J.J. Kelly’s run to only state football title left lifetime of memories

Kevin Mays • Jul 4, 2020 at 8:30 PM

WISE — In the late autumn of 1981, J.J. Kelly’s football team traveled 5 or 6 miles to Norton to play archrival J.I. Burton at Lawson-Fitchko Stadium.

The Indians — under the coaching leadership of Al Stecker, who less than a decade before was part of the Burton coaching staff that led the Raiders to a state title — were in a must-win situation. They were trying to make the postseason for the first time since 1970.

Back then, only the champions of the Lonesome Pine, Black Diamond and Cumberland districts advanced to the Region D playoffs.

The Indians entered the regular-season finale with one district loss, a 22-20 setback to defending LPD champ Appalachia early in the season. But they had gained new life and a chance to claim the district title when Clintwood upended Appy 14-12 the week prior.

But Appalachia still was in the driver’s seat. A Bulldogs win over Powell Valley in the final week would clinch a district co-championship with Kelly.

But as rivals tend to do, Powell Valley spoiled Appalachia’s plans of making it back to the regional playoffs by forging a 15-15 tie with the Bulldogs.

“There was no overtime back then and the game ended in a tie,” recalled Scott Church, J.J. Kelly’s quarterback on the ’81 team.

Just moments before the Powell Valley-Appalachia game ended, Church and his teammates had handily defeated Burton.

While Burton and Kelly were rivals of the greatest kind, they were also neighbors. The PA system at Burton’s Lawson-Fitchko Stadium was tuned to the local radio station that was broadcasting Powell Valley vs. Appalachia.

“We just sort of sat down on the field there and listened to it,” Stecker remembered. “It was nice of (Burton) to do that. It was just great.”

“I think there was something like five minutes left in the game and they turned the broadcast on,” Church said. “We sat right there on Norton’s field and listened to the rest of game.”

As the final seconds ticked off the clock of that game, no one was more excited than Kelly’s players and supporters.

“We just went crazy,” Church said. “It was a great time.”

A great time is what the Indians had all season long on the gridiron.

And no one saw it coming.

Kelly was a baseball school.

Baseball coach Mack Shupe was on the way to becoming a legend, having already led Kelly to the postseason. And in the spring of 1981, the Indians won the first of their nine state championships.

The school was full of athletes like Church, running backs Travis Adkins, Temple Buchanan and Lynn Sturgill, receiver Mike Osborne, and linemen Eric Buchanan, Tim Yates, Randy Sturgill, Kevin Bevins and Steve Greene.

But it was still a baseball school.

During the 1980 football season, the Indians went 6-4 and lost to LPD powers Appalachia, Powell Valley and Clintwood.

Even with so many talented athletes and the coaching genius of Stecker — whose staff included Robbie Stinson, Bobby Bates, John Kuczko and John Graham among others — few gave Kelly much of a chance to win the LPD.

“We were picked to finish fourth in the LPD (behind Appalachia, Clintwood and Powell Valley) that year,” Stecker said. “Back in those days, there were a lot of great teams every year.

“The LPD was tough. If you could get through the LPD and win the district, you had a pretty good chance as far as the state was concerned.”

The Indians got the break they needed on the final weekend of the regular season, however, playing the tough, hard-nosed football that made the LPD famous.

“It was just wishbone, triple-option football,” Church recalled. “Everybody pretty much played the same offense and defense then. It was just man up and play the guy in front of you.

“There was not a lot passing back then. If you passed the ball 15 times in a game, that was a lot.”

Adkins and Buchanan each rushed for more than 1,000 yards that season, and Sturgill had about 600 yards on the ground.

Church rushed for about 600 yards and passed for another 850 or so. He threw 17 touchdown passes and Osborne hauled in eight of them, including the decisive score late in the Indians’ 19-14 victory over Parry McCluer in the state semifinals.

“We beat some good football teams,” Stecker said. “If we played Parry McCluer a dozen times, we might have beat them twice. But we were the better team on that day.

“We were just a bunch of overachievers.”

The next week, the Indians went to Blacksburg to play at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. They defeated Fluvanna 25-17 to win the school’s only state championship in football.

Kelly’s team was not only strong physically, it also was full of smart players and leaders like Church, Stecker said. He points to a particular moment as evidence.

“We were down to a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line against Fluvanna in the state championship game and I sent in a running play. Church came up to the line and saw their defensive back was out of position and he checked off the play and called a pass to Osborne, and it worked,” Stecker said. “We did that a lot during the season. Those guys were just a great, fun bunch to coach.”

Those memories have stayed with Church, especially capturing the title.

“At the time, it was the greatest moment of my life,” he said.

“In baseball, we expected to win. We were good and we had a great program and were already making the playoffs. But in football, no one really gave us much of a chance. That made it different,” said Church, who was also on the Kelly baseball team that won the state championship in 1982. “That football team was something special. We were a bunch of guys who worked hard and enjoyed what we were doing.

“People still talk about that football state championship. Anytime you go somewhere, that’s what folks want to talk about. It was definitely something special. Memories for a lifetime.”

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