Ashton Hagans had already won before he stepped foot onto the court at Kansas City’s Sprint Center for the Kentucky Wildcats’ Sweet 16 game with Houston Friday night.
He won because, while playing on the biggest stage of his career to that point, he didn’t forget where he came from, and he didn’t forget how special the place he came from is.
If the former Newton point guard wouldn’t have reclassified as a senior, he likely would’ve been celebrating a state championship with the Rams. Instead, he was getting set to help the bluest of blue blood college hoops programs take the next step toward national championship number nine.
Kentucky squeaked by upstart Houston 62-58. But Hagans’ first win Friday night came by paying homage to his high school alma mater’s principal, Shannon Buff.
If you’re from Covington and Newton County then you probably know the significance of why Hagans wrote the #BuffTuff hashtag on his wrist tape before Friday’s game. If you’re not from here, let me bring you up to speed.
Almost three weeks ago, Buff decided to use her Facebook page to tell her own story. Buff has breast cancer. She talked about it at length on that Facebook video, expressing the expected mixture of fear and faith of the outcome.
From there, Newton County started doing what Newton County does in times of crises.
And the support began coming in droves, on and off social media from in and out of Buff’s Newton High family. But make no mistake, it was Buff’s beloved “Ram Family” that touched her to the point of tears.
“I have been so moved by the outpouring of love and support,” Buff said. “I always feel so blessed to be in this community. But when you are fighting something, it’s unbelievable how people come through. It makes you feel like you have an army behind you pushing you forward.”
Hagans’ gesture was one of the last showings of support to Buff on Friday — the last day of school before spring break and one of Buff’s last days of her school year as she gets prepared to kick her fight to beat breast cancer into high gear.
At this point, stories of Newton County’s response to traumatic moments in the lives of its citizens and workers have become like the sweetest of broken records — the kind that gets stuck on the hottest or most impactful lyric of your favorite song. The kind of story you never get tired of hearing. The kind of story I never get tired of telling.
And although everybody, including myself, would rather Buff remain in her Newton High office in perfect health for the duration of the school year, this difficulty provides us another opportunity to take a snapshot of the best this community has to offer.
Nobody cares about athletic rivalries or demographic differences between the schools or between the various segments of the community when it comes time to show love in the moments when love is most needed. And if those things don’t matter then, why should they matter in other, less serious or life threatening times?
Buff’s diagnosis isn’t the only time such a rallying of support has happened this school year.
Of course we saw — and still see — how Covington and the Newton County community came out to massively undergird the family of Covington PD Officer Matt Cooper. But the same thing happened for Eastside boys basketball coach Brent Wren.
The school year’s athletic calendar hasn’t been completed yet, so there’s still time for Newton County to wow me yet again. But one of the most touching displays of camaraderie and support I’ve seen this year came from the #WrenStrong movement.
Before the school year began, Wren was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Stage four. And although he didn’t physically touch the sidelines to coach his team, his spirit was there. And not just on the Eastside bench.
All three of the county’s GHSA schools’ boys and girls basketball teams rocked #WrenStrong warmup apparel before games at certain times throughout the season, and definitely during the times when Eastside, Newton and Alcovy teams played against each other.
Opposing coaches wore #WrenStrong shirts and wristbands even as they coached the games. Newton even opened up its school gym to host a Dungeon Boxing Gym boxing showcase fundraiser in support of the Eastside coach. It was a show of solidarity that once again proved the kind of stuff this place is made of.
On Sunday night, Hagans’ freshman season at UK came to an end at the hands of an Auburn squad that’s writing a Cinderella story of epic proportions thanks to an improbable journey to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. But there he was winning again on the classy tributes tip as he donned pink kicks on the court, no doubt in another nod of support for Buff.
His bio says he’s from Cartersville. It’s his birthplace and pre-middle school dwelling. But through such #BuffTuff gestures, he showed his heart — at least a large part of it — remains in Covington and Newton County.
And why wouldn’t it be?
This place has a way of owning you — of claiming you as its own, even when you weren’t looking for that to happen. When I arrived here as sports editor almost three years ago, I knew literally nothing about Newton County except what I was told by others — that I would be pleasantly surprised to find out how much of a hidden gem it is athletically.
And it has surprised me, and made this job one of the funnest in my little sports journalism career. But the most pleasant surprise, by far, has more to do with the collective heart of this place than its sports — and more specifically, how this county’s sports community embodies that heart, almost effortlessly and on a regular basis.
I wasn’t at Newton High Friday when the student body and school staff gave Buff her tearful send off. But watching the videos alone gave me goosebumps. Yeah, I’m a sucker for such shows of support, especially when it’s so easy to believe the exaggerated reports and suggestions that we’re all supposed to hate each other, be suspicious of each other while remaining irreparably segmented.
As a community, and as a society at large, do we still have some “unity work” to do? Yes. Plenty. But these moments should remind us of what we can be if we keep the same thoughts we have for each other in times of crisis in the forefront of our minds during times of good health, normalcy and prosperity.
As for Buff and Wren, we continue to pray for full healing, emotional and spiritual strength and complete recovery. And just in case the Newton High class of 2019 was wondering, Friday likely won’t be the last time you saw your principal.
“I am not missing graduation for anything,” Buff said. “They would have to tie me down. I love those kids and faculty so much.”
Without a doubt, I know that love is mutual. Not just at Newton High School, but throughout all of Newton County.