WINCHESTER — For years, high school football Fridays in Clark County always began the same way.
Sometime around 4:30 a.m. — so early, even roosters weren't up yet — Audra and J.C. Young would rise from bed.
The married couple would open the tiny South Main Grocery they own and fire up the kitchen in the back.
There, the Youngs would whip up "a good country breakfast" — gravy and biscuits, sausage, bacon, fried apples, fried peaches, pancakes, orange juice and milk — fit to feed a whole football team.
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Which is what they did — at no price to the school, every football Friday morning for about 15 years.
"It's very unusual. Quite unique," says longtime Clark County football coach Paul Columbia. "The thing is, they've done it for us for so long."
As the years passed, the Youngs took on even more Clark County sports teams, serving the occasional free meal to, say, the Cardinals' basketball, soccer or golf teams.
"I've never seen anything like this at any other school I've been at," says Clark County boys' basketball coach Scott Humphrey.
Says Robbie Stenzel, Clark's current star basketball guard: "It's amazing what they do. Everybody loves it."
This school year, the Clark County community has spent a good bit of time worrying that one of our state's more unique high school sports traditions might be in peril.
'Can you help us out?'
What makes the tradition of the Friday football breakfasts and other meals for Cardinals sports teams so notable, is that neither J.C. nor Audra Young, Pike County natives, went to Clark County High School. Neither did their only child, son Chris.
Still, it was Chris who, indirectly, brought his parents to Clark County. In 1988, he graduated from Johns Creek High School in Pike County and headed to Eastern Kentucky University to play football for Roy Kidd.
J.C. Young was a teacher in Pike County; Audra worked for a car dealership, eventually moving from bookkeeper to salesperson.
Though her family ties in Pike County ran deep, the fact that her only child was away in Richmond for college produced in Audra a strong compulsion to be closer to Chris.
After briefly trying life in Lexington, the Youngs bought the South Main Grocery in Winchester. At the time, the business — which looks more like a convenience store than your basic Kroger superstore — was struggling.
"My mom, she went to a town she didn't know, took a business that wasn't doing well and made it a success with people skills," says Chris Young, now an assistant principal at Madison Central High. "What they've done with that little store is amazing."
After starting as a defensive tackle at EKU, Chris spent some time as an assistant football coach at Clark County High.
The tradition of the Friday football breakfasts began then. "Chris came to me and said, 'Dad, can you help us out,'" J.C. Young says. "Can you do something to help us motivate our boys?' And I said, 'What about a breakfast?' And that's how we got started."
Once Chris Young's career path took him to Madison County, his parents kept right on with the breakfasts and other meals for Clark County athletes.
"They just love it," Chris Young says. "My dad was a teacher. This is their way of helping kids."
J.C. Young says there has been a business benefit to the special relationship he and Audra have with Clark County sports.
"I get a sign at the football field. They give me advertising in their game programs," J.C. says. "On the football radio broadcasts, they'll always mention 'today, the team ate breakfast at South Main Grocery.'"
Still, any promotional benefit the Youngs receive can't begin to match what they've spent feeding for free Clark County's athletes across the years.
The bill for a breakfast for, say, 50 large and growing teen-age boys must be staggering.
"Maybe $350 — on sale," J.C. says, with a laugh, of what one of those football breakfasts might cost. "We've made as many as 300 biscuits for some of those."
Asked what they figure they've spent on meals for Clark County sports teams across the year, Audra shushes the questioner.
"That's not for the paper," she says. "Money's not what it's about, anyway."
What makes it worthwhile
What it is about is being around teenagers and having a chance to help kids when they need it.
The Youngs can tell you stories of having Yeremiah Bell — the safety who just signed a $20 million contract with the NFL's Miami Dolphins — eating breakfast in their little store as a Clark County High player.
"Everyone here in Winchester calls him 'Mi-Mi,' " Audra says of Bell.
Or they can tell you about Preston Knowles, a guard on the Louisville Cardinals basketball team that was the No. 1 overall seed in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, having meals in the South Main Grocery.
"We're all so proud of how Preston has done at Louisville," J.C. says. "He didn't have it easy here in Winchester, but he's done well for himself at Louisville."
Adds Audra: "Rick Pitino has been good for Preston."
Stenzel, who will be a junior on Clark County's boys' basketball team and who has All-State potential, is a favorite at the South Main.
Says Audra: "I just love Robbie Stenzel. That boy has good character all about him."
Stenzel figures he's been on the receiving end of "about eight" of the free breakfasts.
"Eggs and pancakes and bacon," he says. "And if you go in there after school and there's food left over from the lunch (trade), you can get a sandwich. They're good to us."
As much as they enjoy regaling a visitor with stories about the prominent Clark County athletes they've known, J.C. and Audra are even more animated about the kids who go away for college, come home to visit and make a point of stopping in to buy a soda and a snack so they can say hello at the South Main.
"That," J.C. says, "is what makes it worthwhile."
At Clark County High School, they say the Youngs are providing the school's athletes more than just a free breakfast.
"If there is a kid who doesn't have much, they'll give him a job and give him a chance to earn something," says Columbia, the football coach. "If there's a kid in there with his friends that doesn't have the money to buy something, they seem to find a way to make sure that kid doesn't leave hungry."
Adds basketball coach Humphrey: "They're so loyal to us, win or lose. They're not people jumping off the bandwagon if things don't go well. They're solid, solid people."
It's not clear how much longer the tradition of the Friday football breakfasts will continue.
J.C. Young, 68, had surgery in January for an aortic aneurysm. He was told by doctors, he says, that his heart stopped four times during the surgery.
Audra, 65, is battling congestive heart failure whose roots go back to a case of rheumatic fever she had as a little girl.
This past football season, there was only one Friday breakfast.
During basketball season, "I just didn't feel right about calling them and asking for their help this year," Humphrey says, "because they were going through so much."
Chris Young says that, whenever the day comes that his parents can no longer do the breakfasts for Clark County athletes, "it will end a tradition that's been really special. Those are the kind of things that really make sports in Kentucky what it is."
J.C. and Audra are hoping to get the football Friday breakfasts up and running again in 2009.
In the meantime, they take stock of what they've gotten from the breakfasts through the years.
"I told Audra one time that we'd probably be millionaires if we hadn't given so much away," J.C. says. "And she said, 'So what. We wouldn't have had nearly as much fun.' "