BY JAMES JUETT
FOR THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL They were a special bunch, the type that doesn’t come around often.
Known as “The Maroon,” the 1951 Russell High School football team was a close-knit bunch of players. Coach Fred Johnson and assistant coach Alex Cilo directed the team to a perfect 8-0 record.
Johnson, from Olive Hill, played basketball at Morehead State University. “He was a devout disciplinarian. He was an ex-Marine, and boy, he was one demanding person. We were almost afraid to lose,” tackle Bob “Big Boy” Bennett said.
“He was tough as nails,” said Jim Downs.
“Our coach was hardnosed. We all admired him and loved him,” Jack “Dixie” Howell said.
As a precursor of what was to come, a large crowd in Ironton saw Russell beat the Tigers 14-0 in a half-game scrimmage. The Maroon outscored their opponents 306-41 in 1951. “We were dedicated to winning,” co-captain Sam Hoffman said.
In the season opener, The Maroon faced former Russell star Dick Ratliff coaching Boyd County. The Maroon whipped Boyd County, 37-0. Russell thrashed Wurtland 47-7 in Game 2. In Game 3, The Maroon shut out talented Catlettsburg, 14-0.
Russell beat McKell 31-0 in the first road game. For Game 5, Russell hopped the bridge into Ironton to knock off the powerful St. Joseph Flyers, 34-14. The Maroon was at home on Sportsman’s Field against perennial rival Raceland and Coach Jim Conley, a former Russell great, in Game 6. In front of the biggest crowd of the year, Russell crushed the Rams, 250.
The Maroon won the Northeastern Kentucky Conference Championship in Game 7, trouncing Louisa, 52-20.
Bad weather caused the lights to go out on Homecoming night. Russell turned off the lights for the season, blanking Fort Gay 52-0 in pouring rain in re-scheduled Game 8 played the next Tuesday at Raceland. It was the final game.
“There weren’t playoffs then,” said Russell athletic director Sam Sparks.
2016 marks the 65th anniversary of that great team. Before the Ironton game, the surviving team members were inducted into the Russell High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Ten of the 23 are deceased and both managers and both coaches are deceased. We were fortunate enough to have, I think it was 12 showed up for the ceremony,” RAHOF founder Bill Williams said.
Bennett and co-captain Joe May came from Virginia and were also inducted individually.
There’s always been big pride in Russell football. Bill Vallance said that in the 1930s alumni would come out of the stands and fight the players if they didn’t think they were playing hard enough. Vallance has team records dating to 1922 and hopes to publish a book on Russell football.
“People couldn’t believe the fact that we would walk from there down to the field to practice and walk back every day, and it was about a mile one way,” Williams, a freshman practice player, said.
Bennett shined playing on Sportsman’s Field that C& O Railroad had built. The multipurpose field was near the YMCA, and was also used by the school’s baseball and track teams. Russell’s sewage treatment plant is where the covered wooden stadium was.
Pat Caniff said, “When it rained, the fans stayed dry but we got wet.”
Downs chuckled, saying, “It had an old wooden fence. When I was in grade school, we’d knock a board loose. We didn’t have any money and we’d slip in and watch the football game.”
Bennett credits Johnson’s tenacity for preparing him to play for Kentucky coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant left Kentucky to coach Texas A& M after Bennett’s freshman year. Bennett became a three-year letterman for future Cleveland Browns coach Blanton Collier. Bennett sold textbooks for 38 years. He was head football coach at Franklin County High School for five years, Frankfort’s mayor and a basketball analyst on Frankfort’s WFKY.
A team favorite was guard Bob “Chug” Harris. Harris served in the Marine Corps in Korea, came home and used the GI Bill to earn a degree at Marshall University and a master’s degree from Georgetown College. Harris remained active in the Marine Reserve, worked at Ashland Oil and was a teacher and assistant football coach at Raceland. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and re-entered the Marines and was promoted to captain.
“He didn’t have to go, but he didn’t want his men to go out there with someone at night that had not led them,” Bennett said.
“Three days before he was to come home he was lost in action,” Downs said of Harris.
Harris’s brother, practice player J.R. Harris, chuckled and said, “We were freshmen. They used us as tackling dummies.”
“He would come around that end and look like the Green Bay Packers sweep,” J.R. Harris said, of the intimidating Bennett. Co-captain Joe May scored 16 TDs and was a secondteam All-State fullback in ’51. He played for the University of Virginia, became a doctor and for 20 years was the physician for the Cavaliers’ basketball team.
“He became a team physician when Ralph Sampson played,” Williams said.
May practiced medicine until having a stroke two years ago.
Downs was called “fleet and nimble-footed” by Johnson. Downs fought on a more serious field during the Korean War. For 10 years he has taken hospice dogs to comfort people at Community Hospice in Ashland.
Caniff can still explain how to get a twist with a spiral when long-snapping. The owner of Caniff Funeral Home said beating Ironton in the well-attended scrimmage game is his favorite ’51 memory.
“Ironton was a powerhouse. It was publicized in the paper and everything else,” Caniff said.
“We loved it. We thought we were jocks and big-timers. We were just a bunch of little boys running around in that day,” Bob McKenzie said. Beating Catlettsburg, a team he said was great, is his favorite ’51 memory.
“We didn’t have mouth guards, I used just bubble gum,” J.R. Harris said.
“We didn’t have face masks. We had a lot of busted mouths, busted noses. Don Jones got teeth knocked out,” Hoffman said.
“As we was walking off the field, one of McKell’s guys come up behind him (Don Jones) and hit him smack in the mouth,” Howell said.
Hoffman was class president all four years but laughed about maybe getting into politics. Instead he became a welder for Armco. He has faint childhood memories of seeing Armco’s semi-pro football team play.
Howell was given the nickname “Dixie” because of Alabama All-American and Washington Redskin Dixie Howell.
“That was one of my better blocks I’d made all season. I’d hit the guy and I thought it was competition, but when I looked up it was an official that was rolling on the ground,” Howell joked. Bennett teased him, “You block better if it’s an official on the grass.”
Johnson left Russell and was school superintendent at Raceland and worked for the state department in Frankfort. Cilo led Russell to a 9-1 record in 1954 and later coached in southeastern Ohio.
The 1951 Russell football team is pictured.