It’s 171 miles between what now is East Hardin Middle School and Paducah Tilghman High School.
It’s an even longer trip home with the occasional sound of sobs coming from among the teenage boys in the crowded seats of a school bus, as others stared out into the darkness of a November night.
Thirty-one years ago Tuesday night, with then East Hardin High School fielding arguably its best football team in school history and the first high school in Hardin County Schools history to post an unbeaten regular-season football record, the Rebels played the last game in school history.
A 21-7 loss on a bitterly cold night at Paducah Tilghman Nov. 24, 1989, in the Class 3-A state semifinals ended a season to always remember with a 13-1 record.
In a manner of hours, the Rebels went from the verge of reaching a state title game at old Cardinal Stadium in Louisville to seeing a big part of their young lives ended.
“Every athlete goes through that moment of their last game, it’s a flood of emotion that comes over you,” said Alex Todd, who was a senior quarterback/safety on that team. “The brothers that you’ve been around those years .... it hangs with you. “... it hurt; there was pain. Everybody wanted to take that next step. It just kind of sticks with you even today.”
In the town of Glendale, the team was big news, providing a sense of pride after so many tough football seasons. People, young and old, rallied around their boys in red.
“There were people who never went to games that started going to games,” said Andrew Hundley, a senior running back/cornerback on the ’89 Rebels. “After games, people were patting you on the back and telling you ‘great game’ and people were coming up to you wanting to talk to you.
“Glendale is such a small town, and it’s famous for the Whistle Stop restaurant, but in that point and time, I think we were pretty famous for football as well,” he added. “It was pretty cool.”
Most of us never will understand the feeling players like Todd and Hundley had, or others like Jason Knotts, Allan Dunaway and Mike Rucker, or Pat Chitwood, Boyd Edlin and Tracey Compton and dozens of others had by being part of a last team to ever take the field for a high school that was closing its doors due to consolidation.
A merger of East and West Hardin high schools led to the opening of Central Hardin High School in fall 1990.
“We had heard a lot of buzz about the new school coming and the merger between East and West and we wanted to go out with a bang for sure,” Hundley said. “There was a lot of talk early on just about moving things as quickly as possible towards the new school, and that at times, rubbed us the wrong way a little bit.”
With a large senior class, expectations were high that season under head coach Mike Lewis for the Rebels, who finished with 4,394 yards of total offense in 1989, including 3,773 on the ground.
Defensively, the stingy Rebels had six shutouts in 14 games.
East started the season with a 14-13 win over Elizabethtown, and other than a 14-0 win over Barren County and a 21-14 victory against Nelson County, won comfortably during the regular season.
“We knew we had some good players back and some guys that had played together for a long time,” Todd said. “I’m not sure we thought we would go undefeated, but we just kept winning.”
Once in the playoffs, the games got tougher.
A 17-15 win over Jessamine County opened the playoffs and a 20-14 victory over Woodford County provided a region championship.
Then came a talented Paducah Tilghman team and a roadblock to the state championship game.
Tilghman had Randy Wyatt, who would go on to play at Kentucky and Louisville and was a state sprinting champion, and several other outstanding players.
The Rebels were a team of grinders and hard-nosed football players.
“That was in Tilghman’s hey day,” Hundley said.
Tilghman built a 21-0 lead and East scored with 12 seconds left when Todd threw a short TD pass to Hundley with 12 seconds to play.
“Emotions were really high after the game ended,” Hundley said. “After we got out of the lockerroom and got see our families, it kind of hits you that for the seniors, it was over.”
It didn’t matter that a new school was being built, especially for more than a dozen Rebel seniors, part of the last class to be able to call themselves East Hardin High School graduates.
“When we got a chance to look back on what we did, we were pretty proud of it,” Hundley said. “We still are.”
Many of the players now are close to 50 years of age. Many of them are married and fathers of their own student-athletes.
Some have remained in Hardin County and others have left.
Regardless of where life has taken each player and coach, they are bonded by that one special season.
Even today, as he occasionally drives to his southern Hardin County home, Todd travels past his alma mater and can see the football field where his team played.
“You share something like we did,” Todd said, “you’re brothers forever.”