Buddy Waite isn’t from Ashland but he has a memory of Putnam Stadium that burns like a night star.
Waite is 81 years old and lives in Burlington, Ky. In 1949, he was a senior football player for Ludlow High School, in northern Kentucky, and they were coming to Ashland to face the big, bad Tomcats.
Most of his teammates, all 21 of them, had never ridden on a Greyhound bus before so that made the trip special. They came up on the Ohio side as passed empty field after empty field.
Jack Carson, an assistant coach, told the players to look out the window.
“Look! I’ve never seen that before: four white mules!” he told them. “That means we’re going to score four touchdowns tonight!”
Ashland was 7-3 at the time and ranked No. 4 in the state. They were at the end of the season and coming off a 30-12 loss to Covington. Bob Stoneburner was in his second and last season as the Tomcats’ coach.
Ludlow was being paid a good bounty for coming to visit Putnam Stadium. They were supposed to be more sacrificial lambs than opponents.
“I remember when we arrived at the stadium,” Waite said. “There was brick all around it and we came out from underneath on the 50-yard line. That place was fabulous. We couldn’t believe it.”
Ludlow was coached by Cliff Lowdenback, who would later make an impact on Greenup schools and Greenup education as superintendent. Waite said Lowdenback was like a “father to me” and the same could be said for many other Ludlow players.
When the 21 Ludlow players came out of the dressing room and took the field for the first time, they were awestruck by Putnam Stadium’s size and structure, with a horseshoe appearance and equal stands all around. The stands on the home side were particularly full.
Tomcat football was a spectacle in those days and something the community rallied around and supported like they were their own mini-version of the University of Kentucky.
“Putnam Stadium is the best high school stadium I’d seen until recent years,” said Gary Arthur, a junior tackle on the ’49 team. “There’s a whole mystique about it. Anybody who played there, if you were a Tomcat or not, remembers it.”
Waite, who was a captain on the 1949 Ludlow team, got his teammates together for pregame drills when they heard this enormous cheer from the Ashland side of the field. Then the Tomcats came out from their dressing room. They kept coming and coming and coming and coming.
“Must have been 85 of them and they circled the field around us,” Waite said. “It was scary.”
Lowdenback at first told Waite to line up the Ludlow players in fours to make it look like they had a bigger team.
“Coach Lowdenback said ‘Let’s go back in and wait for the game to start. There’s not room for us here.’ And that’s what we did.”
They sat in the dressing room, nervously tapping their cleats against the concrete floor and waited until it was time to play, Waite said.
Ludlow lost the coin toss and kicked off to the Tomcats and speedy Dutch Greene nearly took it back for a touchdown. The Panthers wrestled him to the ground at the 10-yard line and the defense held. Ludlow’s confidence grew that it could play with the Tomcats.
“They didn’t score (on the first series) and at halftime it was 13-13,” Waite said. “You know what Coach Lowdenback told us at halftime? He said ‘I don’t care what happens we got them tied at halftime!’ That’s what he told us.”
But Ludlow had much more to cheer about before the night was over. The Panthers stunned the Tomcats 26-19. It turned out the assistant coach who spotted the “four white mules” was correct in his prediction that the Panthers would score four touchdowns.
Waite was the quarterback, which translated into blocking back in the single-wing offense that Ludlow employed.
“I think at the time it had to be one of the biggest upsets in high school,” Waite said. “It was our last game but they still had another game against Portsmouth, Ohio. I knocked down a pass late in the game but the guy who wrote the story said an unidentified Ludlow player batted the pass away in the end zone. That was me. I thought, ‘That was my chance to get my name in the paper!’”
After the game, the Ludlow team stopped in Ironton for a meal before heading on the long ride home.
“It didn’t take much room for us, since we only had 21 players,” Waite said. “Some guys came into the room where we were eating and said ‘We want to see the team that beat Ashland!’’’
The Tomcats defeated Portsmouth 13-7 in the last game to finish 8-4. Greene, Arthur, Ernie Sammons, Chet Strother, Don Sparks, Bill Bradford, Harold McCann, Jim Rice, Jim Graham, Jerry Clark and John Paul Walters were some of the players on that team.
Arthur said he didn’t remember much about the game except “I’m pretty sure we weren’t too happy that we lost to Ludlow. Who had ever heard of them?”
But he did say being a Tomcat was everything back then.
“When you grew up, you wanted to be a Tomcat,” he said. “That’s just how it was.”
Waite said Ludlow finished with a 6-3 record but averaged 26 points a game because of Lowdenback’s “ahead of his time” offense. Just last year, it was through Waite’s efforts that the late Cliff Lowdenback was enshrined in the Ludlow High School Sports Hall of Fame. He coached football, baseball and basketball from 1946 to 1952.
“He made such a great impact on so many kids here,” Waite said. “It was long overdue but you know how those things go sometimes.”
Waite, who has lived in his hometown area all of his life, actually served two terms as mayor of Ludlow. His wife died a year ago and he spends no time on the Internet but a lot of time talking to people. “I’ve got friends that spend their entire day on the Internet,” he said. “I’m not going to do it.”
Waite wanted to make it clear that the victory over the Tomcats wasn’t about him but about an overachieving team that knocked off a powerhouse Ashland team in the best high school stadium in Kentucky in 1949.
Football was good for Waite and provided him with many special memories — some of them painful. He remembered playing a game against Bellevue on a frosty cold night when he had both of his front teeth knocked out.
“We didn’t have facemasks,” he said. “I came over to the sideline bleeding all over the place and we didn’t have a medic or anything. We had a freshman who had a tool box that had some cotton and smelling salts. One of the coaches came over to me and stuffed my mouth with cotton. He put his arm around me and said ‘We’re so lucky tonight…’ And I was thinking, what do you mean? ‘We’re so lucky that we’re wearing red jerseys so the blood won’t stain them.’’’
Waite’s memories of Putnam Stadium were jogged when he read a note in the Herald-Leader about our story listing Ashland’s 25 greatest wins in stadium history.
Ludlow’s triumphant night in Putnam Stadium remains one of Buddy Waite’s fondest memories in life.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.