U.S. bridge named after collegiate football coaching legend
As the sun shined over the Licking River Saturday morning, a crowd gathered to honor a native son of Falmouth.
John Ayers Merritt was born in 1926 and spent his early years growing up in Falmouth. He would leave to eventually one day become one of the all-time great college football coaches.
On Saturday, September 21, many of his family returned to Falmouth along with friends local and from out of the area to see the bridge over the Licking River on U.S. 27 named in his honor.
State Representative Mark Hart opened the ceremony after a presentation of colors and the Anthem which was sung by Adam Crozier.
Former Falmouth Mayor Jim Hammond briefly discussed the legacy of Coach Merritt and some of his accomplishments.
The daughter of Coach Merritt, Mrs. Bonita Traughber, spoke, thanking all for attending and how proud her father would have been of this great honor.
Reverend Harry Crozier then shared a story about visiting Coach Merritt and led prayer blessing the occasion before the official unveiling of the John Ayers Merritt Bridge took place.
The day was about remembrance as many stood and told stories from days gone by or cousins just catching up with each other after years of not seeing one another.
The coaches and players from the Pendleton County High School Football team attended the ceremony, and it was interesting to hear the players talk among themselves when they learned Coach Merritt had won seven national titles.
A reception was held after the unveiling at the Pendleton County Library for all those that attended. Many in the community played a part in seeing the recognition come to a fruition and were in attendance including former Mayor Jimmy Hammond, local historian Fran Carr, Harry Crozier, John Peoples, Rep. Mark Hart, and County Judge Executive David Fields.
Coach Merritt played his college days at Kentucky State at the guard position, earning the nickname “Big John.” He went on to receive his Master’s at the University of Kentucky and was working on a Doctorate at the University of Cincinnati when he was hired as head football coach by Jackson State.
At Jackson State, Coach Merritt compiled a record of 66-33-4 with back-to-back appearances in the Orange Bloosom Bowl in the early 1960’s.
After 10 years at the helm of the Tigers, Coach Merritt took over as head coach for Tennessee State where he would compile a record of 172-33-7, which included seven Black College National Championships with five undefeated seasons. Tennessee State never had a losing season under Coach Merritt.
Among his players, he was known as “Poppa Coach,” and 84 of them under Coach Merritt were drafted into the National Football League, including Hall of Fame members Ed “Too Tall” Jones (Dallas Cowboys) and Richard Dent (Chicago Bears).
Coach Merritt was inducted to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 1994 as well as the Tennessee State Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Nashville renamed a street in his honor in 1982 to John A. Merritt Boulevard.
Tennessee State in 1999 started hosting the John Merritt Classic, an annual game that honors his memory as well as provides funds for scholarships for students at Tennessee State.
Mrs. Bonita Traughber remembers fondly as a child making trips back to Falmouth with her father, saying, “Oh, we come back to Falmouth all the time. It would take us about 17 hours to drive. In fact, we usually came twice a year in the summer and alternate Christmas between here and Ashland. My mother’s family was from there. We would get in the car and drive up from Mississippi. We would drop him off here in Falmouth, and he would stay with his mom and dad because he was taking classes at University of Cincinnati while my mom would take us on to Ashland while she took classes at Marshall University. Many days, he would hitchhike across that bridge, getting rides north to his classes.
“When he went to coach at Tennessee State, I was known as a college brat because we lived on campus. I can remember going to his practices. I would be on the field and do anything he needed, he would send me remember going to his practices I would be on the field and do anything he needed, he would send me to go get something and then we travelled with the team.”
John Ayers Merritt’s legacy and connection to Falmouth has not been well known to many in our community. Hopefully, now when many drive across that bridge where Coach Merritt used to hitch hike every day they will see his name and maybe learn the history of one of our native sons.