Friday, October 17, 2003

Hebron recalls glory of '83

This year's team has own shot at championship

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - Twenty years. That's a lot of changes, in people, in their hometown.

Hair thins and falls out. Midsections grow. Farmland is swallowed by development.

But memories remain sharp, communities don't lose their pride and legacies never die.

In the autumn of two decades ago, a collection of underestimated overachievers gave Conner High School its first - and only - state football championship, winning the trophy in dramatic style after a stunning season they're still talking about in Hebron.

"They didn't think we'd win anything that season, let alone a state championship," said Darren Harris, 37, a Boone County deputy sheriff and the all-star defensive end on the Cougars' 1983 championship team. "We were just OK the year before. But we knew we could do it. We believed."

A dozen or so of the former teammates will gather tonight at Conner's home game against Ryle.

They might flip the coin. They might walk out on the field at halftime. The announcer will likely mention the team's accomplishments.

But on this night, there is much more at stake than fond memories.

This year's Cougar team is flirting with destiny by posting an undefeated season and a No. 1 coach's ranking in Northern Kentucky while dreaming of capturing its own state title.

"Looking at just the personnel on this year's team, they match up every bit as well as the state championship," said Bob Young of Hebron, who coached the offensive and defensive lines for the '83 team. "And it's hard to believe, but I think they might even be quicker on defense this year. They are really fast and they are real hitters, just like our state team.

"But what they really have in common is the chemistry," said Young, the school's former athletic director and a semi-retired teacher. "There's that same feeling of unity, of almost family, where players, above anything else, don't want to let each other down. That's when you know you can win a championship, when you have that on a team."

The chemistry with the '83 team started when the players were together as seventh- and eighth-graders on a youth football team.

The kids were close. Most had known each other for years. Hebron was a different place in the early 1980s. The growth that so typifies life here now was just beginning. There was more farmland than there were subdivisions, orchards instead of office parks, family-owned restaurants and groceries rather than chain stores and fast-food joints.

That year's youth football team went undefeated and unscored upon, scoring 283 points on its way to winning a championship so convincingly that no opponent ever made it past the 20-yard line.

"You just knew this group of boys was special," said Boone County Sheriff Mike Helmig, who coached those seventh- and eighth-graders.

The 1983 team was a collection of stellar athletes and hard-nosed kids led by coach Bob Lewis, a coach of deep football intellect who years earlier had led Wyoming to the Ohio state title.

Melvin Miles, an elusive tailback who ran for nearly 2,000 yards that season and will go down in history as one of Northern Kentucky's greatest running backs, anchored the offense.

The defense was called The Plague "because we were all over you like a plague," Harris said.

They weren't big - Harris was one of three players over 200 pounds compared to 19 on this year's team - but, oh, were they tough.

Players like Mark Thomas; a gangly lineman; Matt Shotwell, a quick linebacker and sure tackler who became a doctor; fellow linebacker Troy Cole, who, like Harris, was a top wrestler; Brian Shotwell, Matt's brother and a defensive back and punt returner who may have been the toughest; Dutch Kennedy, a versatile back who seemed to live for hitting.

That season the Cougars went 13-2.

They beat perennial powerhouse Highlands. They split with cross-county rival Boone County. They won the championship on a bone-chilling November night in Louisville, beating Franklin Simpson on a 59-yard gadget play where Miles threw a halfback pass to quarterback Artie Crawford.

Harris has a stack of memories in the guise of sports page clippings spread across his desk. "I just hope that this year's team gets to live what we went through. Because, as far as sports, it doesn't get a whole lot better."


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