He was my idol, my hero

Published 5:54 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2017

His father and mother were contemporaries of my own parents.  I knew his parents well, though he was just in the first grade the year I graduated from high school.  Jim Farmer would go on to become a basketball star at Houston Academy, the University of Alabama and several NBA teams after being a first round pick in 1987.

Jim was standing in a group of men prior to the basketball game Saturday afternoon between the #2 ranked Houston Academy Raiders from Dothan and the Bayside Academy Admirals from near Mobile.  He pointed to my brother and said, “As a young kid, Ernest was my idol, my hero.   I wanted to be just like him”.

Jim Farmer, Victor Newman, Paul Lennicx and my brother, Ernest Ponder, were all installed into the inaugural class of the Sports Hall of Fame for their high school, Houston Academy.   At a luncheon before the basketball game, each of the former athletes was introduced by someone from their past.  The other three were introduced by teammates who had remained friends these many years.   

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Ernest was surprised by being introduced by his former high school coach, Lavon Kelley, who started the football program at HA in the early 1970’s.  Coach Kelly, whose son, Charles, has been the Defensive Coordinator for the Florida State Seminoles for the past few years, called Ernest “the greatest athlete I have ever coached”.  No small words coming from a man who has been honored many times for his own accomplishments. 

I was already at Auburn when Ernest hit his stride as a star athlete.  There was no internet or cell phone to keep up with his career.   I would occasionally make it back home for a football or basketball game, but I mostly kept up with him through the Dothan Eagle and my weekly calls home.

It was not lost on me, however, what an outstanding athlete Ernest was.  He was an exceptional running back that scored 19 touchdowns his senior year before being named a Prep All-American.  He was named All-State in both his Junior and Senior years before signing a football scholarship with the University of Georgia. 

Ernest averaged over 24 points a game during his basketball career, not just his senior year, but over his entire four years as a starter.  He frequently scored more than 50 points in a game and this was before the 3 point shot.  He was also named All-State in basketball during his senior year. 

Ernest was not just a good athlete.   One of his many awards his senior year was being named the Top Scholar Athlete for his class.  However, it was Coach Kelly that reminded me of one of my favorite memories of Ernest during this time.

My brother was invited to play in the State All-Star Game in both football and basketball, an honor that few, if any, at the time had received.  At the time, the state had a rule that no more than one person from the same high school could play in an All-Star game.  For some reason, you could not play in the All-Star game in both sports.

Ernest went to Coach Kelly and told him he wanted to play in the All-Star Basketball Game, rather than the football game.  That would allow his teammate, Richard Stabler, who was an excellent athlete himself, to play in the All-Star Football Game.   

Injuries at UGA caused Ernest’s football career to end before he had a chance to achieve the same success in the SEC.  He carries three vertebrae in his back from an anonymous donor that finally allowed him to stand straight without pain. 

But Ernest’s gesture to his teammate in choosing to play the All-Star Game in basketball told the real story of this man, my brother.   He has a heart that big.  It was and still is his greatest gift and his greatest talent. 

As I watched grown men walk up to him and tell him how they had always wanted to meet him, and how they remembered his athletic abilities over 40 years later, I was struck how you touch peoples’ lives even when you are a teenager.  He was Jim Farmer’s hero back then.   He is my hero now.