Still, after five decades, memories of Elizabethtown High School’s 1969 state football championship still hold a special place in the hearts of many.
“I remember being in the locker room before the game and we got in a huddle and we said we’re just going to go out and play football like we know we can and we’re going to hit them harder then they hit us,” said Donnie Walters, a senior lineman on a Panther team that won the school’s lone state football title Nov. 28, 1969 with a 21-8 Class 2-A victory over Lexington Bryan Station at Stoll Field in Lexington.
“They knew by halftime they weren’t going to hit us harder,” he said.
The win capped a 13-0 season.
That Panther team will be recognized at 7 tonight at Kroger Field in Lexington during the Class 3-A title game.
“It’s something you never, ever forget,” said Ernie Lewis, a junior quarterback on the team, who passed for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the final. “I can still remember my high school plays. It meant so much to us winning; it’s concreted in our minds.”
That Elizabethtown team was the third straight Panther football team to reach the 2-A final after falling to Fort Thomas Highlands and Ashland Blazer.
“It felt good to get that one,” said Mike Harmon, a senior tackle on the ‘69 team. “We had gotten there the previous two years. That’s a pretty big deal. We lost only four games in three years and three were in one season.”
Walters described the title game defeats as living two years “with a lot of hurt.”
“We made our minds up in summer practice that it would be different,” he said. “We would practice on our own at night and we did that in June and July and when we started practice in August with the coaches, we were ready to go. We wanted to start fast and finish stronger.”
Did they ever.
The Panthers shutout Woodford County and Mayfield in the playoffs to reach the final.
Harmon said that the majority of the team grew up together and played football with one another for several years, which only strengthened a team bond.
“We all got along really well,” Harmon said. “We pretty much grew up together. I don’t have any memories from then that aren’t good ones. We just had a lot of fun together.”
Back then, there were only three classes of football in Kentucky. Class 3-A was strictly Jefferson County teams so larger schools, like Bryan Station, were grouped with 700-student or so schools like Elizabethtown.
“I thought of us as a little, country school,” said Walters, who later would serve as the school district’s director of maintenance. “They had a lot more players.”
Doug Barnes, a sophomore reserve wide receiver/cornerback on the title team, said he remembers when the Panthers began to warm up, they soon saw the Defenders make their way onto the field.
“The field was across the street from Memorial Coliseum and we dressed in Memorial,” Barnes said. “We’re on the field stretching and it was cold. Bryan Station came out and they kept coming out and coming out.
“They must have had 90 players and they came out in these uniforms and they looked like the Green Bay Packers.
“We had a group of guys that it didn’t matter who we were playing, we were going to find a way to kick your tail,” he added.
Elizabethtown had about 40 players.
“We had confidence in each other,” said Lewis, who was an All-State player and later went on to play at the University of Kentucky. “...We always took the approach that it took everyone, it took a team to win, not just one or two players.”
The team also was recognized earlier this season at Elizabethtown as part of the 50-year anniversary of the team.
“It’s like we had just seen each other a month ago when we saw each other,” Lewis said. “There’s just a solidarity with us.”
The state championship team was led by head coach Vince Hancock, who died May 23 of this year.
“One tremendous gift winning the 1969 state championship it gave the whole team, was the gift of a common achievement that would connect them throughout their lives,” said Mary Beth McCandless, a daughter of Hancock’s. “Players from each of my dad’s teams have stayed in touch, but it seems like more players from that team have kept up with each other and with both of my parents all of these years. What a treasure!”
She called the state title “a meaningful marker in my dad’s life.”
The Panthers have returned to a state football championship game twice since 1969. Elizabethtown dropped a 32-27 overtime decision in 2003 to Belfry and also in 1981 when the Panthers lost 40-24 in the 3-A final to Fort Thomas Highlands.
Any former player from the 1969 EHS football team is encouraged to contact the Kentucky High School Athletic Association at (859) 299-5472. Players will get two tickets each to tonight’s game and be recognized.