touchdowns with Washington slowed by an ankle injury. The Lynch backfield also featured Washington’s younger brother, Darryl. Defensive leaders, according to a Courier-Journal story, were Hampton and Johnson as the inside linebackers.
McKell was led by future Cincinnati Reds pitcher Don Gullett, who had set a state record that still stands by scoring all of his team’s points in a 72-7 win over Wurtland.
Washington won the state scoring title as a junior but lost that honor to Gullett when both were seniors. After completing college, Washington earned Kentucky Teacher of the Year honors in 1980 and coached at both Fort Knox and North Hardin. He was the head coach for nine seasons at North Hardin from 1999 to 2007.
Even though the Bulldogs won their fourth state championship trophy that November, they weren’t the champions of the Cumberland Valley Conference in 1968. Evarts, with the legendary Charlie Hunter in the middle of a 20-plus year run as coach, upset Lynch 31-19 during the season to capture the league title.
Estridge and Washington each scored three touchdowns in the game, but Clayton may have been the difference as the junior halfback added two touchdowns. Neither team managed to complete a pass in the game as the Wildcats gained 203 yards on the ground and the Bulldogs gained 141.

Rex Estridge was a star running back on Evarts’ 1968 district championship squad.

Joe Bill Clark, an assistant for the Wildcats that season, credited assistant principal Needham Saylor, a former coach at Loyall and Cumberland and later the county schools superintendent, for coming up with the gameplan that stopped Lynch.
“He came in that week and helped Charlie,” Clark said. “He worked all week with certain keys. He wasn’t on the sideline that night, but he was at every practice.”
Evarts went on to win the 2A district title in 1968, the third in the decade for the Wildcats, who moved to Class A in the 1970s, where they remained until the school closed. Evarts had to go through both Corbin and Middlesboro to win the district championship, then fell to Belfry in the Region 4 finals. Evarts’ schedule that season was brutal by any measure with games against Paducah Tilghman, Harlan, Corbin, Cawood, Cumberland, Pineville, Lynch, Middlesboro, Knoxville Central, Hazard and Austin East. The Wildcats fell to Belfry for the second straight year in the playoffs and didn’t make it back until 1990, when Evarts defeated Pikeville for the Region 4 title in Class A.
Other standouts for the Wildcats that season included running back Willie Mac Yount, quarterback Terry Campbell and linemen Steve Andrews and Butch McCreary. The Evarts roster that season included numerous familiar names, including sophomore center Freddie Hunter, the son of the Evarts coach, as well as McLain, an Evarts City Council member who has been a leader in the county’s adventure tourism efforts. Split end Bill Troutman was the clock keeper for many years at the Evarts football field and later served in the same role for Harlan County High School.

Some members and personnel from the 1968 Harlan High School Green Dragon undefeated football team gathered recently for a 50-year reunion and the celebration of the 80th birthday of coach Dan Beasley. Those participating include from left: Andy Hatfield, Harold Cudd, Rusty Bailey, Mike Coldiron, coach Beasley, Tish Coldiron, cheerleader, Mark Sutton, manager, Larry Kirksey, Phillip Wilder and Fulton Brock. The team finished as one of the top clubs in the state, compiling a 9-0-1 record. Lynch and Harlan fought to a tie before several thousand fans at Huff Park with the Bulldogs winning the tiebreaker, and therefore, receiving the opportunity to advance to the Class A playoffs where they would win the state title.

Harlan football fans and former players remember 1968 as one of the best in school history and perhaps the most agonizing because it didn’t include a playoff game. The Dragons finished 10-0-1 that season under Dan Beasley, won the Southeastern Kentucky Conference title with a victory over Middlesboro and may very well have been the best Class A team in Kentucky — certainly one of the top two — but lost out in the infamous Dickenson System tiebreaker in the days when only one team per district made the playoffs.
“It was unbelievable,” said Howard, the Harlan quarterback who later coached baseball and football at Harlan and then baseball at Pendleton County High School. “You can get in now with an 0-10 record, but we were 9-0-1 and didn’t go. It was different back then, and it was pretty tough because Lynch went on and won the state championship.”
A 12-12 tie in a matchup against Lynch at Huff Park is still considered one of the greatest football games ever played in Harlan County. The Enterprise headline after the game noted that a crowd of 5,000 attended. The Dragons knew coming into the game that they had to beat Lynch to win the district and qualify for the playoffs.
“I remember that week. Everybody all over the county was looking forward to it and really felt that one of the two would eventually be the state champion,” Howard said. “The former Harlan High School students who came in from all over was unbelievable. Huff Park seemed like a miniature Rose Bowl. I don’t know how many thousands were there.”
Roscoe gave Lynch an early 6-0 lead, but Kirksey returned a punt 40 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to tie the game.
Maceo Peeples connected with Roscoe for a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to put the Bulldogs back on top. The Enterprise reported that the pass was “batted into the air and into the hands of Roscoe who stepped into the end zone.”
Rick Miller returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards and then scored several plays later on a 1-yard run to tie the game again.
Harlan appeared to win the game with 45 seconds left when Howard connected with Kirksey for a 40-yard touchdown pass, but a penalty nullified the play.
“He caught it on about the 5 and ran into the end zone, and I start running to the bench to get the block because I held extra points for Larry,” Howard said. “They gave me the block and I started out on the field and coach Beasley told me to look out on the field and there was one flag. They had mobbed Larry and broke the fence down in the end zone. It was a mob of people on him.”
Kirksey began a long coaching career after leaving Eastern Kentucky University, working with several Division I schools and NFL teams, including a stint with the San Francisco 49ers where he tutored Jerry Rice, among others. Kirksey was on the coaching staff of a national championship team at Alabama and a Super Bowl champion at San Francisco. He currently works as the receivers coach with the Houston Texans.
In addition to Kirksey and Howard, all-conference selections that season from Harlan included Anderson, Rice, Jim Blaney, Fulton Brock and Harold Cudd.
“I had receivers and an offensive line that were unbelievable. They kept people off me,” Howard said.
The Saturday game drew football fans from all over the county, even those from other local teams.
“I saw the Lynch-Harlan game, and I remember it very well. There was a lot of talent out on the field,” said Saylor, an all-state quarterback at Cawood in the late 1960s who was later superintendent of the Harlan County School District following a successful coaching career that included taking Cumberland to the Class A state finals twice.. “You had Joe Washington and Larry Kirksey, and so many other great players. Joe Washington was the best running back I’ve ever seen. His first step was as fast as his last step, and he could stop on a dime and go sideways and go 80 yards.
“Those were two great football teams, and Evarts also had a very good football team with Estridge and Ralph Clayton. We were just trying to get things going at Cawood High School at that point.”
Cawood posted a 5-5-1 record in its third season of varsity competition, recording its first winning record the next fall. Cumberland was 4-5-1 that season. Both the Trojans and Redskins suffered losses to Evarts, Harlan, Lynch and Middlesboro and tied each other.
Clark, who spent 24 years coaching in Harlan County at Cumberland, Evarts, Lynch and Harlan, credits his coaching counterparts of that era with much of the county’s football success.
“It was a tough time, but all of the coaches were able to maintain discipline and keep the kids on the right track,” he said. “They had some things in common, but they were different in their approach and techniques. They all had strong personalities. As far as coaching goes, that might have been one of the golden eras of Harlan County.
Looking back on those battles of 1968, when Harlan County was at the center of the football world in Kentucky, Estridge calls it a special time.
“It was an honor,” he said, “to play with and against so many great players.”