Elbert Couch parks his white Ford Bronco next to another emblem
of American infamy: the Richard M. Nixon Recreation Center in
Hyden, Ky. "There's two kinds around here," Couch says. "There's
Republicans, and there's Damn Democrats. I'm a Damn Democrat,
but we're outnumbered four to one in this county."
This is Leslie County, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky's
Cumberland Plateau. It was here, in 1978, that Nixon made his
first postexile public appearance, for the dedication of a grand
gymnasium that honors his presidency. "Everybody knew us because
of Nixon," says Leslie County High School basketball coach Ron
Stidham, standing on his home court inside the Tricky Dick. "But
that notoriety aside, Tim Couch has made Hyden--well, if not a
household name exactly, at least people know where we are again."
Tim Couch, Elbert's son, is the best high school basketball
player in Kentucky. He led the state in scoring last season,
with 36 points a game as a Leslie County High junior. He is
expected to be named Mr. Basketball of the Bluegrass after this
season, which is why most Division I basketball coaches want to
upholster Couch in their school colors come 1996.
Trouble is, Tim is also the most highly sought after football
recruit in the nation, one who almost certainly will break the
national record for career passing yardage this Friday night in
the state quarterfinals. He is 50 yards away from breaking the
mark of 11,700 set two years ago by Josh Booty of Evangel
Christian High in Shreveport, La., and Couch needs only five
touchdown passes to break that national record as well. "Couch
is the best quarterback prospect I've seen in 17 years," drools
Tom Lemming, who publishes a national recruiting newsletter.
"Better than Jeff George, Ron Powlus and Peyton Manning. He
reminds recruiters of John Elway." ESPN draft nitwit Mel Kiper
Jr. agrees and considers Tim, who is 6'5" and 215 pounds, one of
the best pro quarterback prospects in the nation. And to think
that Tim is just 18.
"Everybody around here is just so happy," Tim says of Hyden
(pop. 375). "They all want to see me go to the NFL and become a
big star. It gives me a lot of pride, the way such a small place
has rallied around one person."
Through it all Tim has remained unfailingly polite, genuinely
humble and undeniably charismatic. Everywhere one goes in
Kentucky, people talk about the closely- cropped Couch. He's
like Gump, with a pump fake. And there's another important
difference: "He's an A-B student," says Leslie County High
principal Omus Shepherd. "In fact, to see him in school, you
wouldn't know he's an athlete, you wouldn't know him from any
other student. I don't know of any problem we've ever had out of
The boy was excused from class one afternoon early in the
football season when Governor Brereton Jones came to Hyden to
make Tim an honorary Kentucky Colonel, one of the youngest
recipients of the state's equivalent of knighthood. The next
evening the colonel threw for three touchdowns and ran for two
more in a 34-27 win at Woodford County High, after which several
opponents wanted a piece of him. "I saw them coming at me and
thought we were in a fight," says Tim. Instead, they wanted his
The next day Tim drove 124 miles to Lexington to watch the
Kentucky-Louisville football game with his folks. En route, they
stopped at a diner. Recently retired Los Angeles Laker center
and former Kentucky star Sam Bowie approached Tim's table to say
how much he has enjoyed following Tim's career. Emboldened,
Adolph Rupp's grandson Chip, who also happened to be in the
diner, did the same. After the game the Couches repaired to the
Lexington home of Miami Heat guard and ex-Wildcat star Rex
Chapman, who simply wanted to meet Tim.
"I told him he was my hero growing up," Tim says of Chapman. "I
told him how I dreamed in the backyard about filling his shoes
some day at Kentucky."
"Tim used to shoot baskets outside for hours in the winter,
until his fingers were bleeding," says Tim's mother, Janice. "I
always had to make him come in before he got frostbite."
Come summer, he would throw footballs all afternoon with his
older--by four years--brother, Greg. Tim always pretended to be
Joe Montana or Dan Marino. Now, Marino aspires to play with
Couch. "I hope I'm still in the league when you get here," the
Miami Dolphin quarterback told Couch when the two met in
Cincinnati, where the Dolphins played the Bengals on Oct. 1.
Tim never played baseball. "He told me in ninth grade, 'Dad, I
don't want to stand there and let them throw a ball 60 miles an
hour at my head,'" recalls Elbert, who is director of
transportation for the county school system. When Greg became
the quarterback at Leslie County High, Tim attended practices.
"In fifth and sixth grade he was throwing the ball like a
rocket," says Eagle football coach Joe Beder, an assistant at
the time. "You knew then he would be the quarterback here."
Couch made the high school team as a seventh-grader, backed up
his brother as an eighth-grader and became the starting
quarterback as a freshman, when Greg went to play football at
Eastern Kentucky (where, after redshirting one season, he's now
a junior reserve). Tim points to the utility pole in the front
yard of his family's comfortable two-story home. "When Greg went
to college, I used to throw at that light pole," he says. "I'd
take a five-step drop and try to hit it as if it was a receiver
on the run, 30 feet out." Then he would place two garbage cans
next to each other and throw "little fade passes" over the first
defending can and into the second. "There's not much else to do
in Hyden," says Todd Crawford, a physician's assistant who works
with the Leslie County team.
So the Hydenites watch Couch. County judge-executive Onzie
Sizemore was a star high school quarterback in Hyden in the
early 1970s. "Tim is the best athlete I've ever seen in
Kentucky," says the judge, deliberating on Tim down at the
county court- and jailhouse. "He's the best thing that ever
happened to Hyden. I just hope he doesn't run for county
judge-executive, because then I'm out of a job."
They come from all over Kentucky to see Tim play. On Friday
nights cars back up for a mile at the toll booth that guards the
Hyden exit of the Daniel Boone Parkway. And when the Eagles play
an away game, says Rick Hensley, whose son Ricky is Tim's
favorite target, "last one outta town turns out the lights."
There is a sign outside of town that reads HYDEN: HOME OF
OSBORNE BROS. Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, the Osbornes wrote
Rocky Top, which is the football anthem at Tennessee, whose
Volunteers are unanimously reviled in Kentucky. When Tim
engineered a season-opening 44-42 upset of Fort Thomas Highlands
High in Lexington, he came home to find that benevolent vandals
had altered the sign so it read HYDEN: HOME OF TIM COUCH.
This season Couch has thrown for nearly 3,500 yards and 37
touchdowns in 12 games. Clearly, his numbers are preposterous.
Last year he completed 75.1% of his passes, a national record.
Against Clark County High in the 1994 season opener, he
completed 25 of 27 passes. Against Shelby Valley High this fall,
he threw for 533 yards and seven scores and was pulled four
minutes into the second half. Likewise, in October he played
only one half against one of Kentucky's top-ranked teams,
Hopkinsville, when the badly outmanned Eagles were bused seven
hours each way and lost 61-0.
Even that defeat didn't cool the ardor of the Couch potatoes, as
Hyden's residents have come to call themselves. As he drives
home from football practice in his Mercury Cougar on an autumn
Thursday, Couch waves like a parade marshal to every passing
pedestrian, then enters his house and is handed the telephone.
"Tennessee," says Janice, and Tim chats cordially with Volunteer
football coach Phillip Fulmer. Bobby Bowden, Terry Bowden, Lou
Holtz and Joe Paterno check in weekly as well.
There is enormous pressure on him to play football at Kentucky,
and the Cats are on Couch like cats on a couch. Here is a
front-page Lexington Herald-Leader headline: COUCH TO WATCH UK
SCRIMMAGE. Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino met with Tim
and promised him a spot on the basketball team if he signs to
play football for the Wildcats. And Kentucky football coach Bill
Curry, although forbidden by the NCAA to talk about recruits,
called him "the best high school prospect I've ever seen." Every
Omus, Onzie and Elbert in Kentucky expects Tim to make the Cats
an instant football power. "I may be crazy, but I believe Tim
Couch is good enough to get this program back to the Sugar
Bowl," writes columnist Dave Barker in The Cats' Pause, a
Kentucky sports weekly. "Yes, that's right. From 1-10 to 10-1."
"Lord God, if Tim goes to UK they'll be namin' babies for him
before he plays his first game," says Elbert's friend Vic
DeSimone. "Every kid in Kentucky will wear a number 2 jersey."
DeSimone--a candy manufacturer's rep who has dropped by Leslie
County High to chat--furrows his brow before giving voice to
every Kentuckian's darkest fear. "You wouldn't let him go to
Tennessee, would you?" he asks Elbert. "I mean, the boy can go
to Liberty Baptist and still become a pro."
"Have to take the Fifth Amendment on that one," says Elbert, who
later concedes: "If Tim does go out of state, we'll have to move
out of state."
Wherever Couch goes, if he plays basketball at all in college,
it will be as an afterthought to football, and a great many
disappointed people will be left in his wake. "It's hard for an
18-year-old kid to tell a coach whom he's grown up adoring that
he isn't going to play for him," says Tim, who is still
considering Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Ohio State
and (sigh) Tennessee. "I'm thinking about it all the time," he
says of his impending decision. "Even if I'm just lying in bed,
it never leaves my mind."
He has made certain of that. Taped above the light switch in his
bedroom is a two-sentence note from a football assistant at
Northwestern. "Your talent is God's gift to you," it reads.
"What you do with your talent is your gift back to God."
It is the last thing that Tim sees each night when he turns out
COLOR PHOTO: PETE SOUZA When Couch takes the field, most of the 375 residents of his old Kentucky home are close at hand. [Fans watching Tim Couch]
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Couch has charged ahead this fall, passing for nearly 3,500 yards. and 37 touchdowns in a dozen games. [Tim Couch running with football]