Twenty-eight years ago, when Sean Wilkins was a senior at Franklin County High School, this was the game every football player looked forward to, the one local football fans had circled on their calendars.
Not much has changed since then.
FCHS and Western Hills meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday at WHHS, and Wilkins has a unique perspective on the rivalry. A 1987 graduate of Franklin County, he’s been an assistant football coach for the Wolverines since 2007.
“It was pretty new and pretty mean-spirited back then,” Wilkins said of the rivalry during his high school playing days. “I played against Coach (Mark) Barrett and Coach (Paul) Curry (members of the WHHS coaching staff).
“When I came over to this staff it was extra weird because I’d played against those two. I got my coaching start in 1989 as a freshman and varsity assistant coach at Franklin County, and I coached Chris Tracy when he was at County.”
Tracy is now the head coach at FCHS.
When Wilkins was in high school WHHS and Franklin County played each other twice a year — “one for fun and one for the district,” Wilkins said.
“It was one of the most intense games of the season. It meant more than anything, and the second game could have implications on whether one of us moved on.
“Physically it was the most hard-hitting game of the year. I still have scars from those games.”
But those scars don’t keep Wilkins from getting excited about the matchup.
“We play each other once a year,” he said, “and it’s like Christmas, when you wait to open that present all year.”
It’s like that for the fans, too, who pack the stands every year.
“You’ll have 4,000 to 6,000 people in the stands,” Wilkins said.
“They’ll be tailgating, wearing their school colors, talking. It’s what makes this a football town.
“In the second game my senior year it was pouring down rain. The place was packed. We won 22-0, it was raining, and nobody left.”
Wilkins began coaching on the west side of town at Bondurant Middle School when his son Matthew played football for the Braves. Matthew played baseball at WHHS, and Wilkins’ younger son, Christian, played football at Bondurant and Western Hills.
“My sons helped me transition over here,” Wilkins said. “The fact that my son was on the team, and coaching my boys was always my dream. Coaching both boys helped the transition.”
But there were times it was tough. Wilkins joined the Wolverine coaching staff in 2007, and his first game came in 2008. That year WHHS played at Franklin County’s Benny Watkins Field.
“I walked out and saw some of my old teachers out there,” he said. “Mr. (Terry) Johnson was on the PA. He announced my games, all my family’s games, and now he was announcing my kid’s game.
“This was the field I played on, I bled on. I looked at all the fans in the stands, and it felt really weird.
“I have deep roots at County. My family went there, I graduated from there, I got my coaching start there.”
Wilkins has deep roots at Western Hills, too, having stayed on the coaching staff after Christian graduated in 2012.
“To be honest with you, I come from a whole family of educators,” said Wilkins, who works for the City of Frankfort, “and coaching kind of fulfills that.
“It’s not a job, it’s who I am. I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the fulfillment … teaching is a big part of coaching, and at the end of the day I never get tired of it.”
Wilkins believes the dedication, hard work and sacrifice football calls for can benefit student-athletes when their playing days end, and he’s seen it first hand.
“My son (Christian) was at college and was studying for three finals, and he sent me a text saying ‘I was going to text you whining about staying up all night to study, but then I thought about football, all the camps and all I’ve gone through and I thought this is simple.’
“I said ‘you’re right,’ and he texted back ‘thanks for coaching me, Dad. I’m going back to study.’
“That makes it all worthwhile.”