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There is no doubt Justin Pawley loves Central Hardin High School athletics. Pawley, who has Down syndrome, has been involved with Central Hardin sports since he was a team manger in high school and became an honorary coach after graduating in 1999.
He’s been with the boys' soccer team for 20 years and the boys' basketball team for 18.
“All I ever wanted to do is coach,” Pawley said.
Soccer coach Mike Wiersema said his pregame talks are legendary.
“Justin is our motivational master,” he said. “The players through the years have an incredible bond with him.”
Coaches usually have to limit his pep talks to about a minute. Pawley said he could go on forever.
“We do have to keep him on a time limit. He is very long winded at times,” basketball coach J.C. Wright joked.
Pawley shared some of what his speeches entail.
“I tell them just remember who you’re playing for. You’re playing for the school. Play your game. Play with your heart. These are the best four years of your lives,” Pawley said.
He’s a University of Kentucky basketball fan and sometimes he reminds players of the 1996 team that won the national championship.
“They kept on playing until the final score,” he said.
He also ecnourages the team to put academics first.
As much as Pawley loves the team, the team and coaches love him back.
“One of my life’s greatest pleasures is to watch Pawley lift a trophy,” Wiersema said. “No one has been as emotionally invested in Central Hardin soccer as Justin and that resonates with the players.”
Soccer team captain Austin Howard said Pawley has a love for the team no one can understand and always is ready to get the team pumped up and excited for a game. He is grateful for the 20 years Pawley has dedicated to Central Hardin.
“The talks Coach Pawley has given us is something I will never forget in my lifetime,” Howard said. “It’s been a blessing to have him as a part of the team and I will truly miss him when I graduate this year.”
Pawley’s mom, Judy Burress, said it means a lot to her that the coaches continue to want him to be a part of the team.
Earlier this season, to honor his 20 years with the soccer team, they held PawleyPaloosa at an alumni game and had T-shirts made with Pawley’s image on them.
The soccer and basketball teams each give the Justin Pawley Award to players who show the most heart and dedication to their teams.
“I don’t think anyone has more desire to win than Justin Pawley,” Wright said.
This is especially true when it comes to playing district rivals, Wright said, adding Pawley wears a coat and tie for those games.
Pawley’s mom said he has stayed in contact with players long after they’ve graduated. She knows the friends he’s made with the team care about him and would never let anything happen to him. Coaches have noticed that, too.
“His relationship with the players is awesome, even with past players,” basketball coach Matt Nickell said. “One thing I always think of is how he shakes hands with all the other coaches and officials and they remember him.”
Wright remembers a time when Pawley took a few years off and after a rough year for the team he called Wright and said, “I need to come back and help you guys out because you all struggled this year.”
The year before the team won three games and the year he came back they won 13.
“I think he was right,” Wright said.
Pawley always has a smile when telling a story but is serious and all business at game time, he said.
“Justin has a heart as big as anyone for Central Hardin,” Wright said.
Pawley said he hopes to coach another 20 years or until he’s too old to do it and would love to coach in college some day.
He can be found at all sporting events at Central Hardin, even the ones he isn’t coaching, his mom said.
“He is Central Hardin,” she said.
“It’s been a long journey for me and I just have to do what’s best,” Pawley said. “I tell the boys, ‘Hey, play with heart and play with emotion and give 100 percent on the field.’”
Becca Owsley can be reached at 270- 505-1741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to know Justin Pawley
The Justin Pawley Act
Pawley is interested in more than sports. He loves politics and has been active in state legislation. When his mom became his guardian Pawley did not realize it would revoke his voting rights. When he was not allowed to vote for president in 2000 it upset Pawley so much he, along with the help of Mike Weaver and State Rep. Jimmy Lee, pushed to allow people who are under someone else’s guardianship to retain their voting rights. In 2007 the Justin Pawley Act was passed to give special-needs citizens the right to vote even under someone else’ guardianship.