It’s early September. Football fever is everywhere.
If you’re not from the Middletown area then you’re probably unaware that early September also marks the death of a local football legend.
It was on September 4, 1981, that longtime high school football Coach Jerry Harkrader died after a lengthy illness at age 47.
Normally, early September ‘81 would have been a busy, exciting time for the beloved coach. As longtime Middletown Journal Sports Editor Jerry Nardiello reported : “Ironically his death came on the day when high schools are preparing to open a new season” of football.
Preparing his teams for fall football was as natural to Harkrader as playing on the gridiron. After all, he had spent many a day there as an “outstanding runner and linebacker” for the Middletown High School “Middies.” He also distinguished himself as an Ohio State University “Buckeye” under the tutelage of Coach Woody Hayes.
Later, as a high school football coach, Harkrader won the admiration and respect of the local football community as well as an impressive number of games.
During his 20-plus year tenure at Fenwick High School, Harkrader became the first coach in the state to take his team to the football playoffs five times and the first to win back-to-back titles, Nardiello recalled.
Under his lead, the Falcons won 151 games, lost 32 and tied 4.
Coach Harkrader’s Fenwick legacy not only impacted the sons of other people. His own sons literally carried the family’s football tradition onto the Falcons’ field.
However, with time comes change. In the early 1980s, Coach Harkrader was preparing to make the transition from the classrooms and locker rooms of Fenwick to those of Lemon-Monroe High School in Monroe, Ohio.
But fate intervened.
Prior to becoming head coach for the Hornets, Harkrader was hospitalized. The eventual diagnosis : a malignant brain tumor. It would become a hurdle the successful Coach could not overcome.
Upon learning of Harkrader’s death, those with deep roots in the Middletown area began to reminisce about “Harkie” as he was sometimes called :
That he was a standout on the Middletown Middies football team, coached by the legendary “Tiger” Ellison and Stan Lewis.
That he was president of both his senior and junior classes at Middletown High and that his activities there included Boys’ State, Hi-Y Council, M Club, National Honor Society, Student Council and track.
That, playing under the keen eye of Coach Hayes, he scored a touchdown for the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 1954 Rose Bowl game against Southern California.
Fond memories of Coach Harkrader are too numerous to mention here.
But today his memory lives on at the Fenwick High School campus on Ohio 122, Franklin.
His name appears with that of longtime basketball Coach John “Butch” Rossi on the exterior of the school’s athletic complex.
Information for this article was derived from a September 4, 1981, Middletown Journal article by Sports Editor Jerry Nardiello, as well as the Middletown High School 1952 “Optimist” yearbook.
Microfilm copies of the Middletown Journal as well as actual copies of Middletown High School Optimists are available at MidPointe’s Middletown branch, 125 South Broad Street.
Newspaper articles may also be found via www.midpointelibrary.org > eLibrary > Research Databases > Magazines and Newspapers > Newspaper Archive.
Middletown High School Optimist yearbooks can also be found at www.midpointelibrary.org > eLibrary > Digital Archives > The Optimist, Middletown City School District High School yearbooks.