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Hall of Famer Mary Custard-Austin: “If you tell me ‘no,’ I’m going after it even harder”

April 19, 2019 FieldsColumn

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Mary Custard-Austin was a standout athlete at Harrison County in the mid-1980s.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Mary Custard-Austin was an incredible athlete at Harrison County High School — a 2,000-point scorer in basketball and a five-time state champion in track – who readily admits she was “blessed with natural talent” that allowed her “to go out and do things that other people struggled to do.

“I was humbled I had that gift,” she added.

But talent alone is like a Ferrari without fuel: it won’t get you where you want to go.

Custard-Austin’s accomplishments were also the result of a remarkable work ethic that her mom helped instill in her: “She kept telling me, ‘There’s always someone out there bigger and badder, so you can’t take a break.’”

When Custard-Austin is inducted into the Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame on April 27 in Lexington, she’ll acknowledge that it not only took natural talent and hard work to achieve success in sports and in life, but also the support and encouragement from a lot of people in her hometown of Cynthiana.

Mary Custard led the state in scoring as a junior (27.6) and senior (31.3) at Harrison County.

Custard-Austin, who now lives in Wentzville, MO, recalled that besides her parents, Rev. Marcellus and Rose Custard, she had a lot of coaches and teammates who helped her develop the skills and the confidence she needed to excel.

Barbara and Don Snopek were among the first to point her in the right direction. They coached her in intramural basketball in junior high school.

“They always used to tell me, ‘Girl, you’ve got talent,'” Custard-Austin said. “At the time, being a little girl living in the projects who didn’t have much — my shoes didn’t even fit — that meant a lot.”

Barbara Snopek remembers Custard-Austin as an outstanding athlete even at an early age.

“And the smile on her face!” Snopek said. “ She loved participating. It was a challenge to her, and she wasn’t going to let anything defeat her.”

Custard-Austin recalled another defining moment from childhood:

“I got teased a lot in junior high, and one particular time sticks out. Macie Herrington used to tease me all the time, and one day we got in a fight.

“Afterward, her mom made her come back in and face me. From that day on, Macie and I became the best of friends, and I got close to her family. I’d go out and spend the night at her house, and her mom (Lena) and dad (Ronnie) made sure I got where I needed to be.

“I began to see that people cared about me more than just as an athlete. They wanted me to make it, to be successful, as a person.”

After struggling through her freshman year of basketball – “I was still a bit clumsy. I couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Custard-Austin said. “And on top of that, the coach didn’t think I could play.” – she began to blossom as a sophomore under new head coach Virgil Jenkins and assistant Connie Reffett.

Harrison County won the district title and was 10th Region runner-up that 1983-84 season.

“I was so thankful for the kindness and confidence they put into me, and seeing the talent that was in me,” Custard-Austin said. “They helped mold me into the athlete I became.”

The 6-foot Custard-Austin led the state in scoring as a junior (27.6 ppg) and senior (31.3). Point guard Macie Herrington made sure to get her the ball. “She always said she knew that if she threw it up there, I’d go get it,” said Custard-Austin, who also averaged 16 rebounds her senior year.

Mary Custard won five state titles in track at Harrison County.

Custard-Austin wasn’t a one-sport Filly. She ran cross country in the fall, transitioned to basketball in the winter, then took no time off before heading to track in the spring.

She won state titles in the 200 and 400 as a sophomore and junior. She also anchored Harrison County’s 1,600 championship relay as a junior. (Custard-Austin, without prompting, credited her 1,600 teammates: Lisa Higgins, Cathy Hudgins and Bobby Jo Mattox.)

“Larry Thornton and Danny Simpson were my track coaches, and I was blessed to have them,” she said. “Coach Thornton used to tell me all the time that he could give me a workout and I’d go do it. He didn’t have to tell me twice.

“I think I worked so hard because I wanted out. I wanted to live a life where if I worked for it, I could have whatever I wanted. That became my philosophy. Along with my faith, that’s why I knew I’d make it.”

Custard-Austin went on to play basketball at Lees Junior College and the University of Kentucky.

Harrison County athletics director Brad Allison, who nominated Custard-Austin for the Hall of Fame, said she was an obvious candidate.

“She was kind of the flag-bearer for girls’ sports in Harrison County. Not just that she did everything, but she did everything at a very, very high level. She was one of those athletes I think everybody felt like whatever she did, she was going to succeed and excel at it.

“To this day, when you talk about girls’ athletics around here, there’s always a comparison to Mary Custard.”

Mary Custard-Austin has also released two Gospel CDs.

An example of the kind of strong-willed woman she became: Custard-Austin was the first African-American female police officer in Columbia, TN. “It was rough,” she said. “They didn’t want me. But again, I have an attitude that if you tell me ‘no,’ I’m going after it even harder.”

Custard-Austin said the Ku Klux Klan held an annual rally not far from Columbia, and she was on the front line protecting the KKK’s right to assemble. She was the target of racial epithets, but she didn’t let them harm her.

“I’m not defined by what people call me,” she said. “I know what I am and I know who I belong to.”

Since moving to Missouri in 2008, Custard-Austin has started her own basketball club, where she instructs and trains kids in elementary school through high school. She coaches teams that compete against national competition.

Custard-Austin shares personal stories to help teach her players about sports and about life.

“I don’t tolerate them being disrespectful. I make sure they keep their grades up. I make sure they’re NCAA certified. And I tell them about the mistakes I made in my life. My life’s an open book. It’s all about trying to help them mature.

“The beauty of it is, after every practice, every one of them line up, give me a hug and say ‘thank you, coach.’ That’s reward enough for me.”

When Custard-Austin is rewarded with induction into the Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame, she will share the moment with her family, including her husband, Rev. Kelvin Austin, and five children: Kelvin Jr. (who’s 31), Alexis (29), Alex (20), Hermara (17) and Katherine Rose (14).

“I used to tease my kids and tell them I wish you all could’ve seen me play, but one of these days I’ll be gone and you all will have to go accept an award on my behalf,” Custard-Austin said with a chuckle. “I’m very grateful to be able to witness it for myself.”

Mary Custard-Austin has her own basketball club in Missouri. She calls it Team Sacrifice.

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