Joe Chirico felt “complete sadness” on Saturday.
The last remaining “Kentucky Headhunter” was gone.
Chris Deaton, a Johnson Central alumnus who played offensive line on the same Marshall football teams from 1990-93 on which Chirico was a defensive back, died Saturday at age 48 of lymphoma.
Deaton was linked with Phillip Ratliff by the proximity of their homes and their football positions. The duo was known as “The Kentucky Headhunters” — after a country rock band of the same name — because both heartily blocked on the right side of the offensive line, and because Deaton was from Paintsville and Ratliff hailed from Louisa.
Ratliff died unexpectedly just a couple of weeks less than four years before Deaton. Chirico was close to each of them.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Chirico said quietly and thoughtfully Sunday of the bond with his former Thundering Herd teammates. “All of us, no matter how far the distance is, we always look out for each other. It’s something you’ve lived and been a part of. It never changes. When we get back together 20 years later, it’s like we left off where we were before.
“It doesn’t happen all the time, I guess, but guys that we played with, we were all just so close and cared deeply for each other.”
Deaton, a member of the Halls of Fame at both Johnson Central and Marshall, completed his high school eligibility for the Golden Eagles in 1988. That coincided with the first season as head coach for Steve Trimble.
Trimble had led Deaton and his classmates as the freshman coach before stepping away from the sideline to serve as assistant principal and athletic director. Leaning heavily on the big lineman, the Golden Eagles went 7-4 in 1988 after a 3-8 mark the year before.
Trimble remembers the obviously talented team leader as “very easy to get along with and very respectful to me as a first-year coach.”
“Chris, it was kinda built around him,” Trimble said Sunday. “He was a heck of a player. I inherited pretty good kids, and he was one of them. It really helped me to walk in there to have experienced, outstanding players like him my first year. It made my year a lot easier.”
Deaton moved on to Marshall, where he started 56 consecutive games at guard — still tied for the program record — and played in three NCAA Division I-AA national championship games, winning it all as a junior in 1992.
The next year, Deaton won the Jacobs Blocking Award as the Southern Conference’s top offensive lineman — a year after Ratliff received the same accolade — and was a first-team All-American.
“Tenacious,” was how Chirico described Deaton’s style on the field. “That’s the one thing you could say, he was gonna win and get his job done to the fullest. A guy you could count on for sure.”
Deaton’s legacy in Huntington lasted long after he hung up the green and white.
“Great person and player,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday tweeted Saturday. “There are a lot of heavy hearts in our football family today."
Deaton returned to Johnson County as a middle school assistant coach in the mid-1990s, during which time Trimble was the middle school principal.
“We enjoyed working together there a little bit,” Trimble said, “and he gave back to the community and taught the kids some of the things he learned at Marshall. He did us proud.”
The former Golden Eagle also played an indirect role in boosting the fortunes of Johnson Central’s crosstown rival.
Chirico, entering his seventh season as Paintsville’s head coach, might never have been piloting the Tigers, he said, if not for his relationship with Deaton.
“The reason I’m coaching in Paintsville was because of guys that played football at Marshall,” Chirico said. “Chris Deaton’s stepfather (Michael ‘Dip’ Stafford) was one of the guys like, ‘You need to be out here helping, giving back,’ and that started the ball rolling for me in Paintsville, coaching and all that.”
Since Ratliff’s death on Aug. 9, 2015 following a cardiac event, Chirico has honored his memory by wearing “MU 56” — Ratliff’s jersey number — on his coaching hat and shirt. The entire Paintsville coaching staff sported green and white shirts with that inscription on the back during a game at Lawrence County, Ratliff’s alma mater, in 2017.
Chirico plans to come up with a similar tribute for Deaton, although he hasn’t figured out what exactly yet.
“It’s just so sad,” Chirico said. “I will honor his memory for sure.”
Johnson Central coach Jim Matney said the Golden Eagles will discuss plans for how to honor to Deaton later this week.
Funeral services are scheduled for Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Phelps & Son Funeral Home in Paintsville.
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