Back in the day I was terribly spoiled, my job as a sports writer enabling me to rub shoulders and share friendships with some of the great play-by-play sports announcers in the world. Trust me, the good ones can turn a game on the radio into fine art and, to the best, each game becomes a symphony.
Remember, this was a long time ago. There was no ESPN, the Internet, and you had to get a road map to find your way from Starkville to Oxford. Back then there were just a handful of writers – outside of the beat guys – who covered out-of-state games. Chattanooga was such a melting pot of different loyalties that the idea of covering Georgia, Alabama, Auburn and so forth really worked well for the old Chattanooga News-Free Press. Our best guys covered Tennessee and UTC so I’d go on the road every Saturday, wherever the best SEC game was that day.
Not exactly the bashful type, I got to know people quickly in such places as Baton Rouge and Athens and Lexington and soon became a pseudo “halftime expert” where I’d go on the Dixie Crystal Halftime Show while the play-by-play guy ate his lunch. I was some strange voice that the listeners had never heard and would read updates and comment on other games that were being played and so forth. The pay was lousy but two or three beers after the game tasted good and it was all part of the fun.
Larry Munson, the “Voice” of the University of Georgia, was so legendary they still sell copies of his greatest calls at the UGa Bookstore and there were a bunch of halftimes when I would go on the radio with his sideline reporter, the beloved Loran Smith, while the incomparable Munson took a break.
With due apology to my pal John Ward at Tennessee, Jack Crystal at Mississippi State, John Fourney at Alabama and Jimmy Fyffe at Auburn (and other great friends), I really believe Munson was the most fun announcer I ever heard. I was in Knoxville in 1980 the afternoon Herschel Walker played in his first-ever college game. Vince Dooley had whispered to me just before the game he would put the touted freshman in on the first play of the second half and what a difference it made.
Munson’s call: "We hand it off to Herschel, there's a hole....5....10...12, he's running over people! Oh, you Herschel Walker...My God Almighty, he ran right through two men! Herschel ran right over two men! They had him dead away inside the 9. Herschel Walker went 16 yards. He drove right over those orange shirts and is just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, a freshman!"
Listening to Larry was so wonderful. Another legendary call came against Tennessee in 2001 when David Greene threw the game winner to Verron Haynes: “Touchdown! My God, a touchdown! We threw it to Haynes! We just stuffed them with five seconds left! My God Almighty, did you see what he did? David Greene just straightened up and we snuck the fullback over! … We just stepped on their face with a hob-nailed boot and broke their nose! We just crushed their face!”
Like he used to say, “You get the picture!” Larry died a couple of years ago – a black day for the Bulldog Nation – but in this Monday’s editions of the Athens Banner-Herald, ole Loran wrote an open letter to Munson in heaven. Loran should have, too; Georgia’s win over LSU last Saturday was one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.
So in the spirit of warm friendships and even better memories, allow me to share Loran’s letter to Larry because it is what makes autumns in the South so very delicious for me:
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“LARRY, YOU MISSED A GREAT ONE”
(By his friend and colleague, Loran Smith in the Athens Banner-Herald)
To: Larry Munson, Cloud 9, Bulldog Heaven
You wouldn’t believe what happened last Saturday! You would have broken your chair if you had been with us when Georgia kept fighting back against LSU, one of the most physical teams ever to play between the hedges. They were huge, and they were fast. Darn good, too. You might not have gotten over your pre-game worries.
You would have been worried until the last Zach Mettenberger pass fell incomplete. Then you would have, like the rest of us, gone over the top. You would have had some classic call. You would have given us something to savor through the season and to warm our hearts in winter. I just know you would have authored a historic call to match the spectacular performance on the field.
We have a new quarterback hero, Aaron Murray, who will likely set every passing record in Georgia history by the end of the season.
He has a Bible name, Aaron. Aaron was the older brother of Moses and a priest in his time. Well, Larry, on Sunday morning after Georgia beat LSU, 44-41, Aaron was the high priest of Athens. If he keeps winning big games, no telling how exalted he will become to the Bulldog Nation. He will be anointed something sensational if he continues winning big games. He can join the pantheon of Georgia greats.
Frank Sinkwich. Charley Trippi. Fran Tarkenton. David Greene. Herschel Walker. I know, I know what you are thinking. It is a long season, and we have to travel to Knoxville this weekend. I know you would be saying to the Bulldogs fans who are drinking that “we-can-run-the-table” potion. It’s too early to think about that. I know you would remind them not to let that potion to turn into hemlock.
It’s just so wild in Athens this week, Larry. Much like it was when you and Herschel rose to the occasion in 1980. What was that — a two-cigar-a-game year for you? You would have had three cigars last Saturday if you could have gotten home from the stadium before midnight. Larry, you have never seen such post-game traffic as we are having now. Nobody leaves the stadium until the final tick on the clock. This is a cardiac team. After the LSU game, the South stands didn’t empty until the players came back on the field. Coach Mark Richt broke down on national television and in the locker room after the game. You never cried on the air, but you might have Saturday.
Larry, I’m telling you for sure, you would have broken your chair if you had been in the radio booth — named for you — in the press box. The game and the way it was played would have given you your greatest challenge. You would have had to top, “Run, Lindsay, run,” “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” even “Hobnail boot.” I know you would be worried about Knoxville being a trap game. There is no way Mark Richt can keep his players focused after coming from behind to beat LSU! You would worry that the team is likely to be flat after LSU. I know what you would be reminding all our fans. “Do you know they have a new coach who has gotten their team re-energized? Do you know about all those great freshmen Tennessee signed last year?”
The Georgia coaches are aware, and they are as worried as you would be. They are the only ones in Athens who didn’t celebrate into the night Saturday. They were at work early Sunday, preparing for the Vols. They have dusted off one of your old frustrations, “Do you realize how tough it is to win in Knoxville?”
Larry, Saturday was a day when you would have had to rise to the occasion for both the offense and the defense. You would have been calling on Lady Luck as Georgia scored the go-ahead touchdown to take a 44-41 lead with a hundred and forty-seven seconds left. “Too much time on the clock for Mettenberger,” you would have lamented. You would have agonized with every drop back, every snap with Mettenberger searching for an open receiver with you fearing heartbreak with every sling of his NFL arm.
As for the Georgia defense, which rose to the occasion four straight downs, I was in the press box, hearing you from somewhere, saying, “Hunker down you guys, just one more time.” You did it, Larry, you got through to our guys on the field. We thank you for that. We know we can still call on you in big games.
Larry, you would have a hard time in the booth this year. We are playing so many freshmen on defense, it would take you half a season to figure out the lineup. The special team mistakes would drive you crazy, but you’d love this team’s heart — if they can just keep from breaking it. There’s too much reference to the Rose Bowl. Just like Vince Dooley, you would cringe at all that.
I will see Coach Richt this week, and I’ll remind him what you would want him to tell his team. “Winning in Knoxville is never easy.” This is a special team Larry, but I’m worried about Knoxville, too. And Jacksonville. And Auburn and Atlanta. Just as I’m sure you must be.
Your Old Friend,
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There is simply nowhere in sports like Saturdays in autumn down South.