Kelly Russell Classic to honor fallen Panther 40 years later
By Jim Turner

Posted on April 22, 2014 11:49 PM

“Breathe, Kelly Boy, breathe,” Gina Russell kept imploring the still figure lying in the grass, surrounded by a circle of concerned, praying onlookers. Kelly didn’t breathe; he never did again.

Forty years later, Russellville will pause this weekend to remember the only athlete to lose his life while wearing a Panther uniform. They will do so at the baseball field which has proudly worn his name for 40 seasons.

I was watching the Russellville High School tennis teams I had coached since the seniors were seventh graders play in the regional tournament on the Bowling Green High courts on a sunny day in late May, 1974. We had good tennis teams, led by seniors Bob Bruce, Donnie Riley, Kenny Hancock and Alan Hall among the boys and Susan Nuyt, Sarah Hindman, Nancy Smith, Donna Coleman and Sherrie Farmer among the girls. (The boys would have been even better had not Cecil Duncan decided to graduate a year early in 1973.) The Hindman-Nuyt team won its second straight regional doubles championship, but the events of that day and what happened to all those seniors’ classmate diminished the joy we felt.

“Do you all have a player down up there,” one of the Franklin-Simpson tennis players asked me as he pointed toward the BGH baseball field where the regional tournament was being played. I didn’t realize at the time the extent of ‘down,’ but went up to see what had happened.

I learned that while one regional baseball game was underway, the Panthers were warming up in the grassy area outside the fence, gently throwing back and forth to each other. Just as the player tossing the ball with Kelly released a lob, the sound of a bat and ball coming into contact with each other was heard. Kelly turned to see what had happened. His partner yelled repeatedly that a ball was coming, and it was lobbed slow enough that Kelly had time to duck. The ball caught him at the base of his skull where it meets the neck. We later learned that it had hit a previously undetected aneurism. As far as I know, the senior second baseman never took another full breath on his own.

So we stood in a circle around him. His coach, David Phillips, started doing artificial respiration. I clearly remember the sound of Gina saying, “Come on, Kelly Boy, breathe.” His devoted dad, Joe Russell, also was in the group around him.

We were standing in the shadows of Greenview Hospital, but in those days Greenview didn’t have an emergency room. A doctor from Greenview came over at relieved Coach Philips, giving the mouth to mouth therapy. We had to wait for an ambulance to come from downtown at City-County Hospital, which later became the Medical Center. It seemed like forever, although I really don’t think it would have made any difference. That was before the days of Advanced Life Support vehicles, so artificial respiration continued.

The ambulance took the boy who had never moved, first to City-County and then to Nashville. The diagnosis in Bowling Green was a brain hemorrhage, and there was doubt that he could make it to Nashville. His heart continued to beat for over 100 hours until it stopped at 1 a.m. on Wednesday, May 29. Many people had been at the hospital long into the nights in the days that passed, but Joe and Gina were the only ones there when it ended.

I wrote during the days that passed between the accident and his death, “The entire city of Russellville, numbed by the shock of a freak baseball accident that had felled the RHS senior, remained on edge while pulling and praying for the popular youngster. His classmates, now grown men and women, wept unashamedly at the baccalaureate service Sunday night.”

The team had to go ahead and play the game soon after the ambulance left. I believe today it would have been postponed, but in 1974 it wasn’t. I went over to the fence to talk with Coach Phillips. I remember saying, “I don’t think he’s going to make it. I think he’s already gone.” David adamantly refused to believe that, saying, “He’s got to make it! He’s got to!” He was crying; so were his teammates.

Allen County-Scottsville scored six runs almost immediately. The Panthers regrouped to make a game of it but lost 11-7, mercifully ending the season.

This was a very good Panther baseball team. Kelly had already signed to play baseball for Murray State and his best friend, Steve Gilliam, was also headed to be a Racer. Fellow seniors Jerry Lee and Johnny Morgan went on to play college football, as did underclassmen Jeff Ashby and Mike Posey. Stan Lowe was another senior starter. Now, 40 years later, Lee and Lowe are also deceased.

Kelly Russell was destined to play sports from the beginning. His dad, an Ohio native, was a star athlete at Murray State. Joe was the man who followed the legendary Jimmy Haynes and the undefeated 1950 Golden Panther football team as the RHS football coach. He soon left coaching and became the long-time commissioner of the Western Kentucky Conference. Since there was no playoff system until the mid-60s, nothing was bigger than the WKC. Joe was also the first personnel director of the new ITW plant and was active in the Optimist Club and in Boy Scouts leadership.

According to his year-older teammate, Greg Owens, who has been a prime organizer of this weekend’s memorial, Kelly returned 44 punts his junior and senior football seasons combined. He was the punter as a junior. He had lettered as a sophomore under Coach Jim Gladden and played his final two years for Coach Wayne Shewmaker. He set a school record by averaging 17.4 yard per punt return as a junior. He played wide receiver and was an All-WKC defensive back.

Kelly played second base for the baseball Panthers and was named top defensive player his junior and senior seasons, both of which the Panthers won the district championship. He also played varsity basketball for Coach Mickey Meguiar but gave that sport up after his sophomore year.

Some of the players believe that Kelly Russell, who was small but tough, would survive the ordeal, having battled big odds because of his size all his life. “He doesn’t smoke or drink, and he’s in great shape. He’s going to make it,” one told me. This was too big an obstacle to overcome.

The line at Wilkins-Proctor Funeral Home for Kelly’s visitation was the longest I ever recall seeing. Many people were in line out on the sidewalk on a warm spring evening waiting to express their regrets to Joe and Gina Russell and to Kelly’s sister, Jo Anne Russell Bennett, a beautiful lady, both inside and out.

Flower arrangements included those sent by the WKC, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, and the five schools in the Logan County system. Kelly was buried in his Post 29 American Legion uniform. His number 14 RHS uniform would hang in a new trophy case in the deGraffenried Lobby.

The funeral was held at 10 a.m. at deGraffenried Auditorium on Friday, May 31. Some 800 people attended. The speakers included Bro. Joe Carrico of Post Oak Baptist Church, Father William McAtee of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and First Baptist Youth Minister Jim Didlake. Pallbearers were the other eight starters on the baseball team—Gilliam, Morgan, Lee, Lowe, Ashby, Posey, Ricky Eggleston and Phil Todd. The football team served as honorary pallbearers.

Murray State University President Constantine ‘Dino’ Curris attended the funeral. That night, the Class of 1974 went through its commencement exercises in the same building. One seat was left empty. Kelly Russell would have sat there. Dr. Curris was the speaker.

Board Chairman Buddy Duncan announced that a diploma was being awarded to Kelly posthumously. Principal Don Turner recommended that the school’s baseball playing area being named Kelly Russell Field

A Kelly Russell Scholarship was initiated. The first two recipients were classmates Donna Coleman and Steve Gilliam.

Those scholarships are a secondary reason for this observance to be held this weekend. The fund needs replenishing. Tee shirts bearing the Kelly Russell Classic logo are being sold as a fund raiser and donations are being accepted.

The first game of the Classic begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with Coach Greg Shelton’s Panthers entertaining Butler County. RHS Principal Kim McDaniel will present a special gift from the school to Kelly’s sister. Jo Anne will also be present for a ceremony in the middle school gym at 1 p.m. Saturday. A number of speakers will make short remarks, including Gilliam—who is assistant superintendent in Madisonville—and Coach Phillips. Russellville Mayor Mark Stratton is scheduled to make an announcement. All the recipients of Kelly Russell Scholarships have been issued special invitations to attend, but the ceremony is open to the public.

Among those who have worked tirelessly on this project are Russellville High School Alumni Association leader Jean Sosh Reynolds, who was Kelly’s classmate, and Gilliam’s sister, Diane Walker.

Other games in the Kelly Russell Classic lineup are as follows: Friday, Butler County vs. University Heights Academy at 5 p.m. and UHA vs. Madisonville at7.30.. Saturday, RHS vs. UHA at 10 a.m.; Greenwood vs. Madisonville at 12.30 p.m. and RHS vs. Madisonville at 3.

Copyright © The Logan Journal 2009 - 2024