Don Sparks has roots in Putnam Stadium that go way back.
Almost to the beginning.
Sparks, who will be 80 next summer, remembers sneaking into Putnam Stadium to watch Ashland Tomcat football games in the 1940s before he eventually became a Tomcat himself.
Sparks said his father took him over while the stadium was being constructed “because he didn’t like WPA projects and he wanted to see how they were doing.” What his father found was some pretty good construction work, Don said.
Aging Putnam Stadium is celebrating 75 years this fall. Sparks, who lives in Jackson, Tenn., was in town Sunday for the annual Tomcat Reunion picnic at the Elks Country Lodge. The yearly event was down in numbers but still attracted more than 50 visitors.
Many of them were former Tomcat football players, like Sparks, who came to swap stories with friends.
“We need to get some younger blood involved in this,” said organizer Lafe Walter, who is two years older than Sparks. “This isn’t just for old fogies.”
Sparks remembers when he was one of the younger ones around while growing up on Garfield Street, near where Putnam Stadium sits. He said he walked to the game with Eddie Leadingham, who was a few months younger than him, when they were “5 or 6 years old.” They first time they went they were lured by the sound of the band playing, he said.
“I asked my mother if I could go and Eddie asked his mother,” Sparks remembered. “Eddie could only go if I held his hand.”
So off the boys went, hand in hand, toward the sound of the band cadence.
When they arrived at the gate, they were met by Clarence Sparks, who knew the boys and asked them what they were doing there.
“We told him we wanted to come in and hear the band play,” Don said. “He told us we could come in but we have to sit on the visitor’s side.”
What they found once they got inside was a Tomcat football game.
As the years went on, Don Sparks said he and his friends often snuck into games because they couldn’t afford to buy a ticket. They would climb over the wooden fence that was constructed at the open end zone side of the field. The fence, he said, had several cats painted on it.
“Felix the Cat was on there and a couple of Tomcats,” he said. “I remembered that plain as a day. We climbed the walls.”
The games, of course, were played during the daytime hours since lights weren’t part of the stadium until later. Sparks said he” begged mom and dad for two weeks” to allow him to play at Putnam Junior High and he eventually became a Tomcat himself. There was no more sneaking into the stadium to watch a game.
“I’ll have to give a donation to the stadium fund to make up for all those games where I snuck in when I was a kid,” Sparks said.
Sparks played from 1948-50 and during his senior season in 1950 he said “I never came off the field.” Sparks was an offensive and defensive end that was good enough to earn a scholarship to Western Kentucky, where he played for the Hilltoppers.
But Sparks wasn’t done sneaking around. During his freshman year at Western, the Hilltoppers played Marshall in Huntington and the team was staying at the Ventura Hotel. He talked the coach into letting him sleep in his own bed. That night he was supposed to be in bed by 10 o’clock but Sparks had gone over to watch the Tomcats.
“He caught me and said ‘Sparks, what are you doing?’ I told him ‘I’m going home to get into bed coach.’ I didn’t think I’d get in to play against Marshall but he put me in during the fourth quarter.”
Sparks said he didn’t see another Tomcat game until just a couple of years ago when Ashland defeated Ironton. He plans on coming back in a couple of weeks when Ironton and Ashland meet in Ohio.
Sparks was teammates with Gary Arthur, Lafe Walter, Jerry Clark, Donnie Bryan and many others while he was a Tomcat. Ashland went 8-2 his senior year when Charlie Eblen was the head coach. He also played for Bob Stoneburner as a sophomore and junior when the Tomcats went 5-4-1 and 8-4.
Growing up, he remembers “pretending to be J.C. Kennard, J.D. Ison and Doc Rice” on the sandlot fields. But his most vivid Tomcat memory is of Tubby Payne kicking in the 1940s.
“He used to kick off and he’d go through the goal post every time,” Sparks said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Whenever I saw a kicker after that, I always compared him to Tubby and he never measured up.”
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.
Stadium memories strong for Sparks
Don Sparks has roots in Putnam Stadium that go way back.
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