Wednesday was a bad day for me. I lost two dear friends and great mentors. On Wednesday morning I was informed of the passing of my first television news director at WDEF TV, Ray White. Ray was a super news anchor and an even better man. Ray and I teamed with John Gray to have one of the highest rated newscasts in Chattanooga history; a 42% share of the audience in November of 1978.
Then on Wednesday evening I received the phone call that I was expecting but hoped I would never get. John Ward, the Voice of the Vols and the greatest play-by-play announcer in college sports had passed away. His health had been failing for some time and when his loving wife Barbara died last year from injuries she sustained in an auto accident, there was really nothing left to live for.
I know most people are aware of John's great career, but I am one of those people who can tell you how kind he was, especially to me.
In 1984 John drove to Chattanooga to offer me the position of scoreboard host as well as the host of a new show on the Vol Network, The Kickoff Call In Show. It was a new concept; one that no other college sports network had attempted. We would put callers on the air in our pre game show, 1 1/2 hours before kickoff. Even though the concept of the show was exciting, there was nothing to reference because no one else had done it. It was a huge success and is still on the air to this day, thirty-four years after that first show. Now it's been tweaked a time or two but the format is still the same. I just hosted the show but it was John Ward's idea. I held that position for seventeen years then passed it on to current host John Wilkerson who will enter his 18th year as host this fall.
John Ward was good to me and I know he loved me. I loved him too and when he had heart trouble at the start of the 1992 season I was on stand by to do the play-by-play of the Vols' season opener. He sent me all of his game notes and kept me informed the whole week before the game. When I would call him to see how he was doing and if he felt like doing the game, John replied, " I don't know. I just don't know." This went on like that all week long and when I arrived at Neyland Stadium on game day, John was already there. He looked terrible, was pale and looked as if he had no energy at all. Like the trooper he was, he started the broadcast as he normally would. Just before kickoff, he still wasn't sure he could do the play-by-play but when the Volunteers ran through the "T" and he uttered his trademark phrase, "It's football time in Tennessee...." the color returned to his cheeks and he never looked back.
On the following Tuesday there was a letter from John with a nice check in it. I immediately went inside and called him and when I told him he didn't have to do that. He said he wanted to do it because I was prepared. The extra money was just for my preparation. John liked it when his staff was prepared because he was the most prepared broadcaster or person for that matter I have ever known.
Fast forward a few years to 2006. John had been retired for several years and I was doing the Vols football pay per view broadcasts on television. I was in Memphis doing the Vols's game with Memphis. I really struggled to see the field and had no spotter, so I missed more than a few elements of the broadcast. I really struggled and took a lot of heat from Tennessee fans. It was brutal what they said about my announcing and they had a right to complain. It was one of the worst jobs I ever did. Again on the following Tuesday, there was a letter in my mail box from John. He had written, "Barbara and I thoroughly enjoyed your broadcast of the Vols'pay per view telecast on Saturday. You were prepared and did an outstanding job. If we can afford to buy the next telecast you do, we will look forward to it."
By the time I got back in my house I was in tears. I was so happy that John Ward thought enough of me to send me words of encouragement when I was hurting so badly. He was that kind of person. I could go on and on talking about what a kind man he was and the wonderful things he did for me. My son Davey wrote on Twitter, "His was the voice I heard in my head every time I ran through the "T" in my back yard. He was the voice in my head every touchdown I scored in my own Neyland Stadium on Spruce Street in Whitwell. His voice was the soundtrack of my childhood."
Davey wasn't alone. His voice provided the soundtrack for many young Tennessee fans for years. Fans of all ages loved him. I never heard anyone complain about John's broadcasting ability. He was the best. His voice was synonymous with Tennessee athletics and always will be.
Thanks for all you did for me, John. Thanks for your kindness and the professional example you set for all members of the Vol Network. Rest in peace, my friend.
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com