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STEVE FLAIRTY: Hall Of Fame Coach John Merritt One Of Several Sports Stars From Pendleton County


John Merritt (Photo Credit Not Available)

Editor's note: This column first appeared in NKyTribune.com.


Pendleton County, despite its relatively small size, has raised its share of sports stars. More recently, they include Dontaie Allen, a prolific hoops scorer who played for the Kentucky Wildcats and soon will wear the Western Kentucky Hilltopper uniform. Baseball pitcher Nate Jones had a successful major league career. He retired in 2021 and settled Butler, in his native county.


Another individual, John Ayers Merritt, shined several decades ago. Born in Falmouth in 1926, he was inducted posthumously as a coach into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994 after a 31-year career stretching from 1953 to 1983. He started college coaching at Jackson State and took the Tennessee State job in 1963.


Merritt garnered an overall record of 233-67-11. His teams at Tennessee State, in Nashville, were chosen by the Pittsburgh Courier as Black college national champions in 1965, ’66, ’70, ’71, ’73, ’79, and ’82. He coached future NFL players such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Waymond Bryant, and Joe Gilliam, with twenty-three playing in the league in all.


Researching him in the Woodford County Historical Society after finding out he coached high school for three years in Versailles — where I live — I found an article about “Big John” Merritt that gave added insight into this amazing native Kentuckian. In a 1979 newspaper article in The Tennessean, writer Larry Woody described Merritt, who had dropped fifty-two pounds from his 252-pound frame, as one who “still operates on a somewhat bigger-than-life scale.”


Merritt was known as the consummate “good guy,” and earlier in life thought he might become a Christian minister — or a doctor. His religious foundation came as a child when his family attended the Falmouth Methodist Church. He was known to do a lot of outreach to the community in Nashville, accepting a hundred speaking engagements per year in local elementary schools. He also had a live radio show on air three times a week. He was a people person. In his spare time, he liked, he said, spending “hours every day just visiting and talking.”


Woody noted that as a child, Merritt attended and was a serious student at “Falmouth’s little one-room school for Black students,” but there was no high school for Black students. For that reason, Merritt moved to Louisville and attended Central High School while staying with his aunt.


At Central, Merritt said he played in “the first football game I ever saw.” He performed well, and after graduating, won an athletic grant to Kentucky State, in Frankfort. Next was a hitch in the Navy, followed by completing a graduate degree at UK. The next three years, he coached football at Simmons High School, in Versailles.


Having three winning seasons at Versailles, “Big John” became the football coach at Jackson State in 1953, where he spent the next ten seasons with much success. The pride of Falmouth, Kentucky, then left Jackson, Mississippi, for the Tennessee State position, where he gained new prestige that lead to his Hall of Fame recognition.


The move to Nashville didn’t appear to be for such reasons of higher grandeur. Merritt was quoted in the article: “My parents were getting pretty old at the time and I wanted to be nearer them. I had no Nashville ties and no TSU connections when I came here. And I had no idea we’d be able to accomplish the things we’ve been able to accomplish. I guess the Good Lord has been on our side.”


Merritt died in 1983. He was relatively young at 57, and it came shortly after his retirement. The native Kentuckian is buried in Nashville. In 2019, a bridge in Falmouth was renamed the John Ayers Merritt Memorial Bridge and a ceremony was held in his honor.


Sources: Tennesseeencyclopedia.net; The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); cfbhall.com; The Tennessean, Jan. 1979; The Falmouth Outlook; footballfoundation.org; State-Journal, Frankfort, Kentucky; upi.com


Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune.com columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”

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