Clarkie Mayfield, ex-Cat, in life and death, refused to back down

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 16, 2011 

Inside Neyland Stadium, irony hovered over the Kentucky sideline. The most important play of Charlie Bradshaw's first season as UK head football coach was at hand — and it rested on the toe of Clarkie Mayfield.

How rich was that?

The grueling, many would say sadistic, off-season conditioning program that Bradshaw had implemented the prior winter after he replaced Blanton Collier as Kentucky head coach had decimated the UK roster.

Some 58 players quit the Kentucky team between the end of the 1961 season and the start of football in '62. The few who stuck it out are even now known in UK sports lore by a nickname, The Thin Thirty.

No player on the UK roster had borne more of Bradshaw's fury than Mayfield.

"I can't tell you why — I can't tell you why Bradshaw did most anything he did — but he hated kickers," ex-Kentucky quarterback Jerry Woolum said. "And Clarkie was our kicker."

Says former Kentucky end Dave Gash: "At practice, Bradshaw would pick Clarkie out as a (tackling) dummy where people would run over him. He would pick him out to demonstrate on him. He would run him, criticize him, anything to run him off."

Through it all, Mayfield stayed. Now, the scoreboard read Tennessee 10, Kentucky 9 with 20 seconds left in UK's 1962 football season finale.

Facing fourth-and-goal at the UT 8, UK's chance for ending the most traumatic football season in school history with a victory over its archrival depended on the fortitude of the Cats' senior kicker.

As he lined up to kick, there was no way to know that, not even 15 years later, Mayfield would have his courage tested in the real world in a life-and-death situation.

On May 28, 1977, the night 165 people died when a fire roared through Northern Kentucky's Beverly Hills Supper Club, Clarkie Mayfield was among those who escaped.

Then he went back into an inferno to try to save the lives of others.

This Saturday, the struggling 2011 Kentucky Wildcats will face Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference. It will be the first ever football meeting between UK and the Alabama school.

Yet the two share at least one significant historical link: Clarkie Mayfield.

The ex-Wildcat was the head coach at Jacksonville State in 1977 when he brought his family north to a Kentucky nightclub to be part of a surprise retirement party for his mother.

Of anyone who has ever worn the blue and white of Kentucky, it's doubtful the uniform ever meant more to any player than Clarkie Mayfield.

A star quarterback in high school, Mayfield grew up an only child in a Harlan County coal camp known as Black Star. His dad, Herman, had been injured working in the mines and ran the camp commissary. Mayfield's mom, Ona Mae, taught school.

After a spirited recruiting battle between UK and Tennessee, Mayfield signed with Kentucky and Blanton Collier.

"Clarkie came down here as a halfback," says Gash. "He probably didn't have the ability to really play. I think he saw that fairly early on. So he was going to be satisfied with just being a kicker."

As a sophomore in 1960, Mayfield hit a late fourth-quarter field goal to beat Louisiana State 3-0. Later that same year, he did it again to salvage a 10-10 tie with Tennessee.

"He was friendly, outgoing, loved to flirt with the women," Gash said. "Just a fun guy."

The good times stopped when Bradshaw was hired to replace the scholarly Collier after the 1961 season.

A  Bear Bryant disciple, Bradshaw seemingly aspired to re-create the demanding training regimens that the Bear had utilized during his tenure (1946-53) as UK head coach.

The off-season program the new coach instituted in 1962 was brutal.

"It was pure hell, is what it was," says Bill Jenkins, an end on the 1962 UK team. "They had some racquetball courts and they'd put you in there and you had to fight. The guy who survived got to come out. The other guys, they just laid there and tried to put their bodies back together."

Says Gash: "I really think Bradshaw was crazy, had a split personality. You meet him on the street, he was one of the greatest guys in the world, just a southern gentleman. But, man, you get him on the football field, his eyes would dilate, he'd spit from the side of his mouth, wild looking. And he'd go crazy, absolutely crazy."

During the 1962 season, Jenkins and Mayfield shared a suite in the Wildcat Manor dorm with teammates Phil Pickett and Gary Steward.

"You could lie in there and hear the trunks going down the back steps at night," Jenkins says of the sound of players quitting. "The four of us would just lay in there, talking about whether or not we should quit."

At one point, Bradshaw told Clarkie that if he would leave, the coach would help him pack his bags.

"Clarkie actually went to him and told him 'Coach, I know you are trying to run me off, but I'm not leaving,' " Gash recalls. "He told Bradshaw that. And he wouldn't be run off."

When Collier left UK, Mayfield weighed 204 pounds. By the end of his one season playing for Bradshaw, he was 162. (The reduced girth might have helped Mayfield when he was pressed into duty frequently as a defensive back during that '62 season.)

Years later, Mayfield told his first wife, now Madonna Shanks, the reason he stuck it out.

"He said he knew Kentucky football was his way out of the mountains and out of the coal mines," Shanks said. "He couldn't leave."

Before Mayfield left the sideline to try the kick that would beat Tennessee, Bradshaw called him over.

Says Gash: "Clarkie looked at him and said, 'Coach, you're not going to be mad at me if I miss this are you?' "

Mayfield didn't miss.

The 26-yard field goal made it Kentucky 12, Tennessee 10.

It allowed The Thin Thirty to finish 3-5-2 overall. For the hearty crew who stuck it out through Bradshaw's harsh training, it gave an unbearable season a feel-good finish.

"It was something that made a lot of us feel like what we'd done had been worth it," says Jenkins. "I think it made some of the aches and pains and the hate (for Bradshaw) disappear a little bit."

No one enjoyed it more than the guy whose kick made victory possible.

"Clarkie loved being the hero, the girls," says Gash. "I'm glad he had that opportunity; it just made his career."

Aguy who had every reason to hate college football coaches instead became one.

Even more surprising, Mayfield ended up forming a bond with Bradshaw.

By the 1970s, both were college head coaches in Alabama, Mayfield at Jacksonville State and Bradshaw at Troy.

When the two faced each other in the final game of the 1976 season, the coaches embraced at midfield after Troy won 19-16. They even socialized.

"Charlie tried to run him off, couldn't do it, and Clarkie ended up playing pretty well," says Gash. "Charlie embraced that. Clarkie, and probably Tommy Simpson, in my opinion, were the only two people (from The Thin Thirty) who would tell you Charlie was a good guy."

After leaving UK, Mayfield had begun his coaching career at LaRue County High School. There he met Madonna and married her. Their union produced a son, Greg.

Mayfield was coaching at Franklin-Simpson when former UK assistant Charley Pell hired him as an assistant at Jacksonville State. When Pell left to become defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech in 1974, Mayfield became a college head coach. He was all of 32.

His first three teams finished 7-4, 7-3 and 6-4. Clarkie was developing a reputation as one of the better young offensive minds in college football.

"He didn't want to have anything to do with the defense," says Jim Fuller, a former Alabama player who assisted Mayfield at Jacksonville State. "And gadget plays, he loved them."

Things were not always easy for Mayfield in Alabama. He and Madonna went through a divorce. Eventually, Clarkie remarried. Greg stayed with his dad.

One thing that never waned was Clarkie's passion for UK.

Jim Skidmore is a Harlan native whom Mayfield hired as Jacksonville State's football trainer, a job he still has. One night, over adult beverages, Skidmore made the mistake of saying he had never heard of The Thin Thirty.

"I thought he was going to beat me up," Skidmore says of Clarkie. "He got really bent out of shape."

Fuller says there were many a winter night in Alabama when he would get a phone call and Mayfield would ask him whether he wanted to do something. Invariably, the two would wind up in a car sitting atop a local hill.

"We could get radio reception there and listen to, what was the name of that announcer, Cawood?" Fuller says of Cawood Ledford, the iconic UK sports radio announcer. "It didn't matter who they were playing, Clarkie would make me sit there and listen to Kentucky basketball until the game was over. He loved that Blue."

In the spring of 1977, things were looking rosy for Clarkie Mayfield.

He had remarried. His professional patron, Pell, was climbing the coaching ladder at Clemson, and there was reason to think that Mayfield could soon have entree into Division I college football with him.

One day, Mayfield got a call telling him of plans for a surprise retirement party for his mom in Kentucky.

After Herman Mayfield retired from the coal industry, he and Ona Mae moved from Harlan County to Ohio. After teaching for decades in Kentucky, Ona Mae resumed her teaching career at Wayne Township Elementary.

Now, she was retiring, too.

"Clarkie really didn't want to go," Fuller recalls. "He said, 'I don't need to take Greg out of school.' I talked him into it. I said, 'Clarkie, it's only a day or two. This is your mother.' He said, 'I know. You're right. I guess I'll go.' "

The party was slated for May 28, the Saturday before Memorial Day. Colleagues from Ona Mae Mayfield's school were going to surprise her with a special evening at the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

The sprawling, 65,000- square-foot club in Campbell County was billed as "closer to a Vegas showroom than anything in the Midwest."

In the 1940s, it had been known for illegal gambling, organized-crime connections and Hollywood celebrities. By the 1970s, the slots and roulette wheels were no more, but big-name entertainers such as the Righteous Brothers, Connie Stevens and Dionne Warwick still performed there.

On the night of Ona Mae Mayfield's retirement party, singer John Davidson was to headline inside the Cabaret Room. It is estimated that there might have been as many as 2,800 people in the club's many rooms on that pre-holiday Saturday night. There were to be some 1,200 in the Cabaret Room to see Davidson. At least 36 of them were part of the Mayfield party.

One of them was 11-year-old Greg Mayfield.

"I was the only person under 21 in the building," Greg, now a 45-year-old father of two, recalls. "They let me in because of my grandmother. It's funny. I still remember, I ordered a 'Coke on the rocks.' I thought I was big (stuff) when I said that."

Two comedians were warming up the crowd for Davidson when a young busboy took the stage. He grabbed a microphone and announced to the overflow crowd that there was a small fire in another part of the building. He said people needed to calmly exit.

"I'm 11 years old, I didn't really know if it was part of the act or not," says Greg Mayfield. "Everybody was kind of like me, just sitting there. Not really knowing what to do. He said, 'No, this is real.' "

The fire had been discovered moments earlier by club employees near the Zebra Room. It did not turn out to be small.

Says Greg Mayfield: "There were two exits. ... There was a big double-door exit to our right where we came in. And there was a small kitchen door to our left. We got up, and everybody started exiting. We were going to the left already, and that's probably what saved us.

"We were halfway going over to that door. The people who were going to the right, I want to say about 10 seconds after we got up and started to walk, smoke started coming through the big double door.

"As you can imagine, everybody that was going through that door automatically turns and has to scramble to get out the kitchen door, which was a regular small door.

"I remember looking back, and smoke had pretty much (filled the room), you could barely see the other door. Then I remember seeing big, huge flames shoot through that other door."

Before the fire, Greg says, he had been sitting at a table with his grandparents. His dad and stepmother, Susan, were at a different table.

"We got to the kitchen door, I remember taking a left because you couldn't see anything," Greg said. "My papaw basically picked me up and threw me out over the top of everybody so I could get out."

Outside the burning nightclub, Greg Mayfield remembers feeling relief when he saw his grandparents. He felt even more when he saw Clarkie.

"He gave me a hug," Greg Mayfield says, his voice breaking. "But we still had people missing in our party. So he went back in. That's the last time I saw him alive."

Before he re-entered the burning building, Clarkie Mayfield did say something to his 11-year-old son.

"He just told me he loved me," Greg Mayfield said.

At the time, Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll declared the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire "the worst tragedy in Kentucky history."

The 165 people killed made it the second-worst nightclub calamity in American history. A 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston killed 491.

Eventually, investigators would determine that faulty wiring, improper insulation and the lack of sprinklers caused the Beverly Hills fire. After years of lawsuits, the damages awarded totaled some $55.4 million.

Of those killed that night in the Beverly Hills, all but two had been in the Cabaret Room. Twelve of the dead had been in the party celebrating Ona Mae Mayfield's retirement.

In various news accounts at the time, Clarkie Mayfield, 35, was said to have "died a hero's death."

Greg Mayfield says he believes his father saved the life of his wife and an aunt. Beyond that, "obviously, I don't know what he did or didn't do after he went back into all that smoke," he said.

It was not lost on Mayfield's Thin Thirty teammates that the guy whose fortitude had been questioned almost every day in that 1962 football season had performed the ultimate act of courage.

"He showed what his makeup was all about up there in Northern Kentucky," says Gash.

They held memorial services for Clarkie both at Jacksonville State and in Harlan County.

His grandparents, Greg says, never recovered from the loss of their only child. "It took the heart right out of them," he said.

When Fuller was named to replace Mayfield as Jacksonville State head coach, it took him weeks before he could bring himself to move his things into the head coach's office.

"It just didn't feel right," he said.

The 1977 JSU team Mayfield left behind won 11 games and finished as NCAA Division II national runner-up.

Greg Mayfield says he still wonders what heights his father might have reached as a college football coach had he lived. He does not have to wonder about the one job his dad wanted most of all.

"He was going to be very successful. He had that special motivational skill that young guys follow," Greg says. "He told me several times, his dream job would have been to come back and be the head coach at Kentucky. I honestly believe if things had gone right, he'd have gotten there."

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