Putnam Stadium

This is what the scoreboard end of Putnam Stadium looked like when Bill Blake went 56 yards for a touchdown in September 1964. He became the first black player to score for the Tomcats. This photograph is from a Shrine Bowl game in the 1960s.

Fifty-two years have passed since Bill Blake last played in a high school football game.

But the memories of the second Friday in September of 1963 are almost like it happened yesterday.

Blake was a junior fullback at Ashland who streaked into the record books that night against Catlettsburg even though it captured little fanfare.

Blake scored on a 9-yard run in a 27-12 victory in Putnam Stadium to become the first black player in Ashland Tomcat history to reach the end zone. They didn’t stop the game, give him the game ball or in any other way acknowledge the occasion. The cannon fired like it did for everybody else. It was just another Tomcat touchdown.

But not to him and not to Ashland’s black community. Ashland schools had only been integrated for two years so it was a big deal to many. Blake’s class of 1965 was the first to go all three years to Paul G. Blazer High School.

So when Blake reached the end zone with the scoreboard in it, a small section of Putnam Stadium went a little bit crazy.

“It was a big thing to all the blacks in Ashland, especially the older black people,” Blake said. “Mike Johnson’s dad, Wendall Banks ... they told me in grade school at Booker T. (Washington) I was too aggressive as a basketball player. I needed to play football.”

Blake’s first organized football game came when he enrolled at Coles Jr. High School as a freshman.

 “I was supposed to go to Putnam,” he said. “I lived in the Putnam district but most of us went to Coles.”

Blake was a quarterback for the Broncos who scored several touchdowns in Putnam Stadium. Coles and Putnam played to a 7-7 tie in the 1961 Kiwanis Bowl. But until the second game of his senior season, he had not revisited the end zone.

Blake came into the game to replace J.B. Conley at fullback.

‘Bill, are you scared?

“The first thing when I got in the huddle, Nick Jordan looked at me and said ‘Bill, are you scared?’ I said ‘No, I’m not scared. I just want to get my hands on the football.’ Nick said ‘Well run up my butt and keep on going.’ That’s exactly what I did. It opened up like the great sea. All I saw was daylight.”

The Tomcats were leading 6-0 when Blake took the handoff from quarterback Tom Ferguson and ran behind Jordan, probably the best lineman in Ashland history. Blake made one cut to avoid a tackler and found the end zone.

Blake said W.A. West, who was another one who influenced him to play football, was at the game. West had driven from Lexington and congratulated him after the game.

“It was a big thing to my parents (Arthur and Evelyn Blake),” Blake said. “They were really proud. It changed me a little bit also. I was really never an outgoing person. It put a little more confidence in me.”

Blake’s big legs made him the ideal fullback for coach Rex Miller, who turned to his senior for the “tough yards” up the middle.

Blake said there were times when the Tomcats played teams down state that he encountered some racist remarks.

“You heard that word blacks don’t like to hear,” he said. “Dad always told me ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.’ He said ‘The next play, just run over their butt. Block them, tackle them, it’s legal.’ We never heard it from teams around here.”

As a senior against Catlettsburg in the second game he also scored on a 56-yard run in a 26-14 victory.

‘I was clipped’

Blake’s potential college career was derailed by an injury against Ironton. “I was clipped,” he said. “Injured my knee. We didn’t do surgeries back then like they do now.”

Blake, who was also a track standout for the Tomcats, had some interest from Tennessee State before the injury.

“Once I hurt my leg, that was the end of it.”

Blake said his formative education years at BTW with Thelma Johnson and Pauline Beckwith prepared him and his classmates well for life.

“They were the two best teachers and the two hardest teachers I ever had,” he said. “We were ready when they integrated.”

But with playing sports no longer in the equation for college, military service became a possibility. On the day he was drafted he went down and enlisted in the Navy on the “Buddy Plan” with Larry Howell, another Tomcat running back. The Vietnam war was raging.

“I told Coach Miller I had gotten my draft notice and he said ‘You sang in the chorus (in high school). You need to try out for the Blue Jackets Chorus. It will keep you out of a lot of stuff.’’’

Blake followed his coach’s advice and made the Navy chorus.

“It was one of the best things he ever did for me,” Blake said of Miller. “My basic training was null and void.”

Blake served four years, mostly on a ship. He was on the ship that picked up the astronauts after the Moon landing.

Back in Ashland

Blake returned home to Ashland after the service. He had married his high school sweetheart, Edith Thomas, after graduating.

His wife was the assistant recreation director for the City of Ashland and the manager of Southside Pool.

“When we grew up, we couldn’t even step on the property,” he said. “There were a lot of places we weren’t allowed to go.”

That included the soda fountain at Murphy’s downtown. The blacks also had a room at the train station where they were to go after purchasing tickets, he said.

Blake, who has lived in Lexington since 1994, worked at Armco and raised his family here. He also did some coaching with the Tomcats including being part of the 1990 state championship team staff.

But that September night in 1964, when he raced into Tomcat history, remains one of the top memories of his life.

MARK MAYNARD is editor of The Daily Independent. Reach him at www.dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648

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