‘We’re heartbroken.’ Johnson Central football coach dies from COVID-19 complications.

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Johnson Central High School football head coach Jim Matney died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19.

His sister-in-law Janette Jude announced the death of the storied Kentucky coach in a social media post.

Matney contracted COVID-19 sometime after Johnson Central played Lexington’s Henry Clay High School on Aug. 20 and has suffered complications since. He was transferred to a West Virginia hospital and suffered a stroke.

“Jim passed away peacefully after the boys were able to say their goodbyes, with Debby by his side,” Jude said in the post, referring to his wife Debby Matney. “I regret that he didn’t know how many of you cared and reached out to our family. Thank you so much. We’re heartbroken but we will get through this. We have so many of you who I know will be there for us all. Please pray for peace, comfort, and strength for us.”

The community held a prayer vigil for Matney earlier this month.

“I’m sorry to say that our beloved coach Jim Matney has passed away,” Johnson County Superintendent Thom Cochran said.

Matney, a graduate of Belfry High School in Pike County, got his head coaching start in 1984 at Sheldon Clark High School in Martin County. The Cardinals went 0-10 in his first year but won 124 games over the next 19 seasons, two of which ended in the state semifinals. He became the head coach at Johnson Central in 2004, and guided the Golden Eagles to their only state finals appearances over the course of five straight seasons, from 2015 to 2019.

Johnson Central won its first state football title in 2016, defeating Franklin-Simpson 48-0.

“I had chances to go to big schools and things, and I just felt like I needed to stay there in the mountains and give back to what coaches had given to me,” Matney said after that win. “Honest to goodness, if it hadn’t been for the coaches, teachers and preachers, I’d have probably been in jail today. I felt like I needed to stay there and give something back.”

‘Jim was an unabashed advocate for kids, especially eastern Kentucky kids,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said. “Having known him for my entire career, both personally and professionally, he embodied strong willed advocacy and an unparalleled work ethic. “

“His success in his coaching career was due to so many of these traits. But his real success wasn’t in large trophies won, but the character of a generation of students that he formed by rallying them together for a common cause and never being willing to settle for second best. To Debby and his two sons and entire family, our prayers and condolences. And may we all redouble our efforts around this vicious virus and rid it from our midst,” Tackett said.

The Golden Eagles won a second in the 2019 season, upsetting top-ranked Boyle County that year, 21-20. In the lead-up to that game, a Boyle County middle school official mocked eastern Kentucky during a pep rally, saying that “a lot of people in Johnson Central people can’t even count to 100” in predicting a final score of 100-0.

Six teams from eastern Kentucky played in that year’s state finals, and four of them won championships.

“We’re labeled sometimes as lazy and ignorant,” Matney told reporters after those comments surfaced on social media. “And I think the one thing that this really proves is that all these six teams going from the mountains is that we’re far from stupid, we’re far from lazy, we’re far from ignorant. Sometimes the size of the heart of these people here in the mountains is just overwhelming.”

Matney was 309-132 as a head coach. He’s one of only 12 football coaches in Kentucky history to amass 300 or more wins.

Matney attended Liberty University and wrestled for the Flames. He was also a wrestling coach at Sheldon Clark and Johnson Central; he guided the former to KHSAA team state titles in 1994 and 1995 and coached 30 individual champions in the sport between both schools. He was named National High School Wrestling Coach of the Year by the National Federation of High Schools in 2020.

Cochran said Matney was revered as one of the top wrestling and football coaches in the country. His vaccination status was not immediately available.

“We are thankful for his example of strength and perseverance, and want to remember his many accomplishments,” said Cochran. “ ... But above all, we ask that you would please keep Coach Matney’s wife Debby and boys in your prayers, as well as the young men on the Central football and wrestling teams.”

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