COLUMN: Special leaders guided special team to playoffs

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Cunningham, Hawkins still remembered 40 years later

By John Herndon

It has been 40 years.


Actually, if you want to get technical about things, it will be 40 years next week, the second weekend of November, since Anderson County football made its first appearance in the state playoffs.

A lot has changed since that November Friday night.

Outside of Jefferson County, there were only two football classes. Anderson County, with fewer than 400 students at the time, was grouped in Class A, the smallest schools. Two of the state's best Class A teams, Richmond Madison and Harrodsburg, were in the same region with Anderson. Both are now just memories and victims of consolidation.

When Anderson County hosted Richmond Madison back in 1972, it was the regional championship game. Districts had as many as 10 or 12 teams and didn't go by a round-robin schedule. But teams still had to win on the basis of a complicated formula known as the Dickinson System. That system was shown the door three years later, but to this day, we are still trying to figure it out.

If a team didn't win its district, it put the pads up after the last regular-season game. A second team from a district was not added until 1987 and the current four-team set up did not go into effect until 1991. The six-class setup we have now has only been around since 2007.

Even teams that suffered a 53-7 playoff drubbing like Anderson did back in 1972 were outstanding. Richmond Madison was just that good. The Purples were big and fast. Some veteran observers wonder how they were put out of the playoffs the following week at Trigg County.

With only three classes and eight teams from around the state making the tournament in each, it was far more difficult to advance to the post-season than it is today. Teams that even made the post-season truly earned one of those over-used adjectives of today.


Many of those who were part of Anderson's first playoff team will tell you Kelly Hawkins and Ray Cunningham were major reasons why those 1972 Bearcats surprised nearly everyone but themselves when they won a district championship.

They were team captains.

Hawkins was the cool quarterback. A senior, he just knew how to win. In an era when hip teams were mimicking the Wishbone-T being run by college powerhouses like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama, Anderson County went to a pro-style attack. While it would be conservative by today's standards, Anderson's attack was wide-open for 1972.

Records from that memorable season are practically non-existent, as far as anyone knows. If there are accurate figures about how many yards Hawkins passed for, I have not seen them. However those who lined up with Hawkins are convinced he threw for well over 1,000 yards, maybe close to 1,500, in an era when four digits through the air were as common as classical music from Bill Bailey on WAKY radio.

“Kelly was someone that had a calming effect on the rest of the team,” remembers classmate George Hanks.

“He was one of my best friends,” says another senior, Jeff Kays. “In high school we were inseparable. Kelly was a good guy. Just a straight up good guy.”

Cunningham defied the odds as a 160-pound guard. While linemen weighing under 200 were common 40 years back, 160 pounds was still small.

“There wasn't a smarter guy on the team than Ray,” Kays remembers.

It was no coincidence that Cunningham was a Nation Merit Scholar semi-finalist in 1972.

Both went on to graduate from Anderson the following May and seemed on their way to successful careers. Both would be taken in automobile accidents that happened about six months apart.

Neither reached their 21st birthday.

Hawkins died in rural Anderson County. Cunningham was killed as he was returning home from the University of Louisville.

Kays remembers when he learned of Hawkins' death, he traveled to the site with some friends, including Cunningham. “I remember Ray said on the way back, 'Who would have ever thought that would have happened to one of us?'

“Six months later, the one that said that, the same thing.”

That first Bearcat playoff team went their separate ways. Most married. Some now have grandchildren.

But Ray Cunningham and Kelly Hawkins live in their memories.

“I think about them today,” says Kays. “I can't not think about them. Lawrenceburg was a small town and they were two of my best friends.”

Several years later, the Anderson County football program created a lasting memory to the fallen captains with the Cunningham-Hawkins Leadership Award, presented at the team's post-season banquet.

It's not always given to the biggest, fastest or best. It's reserved for championship leaders.

There are no photos of Cunningham and Hawkins in the school lobby. Their numbers have not been retired. Some of the recipients might not even know who the award is named for. 

They just know it is a special.

Very special.


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