* On Mondays, we’ve taken a trip into Paducah’s football history with Dusty Luthy, a library clerk and former sports writer. We’ve explored Paducah’s firsts, bests and funny vignettes in between. This is the final installment of MNF with Dusty. *
So while we can all agree that the South is a hotbed for football, Paducah and western Kentucky, despite making strides of the football notoriety variety, aren’t known for our overall prowess with the pigskin.
Kentucky is a basketball state, and forever will it remain that.
But, western Kentucky can still claim its own place in the NFL, starting with its most well-known star, George Wilson.
Wilson, a Paducah native and Paducah Tilghman alum, has played 10 seasons in the NFL, starting first with the Buffalo Bills and then playing the previous two seasons as a starter for the Tennessee Titans. It doesn’t look as if Wilson’s contract with the Titans will be renewed, and we’re not exactly sure what his future might hold, but he has certainly made Paducah proud.
After graduating from Tilghman, Wilson played college football at Arkansas as a receiver. He originally signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent before making his way to the Bills. After little success as a receiver, he switched positions to play as a safety in 2007 where he found much more playing time and fame.
Perhaps what makes Wilson Paducah’s favorite hometown boy more than tackles, sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles is his community involvement. Wilson is as approachable as they come, and has started the George Wilson S.A.F.E.T.Y. Foundation which was started to “Save Adolescents from the Everyday Trials of Youth”. It’s not unusual to see Wilson leading sports camps, retreats or fun nights at the local bowling alley, all to benefit Paducah’s youth.
Paducah can’t exactly claim western Kentucky’s next famous NFL athlete, but we’ll try to be cool by association. Tim Masthay, punter for the Green Bay Packers, graduated from Murray High School and played college football at Kentucky. Masthay is a Super Bowl champion, playing with the Packers in Super Bowl XLV in 2011, defeating the Pittsburg Steelers.
And if we here in Paducah will lay claim to Masthay, why not extend our pats on the back to Jerome Bettis? Bettis was just named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015. “The Bus” played for the LA and St. Louis Rams as a running back before finishing his career as a Steeler in 2005 as a Super Bowl Champion. So how can we claim the former Rookie of the Year?
Bettis traveled to Paducah in 2012 as a part of the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” which traced the family trees of celebrities. Bettis’ family history led him to Paducah and your very own McCracken County Public Library, where a portion of the show was filmed.
Of course, here at the Local and Family History Department, we always like to know who was first. Using the database www.databasefootball.com, we were able to track down Spencer Rork.
Joseph Spencer Rork played in the NFL for one season – the 1922 inaugural season after changing its name from the American Professional Football Association – for the Evansville Crimson Giants.
Rork was a beloved athlete at Paducah High School as a senior in 1915. Rork played football, basketball and track and field and was the athletic editor of the Owaissa, Paducah High’s yearbook.
Rork wasn’t without a touch of scandal, however. In 1913 his name was attached to what could be the earliest eligibility squabble recorded in the area. Spencer Rork and Dick Miller, members of the Paducah High team, were not recognized by team manager Prof. W.H. Sugg, also the principal of the school, when Paducah traveled to play at Henderson. It is unclear what newly-formed Western Kentucky Athletic Association and school rules Rork, a sophomore at the time, and Miller violated, but the Hopkinsville Kentuckian reported that a petition signed by 75 Paducah students asking that the players be reinstated was ignored.
In protest of Rork and Miller’s suspension, the Paducah team quit and disbanded.
The school and team eventually reached a compromise thanks to the impetus of honoring a contract with Hopkinsville: Rork and Miller would be allowed to play in the game since the game contract was conceived in March before the WKAA rules went into effect. They would not, however, be allowed to play in the remainder of WKAA sanctioned games.
Rork, who in his Senior Will bequeathed a pair of slightly worn football shoes to Ellis Bass on the condition “that she wear them only to dances”, went on to play football for a time at the University of Kentucky.
After his stint at UK and entering the auto repair trade, he entered the army in 1918 during World War I. In 1922, he is listed as a member of the Evansville Crimson Giants.
Our initial search on databasefootball.com showed other native Paducahans in the NFL over the years: Kurt Barber (1992-1995), Frank LeMaster (1974-1982), Robert Poole (1964-1967), Glenn Shaw (160-1964), Derrick Thomas (1987), Robert Winkel (1979-1980). This list of course excludes other football players who were not born in Paducah, but who have ties to Paducah and western Kentucky like Hunter Cantwell, another beloved Paducah Tilghman graduate and record-setter. Cantwell was technically born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and played in the NFL from 2009-2011, playing on the practice rosters of the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens. He was promoted to the Panthers’ active roster for a short time his first season.
Thanks for joining us for “Monday Night Football with Dusty” as we’ve delved into Paducah’s early years of football lore.
For more information on sports, football, Paducah and all things periodical, visit us at the Local and Family History Department of the McCracken County Public Library.