Come summer, he would throw footballs all afternoon with his older—by four years—brother, Greg. Tim always pretended to be Joe Montana or Dan Marino. Now, Marino aspires to play with Couch. "I hope I'm still in the league when you get here," the Miami Dolphin quarterback told Couch when the two met in Cincinnati, where the Dolphins played the Bengals on Oct. 1.
Tim never played baseball. "He told me in ninth grade, 'Dad, I don't want to stand there and let them throw a ball 60 miles an hour at my head," recalls Elbert, who is director of transportation for the county school system. When Greg became the quarterback at Leslie County High, Tim attended practices. "In fifth and sixth grade he was throwing the ball like a rocket," says Eagle football coach Joe Beder, an assistant at the time. "You knew then he would be the quarterback here."
Couch made the high school team as a seventh-grader, backed up his brother as an eighth-grader and became the starting quarterback as a freshman, when Greg went to play football at Eastern Kentucky (where, after redshirting one season, he's now a junior reserve). Tim points to the utility pole in the front yard of his family's comfortable two-story home. "When Greg went to college, I used to throw at that light pole," he says. "I'd take a five-step drop and try to hit it as if it was a receiver on the run, 30 feet out." Then he would place two garbage cans next to each other and throw "little fade passes" over the first defending can and into the second. "There's not much else to do in Hyden," says Todd Crawford, a physician's assistant who works with the Leslie County team.
So the Hydenites watch Couch. County judge-executive Onzie Sizemore was a star high school quarterback in Hyden in the early 1970s. "Tim is the best athlete I've ever seen in Kentucky," says the judge, deliberating on Tim down at the county court-and jailhouse. "He's the best thing that ever happened to Hyden. I just hope he doesn't run for county judge-executive, because then I'm out of a job."
They come from all over Kentucky to see Tim play. On Friday nights cars back up for a mile at the toll booth that guards the Hyden exit of the Daniel Boone Parkway. And when the Eagles play an away game, says Rick Hensley, whose son Ricky is Tim's favorite target, "last one outta town turns out the lights."
There is a sign outside of town that reads HYDEN: HOME OF OSBORNE BROS. Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, the Osbornes wrote Rocky Top, which is the football anthem at Tennessee, whose Volunteers are unanimously reviled in Kentucky. When Tim engineered a season-opening 44-42 upset of Fort Thomas Highlands High in Lexington, he came home to find that benevolent vandals had altered the sign so it read HYDEN: HOME OF TIM COUCH.
This season Couch has thrown for nearly 3,500 yards and 37 touchdowns in 12 games. Clearly, his numbers are preposterous. Last year he completed 75.1% of his passes, a national record. Against Clark County High in the 1994 season opener, he completed 25 of 27 passes. Against Shelby Valley High this fall, he threw for 533 yards and seven scores and was pulled four minutes into the second half. Likewise, in October he played only one half against one of Kentucky's top-ranked teams, Hopkinsville, when the badly outmanned Eagles were bused seven hours each way and lost 61-0.
Even that defeat didn't cool the ardor of the Couch potatoes, as Hyden's residents have come to call themselves. As he drives home from football practice in his Mercury Cougar on an autumn Thursday, Couch waves like a parade marshal to every passing pedestrian, then enters his house and is handed the telephone. " Tennessee," says Janice, and Tim chats cordially with Volunteer football coach Phillip Fulmer. Bobby Bowden, Terry Bowden, Lou Holtz and Joe Paterno check in weekly as well.
There is enormous pressure on him to play football at Kentucky, and the Cats are on Couch like cats on a couch. Here is a front-page Lexington Herald-Leader headline: COUCH TO WATCH UK SCRIMMAGE. Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino met with Tim and promised him a spot on the basketball team if he signs to play football for the Wildcats. And Kentucky football coach Bill Curry, although forbidden by the NCAA to talk about recruits, called him "the best high school prospect I've ever seen." Every Omus, Onzie and Elbert in Kentucky expects Tim to make the Cats an instant football power. "I may be crazy, but I believe Tim Couch is good enough to get this program back to the Sugar Bowl," writes columnist Dave Barker in The Cats' Pause, a Kentucky sports weekly. "Yes, that's right. From 1-10 to 10-1."
"Lord God, if Tim goes to UK they'll be namin' babies for him before he plays his first game," says Elbert's friend Vic DeSimone. "Every kid in Kentucky will wear a number 2 jersey." DeSimone—a candy manufacturer's rep who has dropped by Leslie County High to chat—furrows his brow before giving voice to every Kentuckian's darkest fear. "You wouldn't let him go to Tennessee, would you?" he asks Elbert. "I mean, the boy can go to Liberty Baptist and still become a pro."