Tim Couch politely, almost apologetically, says he doesn’t remember much about the three games in which he quarterbacked Leslie County against Johnson Central from 1993-95.

After all, one would imagine passing records and last-second game-winning exploits — both of which Couch engineered against the Golden Eagles — would eventually run together in the mind of someone who went on to win Mr. Football, star at his state’s flagship university and become the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

Besides that, Couch might have preferred to forget two of his encounters with the Golden Eagles, who harried him into two of his toughest nights as a high schooler.

Captaining that Johnson Central defense was inside linebacker Chris Stapleton — yes, that Chris Stapleton, the five-time Grammy-winning country music hit maker — whose fame bloomed far later than that of his opposite number on those three fall evenings, but has since surpassed it.

“My kids think that’s the coolest thing ever,” said Mike Bowlin, who was a Johnson Central sophomore linebacker when Couch and Stapleton were seniors. “I tell them about Tim Couch, and they say, ‘Oh, ya know, neat,’ and then they want to go back and talk about Chris Stapleton and what that was like.”

In 1995, though, Couch and company coming to Paintsville attracted more than 3,500 fans to Eagle Field. They were treated to a battle royale won by Leslie County, 12-6, on a 39-yard scoring pass from a battered Couch to Ricky Hensley with three seconds to play.

“Of course, it probably has swollen from 3,500 (fans) to about 9,000 now,” then-Johnson Central coach Bill Musick joked. “At the time, it was exciting for all of us because we knew Mr. Couch was gonna do so many great things, and we pumped our kids up that you’re gonna be playing against an NFL quarterback ... and then he ends up being the No. 1 draft choice. And on the other end, of course, Chris Stapleton ends up being a phenom in his field.”

To the drawing board

The Couch versus Stapleton trilogy wasn’t viewed as that at the time, but rather as Couch and Leslie County being everyone’s Super Bowl, although Stapleton was regarded as a stout and smart linebacker who as a sophomore in 1993 was well on his way to setting what was then a program record of 41 consecutive starts.

“I just remember the whole scene of it,” said Bowlin, an eighth-grader the first time Couch played at Johnson Central. “There’d be as many people there as we played in front of all year long. ... We hadn’t been traditionally very good back in that four-class system, so that was our playoff game, Tim Couch coming to town.”

Couch was already the state’s leading passer, even as a sophomore. So for Johnson Central’s first meeting with Couch’s Leslie County club in 1993, the Golden Eagles proposed an inventive tactic to slow him — so inventive that Musick cracked up recollecting it.

“All the defensive coaches had the defensive players in there and they were going over the game plan, and they were Xing and Oing on the old chalkboard, and they stayed in there literally over two hours,” Musick said. “They finally got the perfect game plan and they said, ‘Well, what do you think, coach?’ I said, ‘That’s great, that looks good, but you’re gonna have to figure out how those referees are gonna let you play 12 men.’”

Leslie County led, 20-8, at halftime, but Johnson Central senior fullback Chris Bowlin — Mike’s older brother — ran for touchdowns in each of the final two quarters, punctuated by two-point conversion passes from Garry Fitzpatrick each time. Bowlin provided the go-ahead 16-yard scoring plunge with 2:02 to play.

Leslie County took over at the Johnson Central 40-yard line after a long kickoff return, but Couch didn’t complete a pass in four attempts from there and the Golden Eagles hung on, 24-20.

Johnson Central’s defense held Couch to either 102, 78 or 88 yards through the air — all three totals were reported at different times in The Daily Independent — any of which would qualify as one of his lowest marks as a Leslie County Eagle.

That was, coincidentally, only half of a special night of football in Paintsville. Across Paint Creek, Walter Brugh became the winningest coach in Kentucky history when Paintsville topped Jenkins, 33-14. Johnson Central had delayed Brugh’s target of 272 victories when the Golden Eagles beat the Tigers 56-12 two weeks earlier in the Apple Bowl — a sign of growth for a Johnson Central program that had gone 0-10 the previous season and hadn’t defeated archrival Paintsville in five years.

Round-two rebound

Things were different in Hyden the next fall. Couch lit up Johnson Central for 317 yards and five touchdown passes on 24-of-26 passing — the other two were drops, Musick said — in three quarters.

Couch set the state career record for passing yardage with one yard to spare as undefeated Leslie County rolled, 56-15.

“Phil Fulmer was there,” Musick said of Tennessee’s then-coach, who was recruiting Couch. “Everybody was there.”

Mike Bowlin, a freshman, scored Johnson Central’s only offensive touchdown of the game on a 36-yard first-quarter run. That wasn’t the memory that most stuck with Bowlin from that night, though.

“They stopped the game when (Couch) set the state passing record to give him a trophy in the middle of that bushwhacking,” Bowlin said. “Our coach never took kindly to that, so ever since they stopped the game to give him a trophy, he was trying to beat him.”

Musick and the Golden Eagles would get one more shot.

Rubber match meets the road

Even though the result had been lopsided a year earlier, Johnson Central eagerly anticipated Couch and second-ranked Leslie County coming to town for a Week 3 encounter in 1995.

Musick said at the time that the school was fielding ticket inquiries from as far away as Louisville. “People are driving our front-office people nuts,” Musick told The Daily Independent the week of the game.

Johnson Central and Leslie County had played in Week 8 the previous two seasons. The early-season date in their third meeting helped create a festive atmosphere.

The Golden Eagles and their fans were optimistic because they were off to their first 2-0 start in 17 years, because Johnson Central had successfully gotten a crop of skill-position players out from the baseball and basketball teams and because the Golden Eagles had dropped from Class 4A to 3A and into Leslie County’s district in KHSAA realignment.

“That year, we thought we were pretty decent,” Mike Bowlin said. “We thought we had a fighting chance.”

Johnson Central didn’t often stray from its base defense at the time, Bowlin recalled, but he remembers a special package put in for Couch.

“He was so smart,” Musick said. “You better have a game plan against Tim Couch, because if you didn’t, he was gonna embarrass you pretty quick.”

Bowlin, who played monster — essentially a hybrid of an outside linebacker and a strong safety in Johnson Central’s 5-2 scheme — didn’t mind the departure from the norm.

“That was fun, because that was one of the few teams that was flipping the ball around back then,” Bowlin said of Leslie County. “Every other game, you’re just lining up, playing double tight (-end offenses) and running into guys as a linebacker. But that was a game that was fun because you got to run around and make plays in the open field. Didn’t get to do that very often back then.”

Johnson Central put its newfound wealth of skill-position multi-sport athletes to work by using five defensive backs against Couch.

“To draw them in, (we explained it as) man-to-man in basketball is like man-to-man in football,” Musick said. “Keep yourself between (an opponent) and the basket; keep yourself between him and the goal. We over-and-undered (Leslie County’s) best receiver all night long.”

The tactic worked. The Golden Eagles sacked Couch six times and intercepted him four times. Joey Estep, now Johnson Central’s softball coach, produced two of those picks.

“I kid him every time I see him, ‘What’s your claim to fame, son?’” Musick said. “He says, ‘I intercepted Tim Couch twice.’ I say, ‘There ya go.’” (Attempts to reach Estep for comment were unsuccessful.)

The game was scoreless until Johnson Central’s Ryan Allison returned a Couch interception 83 yards to the house on the final play of the third quarter. It stayed that way into the final minutes until Leslie County broke through on a fourth-down 11-yard scoring connection from Couch to Hensley. (The clock reading at the time of the touchdown wasn’t recorded in The Daily Independent’s game story.)

That set up a frenetic final sequence. Leslie County took over on downs at midfield with the game still tied at 6 with 1:32 to play, but Estep intercepted Couch on the first play of the ensuing possession. A Leslie County personal foul on the return set the Golden Eagles up on their own 49.

Disaster struck Johnson Central, though. On fourth-and-4 with less than 30 seconds to go, a shotgun snap sailed over quarterback Alex Ward’s head. He fell on the ball at his own 39, but that gave possession to Leslie County on downs, and Couch found Hensley from there with three seconds remaining for the game-winner.

Though Johnson Central limited Couch to 217 passing yards and pitched a shutout into the final minutes, Leslie County escaped with a 12-6 decision.

Shown a picture of the game story from the microfilm by text message, Couch responded, “Haha, we were lucky to win that one.”

Musick remembers it differently: a Golden Eagles defensive back getting beaten — frustrating because of how dominant Johnson Central’s secondary had been to that point.

“You don’t make but one mistake against Tim Couch, and he found the kid,” Musick said. “I don’t even know how he found him, just to be honest with you. Scored a touchdown, and that’s why he made millions of dollars playing football, because he found that receiver.”

Lasting impact

Couch went on to win Mr. Football, set more records as an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist at Kentucky, and be the first-ever draft choice of the expansion Cleveland franchise in 1999. He quarterbacked the Browns to their most recent playoff appearance in 2002.

Couch’s presence in Paintsville, and Johnson Central’s strong showing in two of those games, also helped spark interest in a program that, at the time, had struggled to get on track. The Golden Eagles played in their first playoff game in Stapleton’s senior season and went 10-2 two years later in Bowlin’s senior campaign, which included the school’s first home playoff game and maiden postseason victory.

And, though the Golden Eagles went through a down cycle in the early 2000s, it isn’t difficult to connect the dots from the excitement of Couch coming to town to upward momentum culminating in Johnson Central’s current string of five state final trips and counting.

“That was fun. That made football fun,” said Bowlin, now the defensive coordinator at Walton-Verona and a family doctor in Florence. “You fill the stands full, the kids in elementary and middle school see it and want to play. No question having a big game like that makes it fun, and then you see the kids go to the playoffs, have big pep rallies, it just makes it more fun. Football, sports, life and everything, when it’s fun, everybody starts joining around.”

The encounters with Couch likely meant much more to Johnson Central than to Leslie County at the time — as Musick put it, “It’s about like UK basketball in the SEC — when they go on the road, they’re gonna get the best (effort from opponents). The same with Tim, because he was such a phenom.”

As for Couch, the encounters with Johnson Central didn’t stick in his mind, he said.

“I don’t recall much of anything about the game. I wish I did,” Couch said. “I think it’s pretty cool that (Stapleton and I) played against each other. I’m a big fan of his.”

An attempt to reach Stapleton for comment through his representation was unsuccessful, so his recollection of his encounters with Couch isn’t known, but Bowlin remembers the future international superstar — two years older — as a helpful teammate and a leader.

“What you see on TV now is the truth,” Bowlin said. “He was the nicest guy ever then, would lead you and help you along. It was never like I was coming in as a young freshman and causing trouble. ... He was a smart guy, but when it came to being on the football field, he was all business.”

It showed in the way Stapleton led Johnson Central’s defense against Couch, Musick said. But Couch proved against the Golden Eagles, when it came down to it, the hype was real.

“I’d say he doesn’t like to go to homecoming at Johnson Central, because I don’t think he has very pleasant memories there,” Musick cracked. “He was such a competitor. We held him two out of three, but he still ended up beating us two out of three. That’s the competitor he was, he would’ve taken the sacks and the interceptions and all that for the win.

“He walked off the field the winner. That was his mentality.”

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