A Thank You Long Overdue

The Owensboro High School “Red Devils” won the boys “Sweet Sixteen” Kentucky High School basketball tournament this past weekend.  Many of the players on that team were students at Owensboro Middle School during my final years there prior to my retirement in 2012.  My fond memories of announcing their middle school basketball games are cherished reminders of what a special group of young men they are and it is no surprise that they have achieved “champion” status in the state of Kentucky.  Congratulations to all of them – coaches and players.  But, today I am writing about their head coach, Rod Drake.  This is dedicated to a man I hardly know, but who has been a remarkable presence in my life for thirty-five years. 

I was finishing my freshman year at Kentucky Wesleyan College when I first saw him.  It was the spring of 1980 and I was looking forward to my first year of college being over and for the boring lecture I was enduring mercifully coming to an end when his face appeared through the window of our classroom door.  It was Rod Drake and his best friend and Owensboro High School basketball teammate, Dwight Higgs, staring through the door glass and looking into our classroom.  I remember being a little confused as to why they were on campus since they both had just signed to play basketball at Murray State University just a couple of weeks earlier following their winning the 1980 Kentucky boys state basketball tournament in Louisville.  But, here they were on Kentucky Wesleyan’s campus – looking around.  Something was up.

I rushed to tell anyone who would listen that Dwight and Rod were on KWC’s campus and that I believed they were going to opt out of their commitment to Murray State and join new KWC head coach, Mike Polio, and help rebuild the “Panther” program.  As the program had suffered several losing seasons during the late 1970’s, a new coach was hired that spring and the campus was starting to buzz about the new direction of the program.  I could hardly contain my excitement.  Having grown up a Kentucky Wesleyan basketball fan, it was exciting for me to now be a student at the school and, even more than that, had joined the cheerleading squad to become one of the basketball teams, “Yell Leaders”.  That freshman year the crowds were sparse and unenthusiastic and I did all I could to “rev” up the ‘Sportscenter’, but the team still lost and lost often and the crowds stayed away in droves.  But change was on the way.

A few days later Rod Drake and Dwight Higgs signed to play basketball at KWC.  They both had decided to hitch their wagon to the enthusiastic new coach and were released from their previous commitment to Murray State.  Exciting times were ahead.  Between my freshman and sophomore year at Wesleyan, the atmosphere at the games had turned from completely dead to absolute bonkers.  I credit Rod and Dwight for most of that enthusiasm.  I decided to return as a “Yell Leader” my sophomore year, mainly because I would have one of the best seats in the house along the sidelines.  My first memory of Rod playing for the Panthers was early in the season during a home game against a team named “Siena Heights”.  I had really never seen Rod play in high school but I had heard of his ability to rebound and use his size against much smaller guards.  As I recall the Panthers trailed early in the game but behind the play of Drake and Higgs and with the large crowd practically beside itself, staged a comeback in the second half.  With the game tied, Rod got a steal and threw down a one-handed dunk to put KWC ahead and the crowd roared louder than I had heard in years.  The Panthers would end up losing that game but the stage was set for what would be one of the most exciting four years in Kentucky Wesleyan basketball history.  The Dwight and Rod era was underway.

Dwight Higgs would, by his senior year, become the all time scoring leader for a time at Kentucky Wesleyan.  But it was Rod Drake that held those teams together and it was his will to win that carried them to some of the most exciting seasons in their storied history.  Without question the most exciting moment came during his sophomore season.  I had decided to not return as a KWC Yell Leader during my junior year as I was working full-time at the Cliff Hagan Boys Club while also maintaining a full class load (Ironically, Rod worked at the same Boys Club several years later after his college days).  But I never stopped attending the KWC games and even managed to scrape up enough money to fly to Springfield, Massachusetts to see KWC play in the NCAA Division II Final Four.  Their opponent in the semi-finals was Florida Southern and they featured a player that Kentucky Wesleyan fans will never forget, All-American center John Ebeling.

The game was close throughout and the Panthers had managed to tie the score with just a few seconds remaining.  Florida Southern was forced to inbound the ball and go the length of the floor for a final shot.  The pass was thrown to Ebeling who along with several KWC defenders went up for the ball and all fell to the floor in a mad scramble.  Foul on KWC.  It was a terrible call and it looked for all the world that the game was all but over.  With one second to play, Ebeling went to the free throw line and hit both shots to put Florida Southern up by two points.  A friend I had traveled with actually walked onto the floor at that moment and began to congratulate the Florida Southern cheerleaders.  Neither he nor I had any idea what was about to happen.  In 1982 the three-point shot had not yet been implemented in college basketball.  If only it had been.  Following the second free throw, KWC inbounded the ball and it was passed to Rod Drake.  Having no time to do anything else, Drake turned and launched a three-quarter length shot from the opposite foul line.  I can still remember that ball in the air and, as if in a dream, watched it hit nothing but the bottom of the net.  In the words of long-time KWC radio announcer Joel Utley, “Overtime! Overtime! Overtime! We’re going into an overtime!”  Unfortunately KWC lost the game.  But it was sealed for me that Rod Drake was a special, special young man.  His will to win was beyond anything I had ever witnessed in my life.  I remember seeing him immediately embrace his father after hitting that shot from seventy feet away and would embrace him again following the heartbreaking loss.

Rod Drake never won a national championship at KWC.  I am sorry about that.  No player before or since played with such heart and soul and determination.  I loved the way he led the team onto the floor as captain, the way he rebounded the basketball, the way he smiled at his opponent, and the way he poured himself out during a game for one thing – to win.

I was excited to hear when Rod was named head coach of Owensboro High School after spending a few years on the bench as an assistant coach.  To me, there was no better person to lead mine and his alma mater.  During an opening assembly of teachers and staff at the dedication of the new Owensboro High School gymnasium, I was asked to help emcee the event and introduce representatives from the previous OHS teams that had won the state championship.  Representing the 1980 champion was Rod Drake.  I remember introducing him to the crowd and saying something completely unscripted.  I told those in attendance that Rod was one of my favorite players to watch and that I believed if he could inspire his players to play the game as hard and with as much dedication to winning as he played, they would be hanging another state championship banner at the school and very soon.

It turns out that my words were somewhat prophetic.  On Sunday March 22, 2015, Rod Drake’s team did just that.  They played with the lions heart of their coach and will, in fact, hang another state champion banner from their gymnasium rafters.  Now there will be four state basketball champion banners hanging there.  The final two will say “1980” and “2015” and, I believe, Rod Drake is the reason for both.  I often wonder what would have happened had Rod and Dwight not changed their minds to come to KWC those many years ago.  How would it have changed not only Kentucky Wesleyan’s fortunes, but Owensboro High Schools as well?  To be completely honest, it would have changed my life to some degree.

I have wanted to tell Rod Drake something for thirty-five years.  And thirty-five years is long enough.  Thank you, Rod Drake – for everything!

Steve McFarland

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