Family over football: Jim Howe’s Kentucky journey

Barkley Truax

Most athletes of today would do anything it takes to get ahead in their respective sport.

They work their whole life to get to the pros and sign that coveted multi-million-dollar contract. But Jim Howe has made every important decision in his life based on his family.

Howe, 94, is the oldest living varsity letterman for the University of Kentucky. Before being drafted into World War II, he played football and basketball in Lexington in 1944. He returned to UK from 1947 to 1950, deciding to focus on football. It almost didn’t happen, however.

“Tennessee was my first pick,” Howe said about his college decision.

While Howe ultimately decided to go to UK, he said that Tennessee’s coach contacted him and invited him to Knoxville for a three-day visit. “I decided that I was going to Tennessee,” he said.

It was a done deal until his high school basketball coach, Ralph Carslile, who played basketball at Kentucky from 1934- 37, convinced then-UK basketball coach Adolph Rupp to come watch Howe play.

At the time, Howe was dating his soonto-be wife of 73 years, Marge. The two were in love, and Howe couldn’t bear to leave her behind. Once an offer to Lexington was extended, as they say, the rest was history.

“I didn’t want to leave [her] and go to Knoxville,” Howe said. “That’s too far away.”

Lexington was a much shorter drive home to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, which allowed him to go back and forth as he pleased throughout the semester.

As a senior at Highlands High School, Howe said he was voted the best all-around basketball player in northern Kentucky. He also made first-team All-State in football. Being a multi-sport athlete in high school, he wanted to carry that over into college and play football and basketball — something that not many UK athletes past or present can say.

“UK was always noted for basketball and always played good teams,” he said. “So I decided I would go there and play both.”

In 1944, Howe was only 17 years old by the time he enrolled at Kentucky. That summer, he began practicing with the football team under A.D. Kerwin, who was in his final year as head coach at Kentucky; Kerwin also served as UK’s seventh president.

“I really liked [Kerwin],” he said. “He was a really nice guy and we got along really well.”

Kerwin never brought Kentucky to a season where they finished higher than fifth in the SEC. At the end of Howe’s freshman season in 1944, Kewin decided that if Kentucky lost to Tennessee, he’d retire then and there.

Kentucky dropped that game against the Volunteers 14-7. The lone Wildcat touchdown was scored by Howe, which would be the last touchdown a Kentucky player would score on Tennessee for three seasons. “We never could beat them,” Howe said.

After finishing his time on the field, Howe took to the court to play for Rupp; the two didn’t get along, however.

The 1944-45 Kentucky basketball team went on a holiday basketball trip, leaving around Christmas from Lexington by train to Buffalo, New York, to play Wyoming. After defeating the Cowboys, the team left for Philadelphia, where they beat Temple. On New Year’s Day in 1945, the team traveled back to New York to play Long Island at Madison Square Garden in yet another victory.

“I was first-string, and all of a sudden, I didn’t get in [the game] one second of any of those three games,” Howe said.

Once the team returned to campus, Howe arrived late to a practice, and he and Rupp got into an argument that resulted in Howe leaving the team and basketball as a whole.

Howe called it a dirty deal. “I thought about transferring schools,” he said.

Howe realized that he still had football and his future wife to think about, so he decided to stay in Lexington. “That was probably the biggest incentive, I fell in love with the girl that I married,” he said.

On Dec. 20, 2021, the two will celebrate 74 years of marriage.

After his freshman season, he turned 18 and was drafted into World War II, but that didn’t stop him from staying active and being a part of sports.

“I was stationed at Fort McClellan in Alabama,” he said. “It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun in the Army.”

Playing football at the camp was unorganized and less memorable, but he recalls being back on the basketball court as one of his fonder memories.

Howe, who is six-foot-one or six-foot-two, was forced to guard the opposing center. “Back then, centers were only six-foot-four or six-foot-five, but they couldn’t move,” he said. “They weren’t able to dribble too well, so I was able to intercept the ball and run down the floor fast for layups.”

When he returned to UK in 1947, Bear Bryant had taken over the football program as head coach, which meant that not only did Howe play under Rupp but also Bryant as well. Howe said that he and Wah Wah Jones were the only athletes to learn under two of the greatest coaches UK has ever seen.

“When I came back, they told me, ‘We’ve got a new football coach,’” he said. When he asked who it was, his teammates told him it was Bryant. “I said, ‘Who’s Bear Bryant?’ I didn’t know anything about Bear Bryant,” Howe said.

While he didn’t know his coach prior to his time at Kentucky, the two built a relationship over Howe’s tenure. Bryant’s coaching style instilled in Howe lessons that he’s taken with him, not just on the field but throughout his life as a whole — lessons that he has shared to those around him and have helped shape him into the man he is today.

One such lesson is how to block somebody. Howe said blocking someone means getting low and pushing them off their feet — in other words, grabbing the bull by the horns.

“When his feet are off the ground, he can’t move,” he said. “That’s one thing that I’ve taught all nine of my children, and they’ve all turned out to be really successful in life.”

Under Bryant, Kentucky made their way to the Great Lakes Bowl in 1947, where Howe scored the first touchdown in UK bowl history.

“The field was icy and watery,” Howe said. “You didn’t want to step in it, it was so cold.”

Despite this, Howe didn’t once feel cold, probably because he was on fire on the field.

While Howe doesn’t remember the particular play he scored that touchdown on, he does remember a punt where he stopped a hook-and-ladder-esque return for no gain; a pivotal moment in the game, he said.

“It was a good game for me,” he said. “Any of the other guys who played in it would say the same.”

In 1950, Bryant and his Wildcats participated in yet another bowl game, this time in the high-profile Orange Bowl against Santa Clara, where they lost 21-13. Howe said Bryant overworked the team, which played a major role in the loss.

Kentucky had been ranked as high as sixth in the AP poll during the season, but entered the game ranked eleventh compared to Santa Clara’s No. 15 ranking.

Two-a-day practices in the Miami heat rendered Kentucky sluggish heading into the biggest game of Howe’s Kentucky career, where the Wildcats couldn’t get into a rhythm. At the end-of-the-year football banquet, Bryant apologized to the team for making them work so hard and costing them the victory.

After leaving UK, Howe had a chance to play professionally with the Green Bay Packers, who offered him a contract to join the team in 1950 for $4,500 per year, which he turned down. That contract would be worth $47,250 in 2021, which is $612,750 shy of the NFL’s minimum salary today.

“We were happy at the recent National American Football league meeting to have been able to place your name on our preferred negotiations list,” the invitation from Feb. 10, 1950, read.

“I turned the offer down because I was in love,” he said. “I wouldn’t change that for one second. Life is different from football and basketball; when you get married, your wife is your partner from then on out.”

Afterward, he started his own industrial heating company where he manufactures heaters. Today, he employs over 70 people and doesn’t regret turning down the offer at all.

Green Bay wasn’t the only professional avenue that Howe contemplated; he also thought about trying out for the Boston Celtics in the ‘50s. “I’m sure I would’ve made that team, I would’ve been an all-American in basketball,” he said.

While he didn’t end up pursuing his basketball dreams, everything worked out the way he wanted it.

Howe turns 95 years old on Oct. 5 this year, and as long as he can remember, family has been at the forefront of his life. Now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, Howe is surrounded by seven of his nine children.

“Family is the most important thing in your life,” he said. “Family is the number one thing in the whole world; if you take care of your family, everything will be fine.”

Howe set the tone for what it meant to be a Kentucky athlete and has left a legacy at UK and in college football; but even if that never happened, he’d be just as happy, as long as he’s surrounded by his loved ones.

“Your time in sports are going to come to an end pretty soon,” he said, offering advice to current UK athletes. “You’ve just gotta do what’s right and take care of your family. That’s with you forever; you’ve gotta stay in love, and you can’t put things off.”

Howe said it is important to do things “the right way,” and his life is a testament to that principle.