|Clem Fennel III, Clem Fennell IV and Clem Fennell II|
Highlands High School has rich football history. The high school's first football practice was held in 1915. In 1916, Highlands won its first title: the Northern Kentucky championship. When many think of Fort Thomas, they think of football. And when many think of the Fort Thomas Junior Football League—the place were almost all Highlands High School football players learn the the sport—they think of the Fennell family.
This year, the Fort Thomas Junior Football League is honoring the Fennell family, specifically commemorating Clem Fennell II with CF decals on every Fort Thomas Junior Football League player's helmet. Fennell II started the Fort Thomas Junior Football League, along with Homer Rice and several other gentlemen, close to 60 years ago.
|Every Fort Thomas Junior Football League player will be sporting a CF decal this year.|
The idea came from Tom New, the Fort Thomas Junior Football League's vice president of registration and rules. New played in the Fort Thomas Junior Football League and for Highlands High School, where he graduated in 1983.
New says the entire Fennell family has had a strong presence in the League for many years, including Kent Fennell, Danny Fennell and Jenny Schlosser. So New, along with fellow board members, also came up with the idea of offering an annual $2,000 to $2,500 scholarship, in the Fennell name.
"The criteria is simple," New says. "You've had to play in the Junior Football League, just one year even, and graduate from Highlands High School."
To pay for the scholarship there will be a $2 charge for adults at every Fort Thomas Junior Football League game—admission for children will be free.
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In addition to the decal and introduction of the scholarship, the Fort Thomas Junior Football League also is honoring the entire Fennell family with a ceremony after the 8th-grade game, Saturday, September 17, around 10:30 a.m. All are welcome to attend.
"We're an instructional league, not competitive, and we've really stayed true to what Mr. Fennell and Homer Rice wanted to instill in the league," New says. "A lot of leagues are very competitive, but we really work on fundamentals, tackling, blocking, things like that. It's been said many times the success of Highlands High School is because of the Junior Football League."
New says, on average, the Fort Thomas Junior Football League has 300 to 400 kids who participate each year, including girls.
|The Fort Thomas Junior Football League, today.|
"I believe that my grandpa's driving force behind starting the league was to get young kids involved in a quality team sport that can teach them some of the important values that the game can teach you," Clem Fennell IV says. "Also, with a strong love for Highlands, I think my grandfather knew that getting kids into organized football in grade school was going to help them learn the game at an early age and be better high school players."
Fennell II died in 2014.
Fennell IV's father and mother both grew up in Fort Thomas. Clem Fennell III, a 1968 graduate of Highlands High School, was inducted into Highlands High School Athletic Hall of Fame this year for his time on the football field. Fennell III died in July.
Fennell IV says his father's induction was an honor. "There are so many impressive people who have been involved in Highlands athletics and for them to honor my dad means so much to our whole family," he says. "He was very devoted to community involvement including the Highlands athletics programs. I'm really happy for him even though he's not here to experience it."
Fennell IV says his dad loved everything about football, including watching at the high school, college and little league levels.
"My dad played at Highlands and UC [University of Cincinnati], he was a great punter," Fennell IV says. One of Fennell IV's favorite stories of his dad was when he returned the opening kickoff against Ashland for a touchdown in the playoffs. "After scoring, he celebrated by tossing the ball into the crowd, which is so unlike my dad."
After his playing days, Fennell III followed his father's footsteps, becoming very involved in the Fort Thomas Junior Football League. "He coached for years before getting married, then again while I was young and playing in the league," Fennell IV says. "Even when he wasn't coaching he stayed very involved in other ways such as serving as referee."
Fennell IV says his dad also coached the freshman team one year, and they went undefeated and un-scored upon, a feat he was always proud of.
"He liked to do fun things that would make little league teams feel like they were 'big time,'" Fennell IV says. "For example, we would have film sessions every once in a while, or for the championship game of the freshman team he coached, him and the coaching staff wore suits and ties—stuff that he just thought would make it fun."
Fennell IV says everyone in his family played football and loved the game. "Most of the conversations at all of our family gatherings was/is dominated by football, particularly Highlands football—the current team, old stories and occasionally a debate about whose team was better," he says. "My dad and grandpa always preached to me the values that football can teach you and how those values related to challenges you face in life."
Family stories abound. "I do remember my grandpa telling me one story of how a friend of a player that wasn't originally allowed to play because his mom thought the game was too dangerous," Fennell IV says. "He ended up playing only to have one of the downs markers be dropped on him and cutting open his head pretty good. I think my grandpa had to do some explaining that this happened without the boy even in the game."
Fennell IV played football at Highlands, graduating in 2001. "I was lucky enough to be a part of some great teams, winning the state championship my sophomore, junior and senior years," he says. "I was not as good of a player as my dad and grandpa, but did walk on at [University of] Kentucky playing there for five years. Like the Clems before me, I, too, have always loved football. The game itself is the ultimate team sport and so much fun to play."
Fennell IV lives in Fort Thomas, with his wife, two daughters and a third daughter due soon. "I may have the first girl Highlands football player," he says.
Each start of a new football season always brings up a lot of memories, both for Fennell IV and his entire family. "With both of them passing away in the past couple of years, those memories really come back when I'm up at the school during football season," Fennell IV says. "The game is so much about the connections you make with fellow players and coaches. In addition to those connections I was lucky enough to come home and have a deeper relationship with my dad and grandpa because we all loved the game."
Fennell IV says both his father and grandfather were very humble, and probably wouldn't have allowed the ceremony to take place, if they were still alive. "But they'd be grateful that Tom New is so thoughtful in wanting to do so."
Fennell IV says he, his wife and kids will be there, along with his mom, sister, grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins. "We all certainly reminisce of football stories about my dad and grandpa, and I think I can speak for the family in saying that we're proud of the commitment they made to the Junior Football League and it's really awesome that the league wants to recognize that.