OWINGSVILLE This fall, Bath County is looking for a breakout football season like the one Robert Withrow captained the Wildcats to in 1982.
Thirty-six years ago, Withrow’s Bath County team went 10-0 in the regular season, won their first district title and finished 11-1.
The 2018 Wildcats are armed with a sparkling new playing surface, last year’s state leader in Class 3A in rushing yards per game in the form of senior Landan Swartz, and the confidence gained going 7-4 last season and giving state quarterfinalist Lexington Catholic a run for its money in the first round of the playoffs.
But Withrow won’t be around to see the follow-up act. The Bath County Hall of Famer and community youth sports staple died at age 53 of a massive heart attack while turkey hunting on April 24.
“Everybody knew him by name,” Wildcats assistant coach Ben Everman said. “You could really tell it, too, at his funeral service. There were kids there of all ages, kids in middle school right now that saw him on the field, and even people 10, 15 years older than me that knew him.
“It was probably one of the biggest funeral services I’d ever seen, visitation-wise. There were all kinds of people there from the school system, youth sports, and he was well-known. He’ll be missed, that’s for sure.”
Withrow, who played wingback and linebacker for the Wildcats, made an impression on Bath County youth as a Little League umpire and a youth football coach.
As a former Wildcats player, Everman remembered the example Withrow set in the high school football program.
“You just grew up hearing stories about him, how hard he hit, how he was a different person on the field than he was off the field,” Everman said. “Off the field, he’d give you the shirt off his back, and on the field, he’d just run you over without thinking twice about it.
“Growing up, you wanted to be like him, and there were other guys even before me that grew up playing football here and knew that name and wanted to just be like him and play like he did.”
Withrow is regarded as one of the physically strongest players in Bath County history. He paved the way for Johnny Botts to rush for 1,577 yards in 1982, according to stats provided by WKCA-FM color commentator Rob McFarland.
As a senior, Withrow ran for more than 500 yards, had 114 receiving, and made 98 tackles as the middle linebacker despite facing frequent double-team blocking.
“Stats weren’t huge,” McFarland said, “but presence on the field and the heart he played with were.”
Withrow won at least one game for Bath County. In the second-to-last game of the 1982 regular season, the 8-0 Wildcats were tied in the fourth quarter of a chippy game at Mason County, from which Botts had been ejected.
Then Withrow broke loose for a 62-yard touchdown run, flattening a Royals safety in the process, as Bath County won, 26-20. That statement play has stuck in the memories of players from both teams to this day.
Everman, himself an all-Eastern Kentucky Conference fullback as a senior for the Wildcats in 2010, said the smash-mouth way Bath County played in Withrow’s era set a tone for the program.
Then, as now, the Wildcats favored a ground-oriented offense, which was right up Withrow’s alley.
“It’s just tradition,” Everman said. “There for a while we got away from it, and everybody likes the spread look, flashy, throwing the ball and stuff, but there’s just something about this that we run. It’s hard-nosed. People know what we’re gonna run, and they still can’t stop it.”
Everman and Withrow participated together in a fantasy football league. Everman recalled with a grin that Withrow, an avowed Packers fan, would comically have trouble pronouncing players’ names.
“I remember the first one was T.J. Houshmandzadeh of the Bengals,” Everman said. “He never could get it right.”
Withrow did get some other things right, though.
“He really took sports to heart. He took it seriously,” Everman said. “His youth sports, the wins and losses and stuff like that (didn’t matter as much). He really wanted to teach you discipline and respect your elders and stuff like that.”
Bath County plans to wear black helmet decals sporting Withrow’s No. 38 this season. Everman said the hope is for everyone in the Wildcats’ football program, down to the middle school and youth sports level, to participate.
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