By Brad Tittrington
It has been said that difficult times often bring out the best in people. What transpired in late July and early August in one southeastern Kentucky community perfectly epitomizes one of those times.
It began July 28, 2022, near Hazard, Ky. A historic rain event brought torrential precipitation to the area, causing major destruction and leaving at least 39 people dead in its wake. Over the course of three days, nearly 10 inches of rain fell, including nearly eight inches in the city of Hazard. The majority of the rain falling in a two-hour period in the early morning hours proved to be the biggest problem.
Houses and businesses were swept away in the resulting flood waters. Hundreds of people lost everything, including seven Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) football officials. They included Jack Barker, who lost his business, and Derrick Wright, Chase Fugate, Chad Bates, Austin Johnson, Jody Johnson and Jake Johnson, all of whom lost their homes. Austin Johnson and his wife were awakened at 2:30 a.m. and had to hold on to trees for several hours to avoid being washed away in the flood waters.
“It was hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime ordeal,” Austin Johnson said. “I never thought we’d have to do something like that.”
Jake Johnson jumped out of the second story of his house to escape the rising waters as well while escaping to his aunt’s house, which was on higher ground. Jody, Jake’s father, stayed behind in the upstairs portion of the house and rode out the storm.
“The water had run us upstairs,” Jody said. “(Jake) jumped off our back porch. It wasn’t swift water, but it was enough to scare him.
“I was born and raised in that area, and I’ll be 47 in October. It’s the worst flooding I’ve seen in my life. It happened in the middle of the night and came in a hurry. In two hours, the devastation was done.”
When an emergency of this magnitude occurs, it takes a lot of hard work and effort on the part of many to get everyone back on track. It is also in these times the true character of people is revealed. Shortly after the flooding, a group of businesspeople in Kentucky began working together to do what they could to offer comfort and assistance to those officials affected by the flood. And while some of those businesses compete with each other, they put that aside and came together to help out.
Many community members worked together to clean up after the flood and help everyone get back on their feet.
One of the first people to get the ball rolling was Scott Kennedy of Force 3 Pro Gear and Officially Connected. Kennedy, an NCAA baseball umpire who lives in Louisville, Ky., immediately started posting on Twitter and Instagram the need for supplies to help those officials affected by the storm.
Kennedy reached out to multiple connections in the flood-ravaged area seeing how people were doing and if there was anything he could do to help. One of the first to get back to him was Kyle Maggard, the football assigner for the region who assigns all seven officials and who also works football, basketball and baseball. Maggard told Kennedy he had six officials in the area who had lost everything and another who had lost his main source of income, and anything he could do to help would be appreciated.
Kennedy began collecting donations as well as cases of water, toiletries, shoes and clothing to drive down to Hazard. He also contacted Greg Wilson, an NFL back judge and owner and operator of Honig’s, an officiating supply company out of Denver.
“Greg Wilson was the first person I called,” Kennedy said. “He is my football guy. He never hesitated. … I texted and said, ‘I know you’re busy, but call me when you get some time.’ Football season was starting in three weeks.”
Later that day, Wilson called Kennedy and told him to get him everyone’s sizes from head to toe. Wilson ultimately sent to Kennedy’s house two massive boxes full of uniforms and gear for each of the six officials once they were all sewn and specifically sized.
“He asked if I was in a position to assist, and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Wilson recalled. “Outside of officiating, I personally believe this is what we should be doing — trying our best to help each other out in life. I was very grateful that I was in this unique position to be able to step in and help out and get these men on their feet and hopefully refereeing football games and just making their lives a bit easier.”
Getting the officials back onto the field would not have been possible without all the endeavors of everyone behind the scenes. Trying to replace everything in a short amount of time was no easy task. Wilson said Honig’s was able to supply everything to the officials except shoes, and True Officials out of Louisville stepped in to fill the gaps as well.
“Greg overnighted everything,” Kennedy said. “I got the package Monday afternoon and took it to UPS on Tuesday. Initially, I wasn’t even sure if UPS could get it there. … Kyle ended up getting it on Wednesday and made all the drops on Thursday to the guys. Those guys had games on Friday.”
Scott Kennedy (right) delivers supplies to those in need in Kentucky and meets with area assigner Kyle Maggard.
Before receiving the gear from Honig’s, Kennedy and one of his business partners, John Bennett, loaded up Kennedy’s SUV with necessities and made two trips to Hazard. Kennedy said he received roughly $2,500 in donations from local officials and he loaded up on paper towels, cleaning supplies, clothes, etc., to deliver to Maggard, who ultimately made sure the families got what they needed. Kennedy’s mother and father went to the store and donated over $600 in supplies as well.
While Kennedy was busy collecting items, another sports officiating retail giant in Louisville was also collecting items to donate. Jim Kirk, president of Ump-Attire.com, wanted to help the six officials as well. The KHSAA alerted Kirk to the six officials who had lost everything and shared with him an email from Maggard. Kirk immediately reached out to Maggard to see how he could help.
“I’m from that area,” Kirk said. “I’m born and raised in eastern Kentucky, so that really hit home for me. We’ve been providing apparel to the KHSAA since 2012 and through that, these guys are our customers. In our office, we say we’re not a sport goods company, we support people in their careers and their career happens to be sports officiating.
“Their lives were dramatically affected so this is where we step out of our normal bounds of just providing gear and apparel for the field and courts and support them,” Kirk said. “We had a slogan (in some ads) and that slogan is ‘Standing behind you and the game.’ The game is what you think about. We like to look at it as more than that. We stand by you, too. We wanted to let these officials know there was a company in Kentucky who cared about them.”
That caring led to Kirk and Ump-Attire.com holding a collection drive. The company posted through social media and through the Kentucky and Indiana officiating communities looking for items to be donated for those six families. Kirk ended up being able to fill two SUVs. He drove them and dropped them off to Maggard, who became the go-between. Kirk also reached out to New Balance, which donated 14 pairs of shoes.
From left, Ben Kirk; Jim Kirk, president of Ump-Attire.com; Kyle Maggard and Hunter Fry.
“I kind of coordinated everything,” Maggard said. “I was on vacation (in Tennessee). I woke up Thursday morning about 10 a.m. I got on Facebook and saw postings about the flood. Once I figured out where the floods happened, I called all the guys to see if anyone needed anything.”
Because the officials all work multiple sports, Maggard worked with the companies to make sure the officials all had enough gear to cover all the sports they worked. In general, the companies donated two full sets of uniforms for the officials as well as all the equipment, gear and duffel bugs. The companies all wanted to make sure the officials had enough gear because water was shut off for nearly three weeks and doing laundry was nearly impossible.
“I made connections over 20 years with people and just wanted to help them out,” Maggard said. “They are all really good guys.”
The KHSAA was also working behind the scenes to help the officials and waived the officials’ licensing fees so they had one less thing to worry about.
While the officiating supply companies were hard at work outfitting the officials and making sure they had food, water and other essentials, another group was also assisting. UMPS CARE Charities, the official charity of MLB umpires, was working to find out how its organization could get involved.
Greg Gibson, a 24-year veteran MLB umpire who retired in October, visited the officials. Gibson, who is from southeastern Kentucky, went to lunch with the group and wanted to find out what everyone needed. Gibson had the opportunity to spend a few hours with the families to just talk about officiating and see what he could do to help.
MLB umpire Greg Gibson, far right, met with officials and their families severely impacted by the flooding.
“I’m about two hours away from where it got hit in Hazard,” Gibson said. “I was able to take a Sunday and just meet with them and hear their story. They needed a break from what they were experiencing.
“They are still struggling. They need a lot of help. I wish there was more I could do. I can use my platform as a major league umpire and bring attention to it. They’ve lost so much.”
UMPS CARE, through its Family Care Program, also made a generous donation to assist the families. The Family Care Program was established to provide short-term financial assistance to former professional baseball umpires who have fallen on hard times but has grown to include members of the “baseball family.”
“That is how UMPS CARE started,” UMPS CARE president Gary Darling said. “National League guys started the ‘Helping Hands’ fund. That is the original arm of UMPS Care, the Family Care program.”
While the road to recovery for the seven officials will be long, the ability to get back to some sense of normalcy has been a little bit of relief. It has given them a chance to get back on the field and under the Friday night lights and an opportunity to forget about the stresses for at least a couple of hours. And it is in those moments when the realization of what happened and the life lessons come to fruition.
“As bad as our situation is, there’s 39 people who lost their lives who can’t sit around and talk about it,” Jody Johnson said. “We’re healthy. We are going to build back better. You get knocked down, you get back up. That’s one lesson sports and officiating teaches you. If you get knocked down, you got to get back up and keep moving forward.”
Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.
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