By Tim Chambers
It’s been more than three decades since he wore a Johnson County uniform but the memories made are just like yesterday. Tony Hagler left Mountain City in 1990 but the thought of hearing the nickname Longhorns still makes him proud today.
Hagler gathered All-State honors as a quarterback at Johnson County and was a four-year starter in football. He led the Longhorns to three conference titles and to the school’s first and only basketball state tournament in 1984.
This won the hearts of Johnson County fans but it wasn’t his greatest accomplishment. That one came when he chose the Longhorns over Elizabethton. He took the time to touch on one story.
“I was playing basketball my freshman year when one of their boosters approached me at a practice,” said Hagler. “He was asking me if I would like to play there and that didn’t set too well with my coaches. I thought a fight was going to break out and the police were going to be involved. Everyone up here had my back after that, especially Coach Billy Duncan.”
Hagler split time between Johnson County and Elizabethton during his high school days.
“My dad and mom were divorced so spent a lot of weekends down there where she lived. I used to play pickup ball with a lot of their players and we would play down there at the high school. I had a lot of friends and family in Elizabethton. But I wouldn’t trade my time up here for anything. The Johnson County folks were very good to me.”
Hagler remembers all the Friday night football games and how special that it was to win the conference three consecutive years. He recalled the large crowds that attended them, but it was the crowd at one basketball game that he remembered the most.
“Knox Young came to town and they stood between us going to the state tournament. I can’t find the words to describe what happened up there that night. There were no out of bounds because people were sitting up and down the sidelines. To win and give something back to the community was special for me and all the players. I’ll never forget the joy all of us felt when it was over. It was a big difference than my first two years of playing. Everything changed when Mark Blevins arrived my junior year. I don’t think we could have done it had he not taken over as head coach.”
Hagler said that it didn’t take long to figure out who the new sheriff was in town.
“I had three coaches in four years so we didn’t respect the second one very much. I saw how important it was to have someone as a head coach who knows what they are doing. Coach Blevins came in and took control of the basketball program from day one and I’m glad he did. He was tough to play for but firm. We needed discipline but we needed to play for someone who earned our respect. Coach Blevins was that guy.”
Hagler said it was fun to play with guys like Jimmy Bellamy, Brian “Shorty” Ward, Larry “Bones” Grindstaff, Jeff Morehouse, John Cunningham and David Arnold. But there’s one friend that he still has a special bond with.
“I loved playing basketball with Jeff Pardue,” said Hagler. “We were Batman and Robin and yes, he was Batman. Jeff could do it all. I got hurt in the last football game of the season and had to miss a couple of basketball games my senior year. We went to Chuckey-Doak and Jeff scored 39 points and would have got the school record had Coach Blevins left him in the game. I begged him not to take him out, but Coach thought the school record was in the fifties. I told him it was 44 and begged him again to leave Jeff in. We argued about it and he later found out that I was right. He could have gotten it easy.”
Hagler’s employment took him to Kentucky in 1990 and he says that living up there has its advantages.
“I am 90 minutes for Indianapolis and 90 minutes from Cincinnati. You can find a lot of things to do up here. Everything is so laid back in Johnson County. I don’t know if I could stand all that peace and quiet again, but maybe sometime later down the road. You never know. It’s a place that will always be special to me.”
Hagler’s dad still lives in Johnson County and his mom resides in Elizabethton.
“I like to get up that way whenever I can. I love seeing Austin and Mike Atwood and visiting places that we used to hang out at. I like to see what has changed and what has not.”
Hagler says that he, Pardue and Cunningham hook up at least once or twice each year.
“We are like the three amigos. We have a trip coming up in about two weeks. John has a cabin in North Carolina and we all love to go up there and hang out. Jeff and I have never lost touch. He is and always will be a special friend.”
Hagler also touched on one former coach that was “special” in his life.
“I owe a lot of what I accomplished to Russell Love, my middle school football coach. He kept me on the straight and narrow. He’s the one person that always told me that you got more and don’t settle for mediocre. He was a great man and great role model. He was that to a lot of people.”
Hagler’s son is a senior at Morehouse College and a member of the band. He and his current wife have been together for 17 years.
Hagler turned 50 this past March. He broke an ankle playing in the rec league a few years ago so athletics is no longer a part of his routine.
“I’m like a Toys’ R Us kid. My heart says yes but my body says no way.”
Just like his heart said “yes” back in 1981 to Johnson County and “no way” to the Cyclones.