Story by Steve Jones
Multimedia by Derek Poore
FORT THOMAS, Ky. - Patrick Towles has grown up regularly being asked by his friends to get his famous grandfather's autograph for them.
In years to come, when he's a quarterback for the University of Kentucky football team, Towles is bound to sign countless autographs himself, and he's ready for it.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound quarterback for Highlands High School has learned about life in the spotlight from his grandfather, Jim Bunning, who reached the highest levels of success in sports, as a Hall of Fame pitcher, and in politics, as a longtime U.S. Congressman and senator.
"I remember being asked as a kid, 'Can you get your grandpa to sign this baseball for me?'" Towles said last week in a CatsIllustrated.com interview he gave alongside Bunning. "... That was pretty cool. It's been awesome having a guy of really good public stature who played professional baseball and was in the U.S. Senate forever."
Bunning pitched from 1955 to '71, most prominently for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies. He threw a no-hitter for the Tigers in 1958 and a perfect game for the Phillies in 1964.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.
Five years later, Towles, as a child, attended the ceremony at Philadelphia's old Veterans Stadium to see his grandfather's No. 14 retired by the Phillies.
"That's when I first realized my grandpa was one heck of a pitcher and had one heck of a great right arm definitely," he said. "That's probably where I get my arm from."
Bunning: Towles has what it takes
Bunning spent his young adulthood surrounded by athletes and knows the talent, attitude and work ethic require to play sports professionally.
He thinks his grandson has the makeup.
"I don't think the University of Kentucky will be the last stop in his football career," Bunning said. "... I'm sure if he stays healthy he has a future ahead of him in professional football."
Towles, who was a participant in the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp over the summer in California, is a top candidate for Kentucky's Mr. Football award. He'll attempt to lead Highlands (10-0) to a fifth consecutive state title - the third with him as starting quarterback - when it begins the playoffs on Friday against Boyd County.
Towles has watched the old footage of the ninth inning of Bunning's 1964 perfect game against the New York Mets countless times.
He said his own dreams to play professional sports seem more tangible because he's had "a close relative that's been there and done that."
Bunning's public life extended well beyond the playing field.
Now 80, he retired in January after 24 years in Congress - 12 in the House of Representatives and 12 in the Senate.
Towles' grandparents took him on tours of all the major monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., and he appeared in one of Bunning's 2004 Senate reelection commercials, tossing a baseball back and forth with his grandfather.
He grew up regularly seeing Bunning's face on television and name in the newspaper, and that gave Towles perspective on the difficult part of public life.
Bunning, a conservative Republican, received a lot of criticism from his political opponents and members of the media, and Towles said it was hard to hear and read negative things about his grandfather.
"One thing I think it helps is it thickened his skin," Bunning said, adding that Towles will be mentally tough when he's the subject of scrutiny as a Southeastern Conference football player.
Standout senior season
Bunning is now a fixture at Highlands games and said he'll be at all of UK's games, home and away, in the coming years.
He was in the stands last Friday for Towles' Senior Night game - a 63-14 victory over Ryle that improved the Bluebirds' record to 10-0.
Towles played only two quarters of the blowout win, but he still passed for 330 yards and four touchdowns.
Towles has been a statistical sensation this season, throwing for 34 touchdowns with only one interception. He has 2,758 passing yards despite regularly playing three quarters or fewer once Highlands gets big leads.
Now many UK fans have pinned their hopes of a significant rise in the Cats' status in the SEC on Towles' powerful right arm.
Bunning approves of this message.
Click Here to view this Link."My gosh, you can't throw the ball 12 yards or 8 yards as accurate and (with) as quick of a release," Bunning said. " ... He'll get (his receivers) the ball, and if they need a 60-yard bomb, he'll do that. That's all good for UK."
Bunning is not the only famous former pro athlete who has given Towles a strong endorsement.
Former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who now is the color analyst for NBC's Sunday night NFL coverage, lives in Fort Thomas and works part-time coaching Highlands' wide receivers, including his son Jac.
He's watched Towles' development on a daily basis and believes he should be the clear choice for Mr. Football.
"I think he could be a first-round draft pick," Collinsworth said. " ... I haven't seen anything yet that he can't do. His feet are getting so much quicker. It's a weird thing that he's so tall and he can run like the wind."
Collinsworth said Towles' size, arm strength and mobility make him similar to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
"(Towles') arm strength is as good as a lot of guys in the NFL, better than a lot of guys in the NFL," Collinsworth said.
Solidly committed to Kentucky
Towles and his family attended the Cats' 28-16 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, and coach Joker Phillips' team is now 3-5.
Despite Kentucky's struggles, Towles, who grew up a UK fan, said he remains solid on the commitment he made in the spring.
It was a decision based on his desire to challenge himself in a pro-style offense and follow in a line of relatives who have attended UK, including his parents and his sister.
He chose the Cats over scholarship offers from Arkansas, Louisville, Illinois, Vanderbilt and Cincinnati.
"When I made my commitment to Kentucky, I made my commitment to Coach Phillips and the University of Kentucky," he said. "I'm going to stand by him. As long as he's there, I'm definitely, fully 110 percent committed to Kentucky, whether they're 0-6 or they're 6-0. I'm going to be there next year, next summer, and be competing for a job."
Bunning believes his grandson will be a big success as a college player.
"Given the chance, given the opportunity, given the teammates, the University of Kentucky will have a winning program with Pat Towles playing quarterback," he said. "I'm telling you, he's that kind of player."
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