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Dan Weber’s Just Sayin’: When the Hall of Fame is a Hall of Family here in Northern Kentucky

Without fail, when the time comes for the monthly inductions into the Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame, as it did Wednesday, the talk is of family. The inductees’ own family, their extended families – the players they coached or played with, even the ones they played against.

Just one big family when it comes to Northern Kentucky sports, as a capacity crowd heard at The Gardens of Park Hills from one after another of the new Hall of Famers as they spoke of their focus on family.

*** Robert “Bo” Kemper literally was family, as the brother-in-law of NKSHOF VP and Master of Ceremonies Ken Shields. “I think there was some alcohol involved,” he kidded about his selection.

The 1962 Covington Catholic grad had to work his way through high school so his sports, until his 24 years of competitive softball, came in Knothole and in the pickup games at the empty lot next to Ninth District School.

Ted Volpenhein, President Joe Brennan, Robert (Bo) Kemper, Glenn Coyle, Gary Akers, VP, Ken Shields and Eric Neuhaus.

“If I was the best player on the team, we probably weren’t a very good team,” he said. But “Bo” also gave much to sports developing an instructional basketball program for first- and second-graders at Villa Madonna Academy. “I tried to teach them it wasn’t about me, it was about us. I tried to input that to the kids I coached.”

*** Gary Akers was a bit outside the Northern Kentucky family when he came here, a native of Betsy Layne in Eastern Kentucky. He recalls the legendary Ben Flora offering him a job on the phone, but reminding him he’d have to actually get himself up to Bellevue to accept it. “If you show up, it’s yours,” Flora told him.

At his alma mater, Akers had self-funded as a coach a baseball program that had been discontinued when he was a player with the school contributing two baseballs, no uniforms or equipment. On his own, he remembers buying two baseballs at the sporting goods store in Prestonsburg and then one of two things would happen: “Either the covers would come off the balls – or it would get dark.”

In his 28 years at Bellevue, Akers coached both basketball and baseball and on occasion, his small school Tigers were more than competitive.

*** Glenn Coyle could really talk about family since his 98-year-old mother – and a whole bunch of his family — were here to witness the former Dixie Heights’ basketball star’s Hall of Fame moment. “Sports ran naturally in our family,” he said of the Crescent Springs-based sporting clan, most of whom went to Dixie Heights.

“We played every day, we didn’t have I-phones, I don’t think it would have mattered . . . and I shot every night until 11 o’clock, day, took hundreds, thousands of shots. It was sports all the way through . . . I made a lot of friends. The biggest thing I got out of sports were all the friendships.”

*** Ted Volpenhein had the bad luck to finish as a late-developing 6-foot-6 kid before graduating at CovCath when the Colonels had starters 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9. The worst day in his life when he didn’t see his name on the final list of varsity players turned out to be an inspiration to him. “I was devastated,” he said. But not defeated.

Luckily, CovCath teacher and then-Villa Madonna assistant Danny Tieman saw him scoring 40 points a game in the intramurals and encouraged him to walk-on there. Ted did that and much more, leading the then-Rebels in scoring and rebounding in back-to-back seasons and scoring the game-winning basket in the school’s lone win over a Division I program – Xavier – in a game where he scored 22 points.

“That’s my most memorable game,” he said, “it was 50 years ago.” He thanked his family – his uncle Charlie Volpenhein was head of the Covington Parks and Recreation Department – for giving him his first summer job as lifeguard at the West Covington pool. “The bad news was I couldn’t swim,” Ted said. “The good news, the pool was only four feet deep.”

Ted came from good stock. His dad, and fellow Hall of Famer Ed Volpenhein, was the all-time great sponsor of Knothole baseball teams with his Cottage AC right next to the main gate at Covington Ball Park. Ted’s own kids, a son and daughter, didn’t have to walk-on since both became Division I college basketball players.

*** Eric Neuhaus finished off the inductees with what had to be a record number of thank you’s from the distance runner who earned honors at the Flying Pig and ran in the Boston Marathon — to family, friends, to all his own coaches, all the runners he’s coached and run with at St. Henry High School, where they won six team state championships and had 16 individual state champions. Then at Wilmington College as a runner and the University of Cincinnati as a coach.

But he started with his parents, who taught him everything he needed to know about hard work and sports, he said. “This is your award. I am merely reaping the benefits . . . You’ll never know what a mark you left on me. Thanks for the memories.”

*** And finally, long-time Northern Kentuckian and former Cincinnati Enquirer sports writer/columnist and baseball historian John Erardi talked about the inside story of going to Cuba for his latest book on Tony Perez. His earlier works among eight in all – Crosley Field and The Big Red Dynasty – were honored as among the top baseball books of the year.

One thing John wanted to make clear, in a line all too familiar to those of us who once toiled in newspapers: “I wasn’t retired from the Enquirer, I was retired by the Enquirer.” The family theme was a big part of the Perez book, John learned, when he found out that Tony did not want to work with him on it.

As he learned from Tony’s son, Eduardo, an ESPN baseball analyst who also could not get his dad to work with him on a story he was doing from Cuba. “He didn’t want to relive the scars,” Eduardo told John. Because of the bad relations between the U.S. and Castro’s Cuba, “Tony had to give up his family for a decade after starting his minor league career,” Erardi said of Tony’s 10 years not seeing his family.

Which is what it’s all about in Northern Kentucky sports.

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