Exactly 39 years ago today, on a Valentine’s Day Saturday, I walked into the sports department of the Chattanooga News-Free Press with a box of chocolates in tow and was formally introduced to the first true love in my life: sports writing.
The box of chocolates were for the only female member of the sports staff at the time, Vicki Brown, and oh yeah, I got lots of ribbing from the guys, but my mother went out of her way to raise a gentleman so I really didn’t have much of a choice.
Besides, it certainly broke the tension of having a new guy on staff who had absolutely no business being there.
I was still a senior at Tyner High School at that time, and I can promise you the only person more surprised to see me working at a newspaper then would have been the slew of English teachers to that point in my education who had gone through pen after pen of red ink in their quests to fix the so-called assignments I had turned in.
But while writing may not have been my thing back then, sports was. It was the one thing which got me out of bed in the morning. Whereas my interest in algebra or biology was lacking, knowing an afternoon or evening at the ballfield or basketball court awaited was all the fuel I needed to get through a day.
Now granted, I had very little discernable athletic skill, but I had been part of the Tyner program since the day a football coach caught me sneaking into a game when I was a seventh grader. He knew I didn’t have money to pay, heck one look at the clothes I was wearing told him that, but he never mentioned it. I lived a half a block from the school, so I spent all my afternoons watching the big boys practice back then, and sure enough, the next time he saw me, he walked away from his practice towards me and told me I could keep sneaking under the fence on Friday nights and risk getting caught or I could walk onto the field with the team.
From that day forward, my life was Tyner athletics. From football manager to basketball scorekeeper to baseball statistician, high school sports were all which mattered to me. But it did something else along the way: it kept me in school; it kept me out of trouble; and it made life seem normal for a kid in a single-parent household who never had two nickels to rub together.
As the years have passed, I have been blessed to add so much more to my life: a wife, a daughter, a son, an extended family of in-laws, but the one thing that has been a constant through all those years has been a passion for sports.
And my, oh my, have sports been good to me.
There was the time I couldn’t get into the press room at Augusta National because of the crowd inside waiting for Jack Nicklaus to show after he won his final green jacket. I made my way to a side entrance looking for entry only to collide with the Nicklaus himself as he made his way from the Butler Cabin. We talked for 10 minutes before it was time for him to go inside. We joked about the chance meeting years later as we walked the piece of land in Harrison Bay as he mapped out what would become Bear Trace.
Think about that for a minute: I went from sneaking into a high school football game because I didn’t have a dime to my name to talking golf with the greatest to ever lace up the spikes less than an hour after perhaps the greatest individual sporting accomplishment in my lifetime.
And that’s not all.
I’ve played golf with the Chi Chi Rodriquez, Tom Lehman and Steve Jones. I’ve wrestled with Bo Jackson on a baseball field, sat in a cabin at Pat Dye’s invitation to spend a night sipping a few cold ones and talking baseball with Joe DiMaggio. I’ve ran through the “T” at Tennessee beside Johnny Majors. I’ve played softball with Ray Goff and Pat Sullivan.
I once switched my name tag with former Georgia quarterback great Eric Zeier at SEC Media days so we could laugh at the puzzled looks of gathered fans in Birmingham. I sat in the Daytona press box next to Dale Earnhardt after he won his only Daytona 500. I drove Michael Jordan around town while he was here for a charity event.
I got Joe Walsh to partake in a prank on a fellow sportswriter in Cleveland while covering the World Series. I’ve been to all but five major league baseball parks. I’ve eaten dinner with both Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Phil Mickelson when he played in the U.S. Amateur at The Honors Course. I was invited to the wedding of Sonny Smith’s daughter and caught a pass from John Elway in Denver.
I’ve played the role of long-lost friend to Charles Barkley to keep him from having to talk to, get this, sports reporters at a memorabilia show in Chicago the week after he lost in the NBA finals. I’ve sat in the stands watching basketball games with Larry Brown in Alaska, Jerry Tarkanian at Auburn and John Wooden in Atlanta.
I’ve ridden in a golf cart with Mickey Mantle. I got to call Pat Summitt a friend, along with basketball coaching legends like Carol Ross, Jim Foster, Joe Ciampi and Van Chancellor. I rode to and from Black Mountain, N.C. with Reggie White where I got to hear him preach. I used to drive Lindsey Nelson from Knoxville to Chattanooga to see his daughter at Orange Grove, and man, those stories from that voice were legendary to say the least.
I picked Gene Stallings up the airport for a speaking engagement in town and smiled when he asked me to if we had time to stop and visit the kids at Children’s Hospital before I took him back to catch his ride home Alabama. I once had to pull my car over taking NASCAR driver Ken Schrader at a quick mart so he could run in and buy a six-pack for the plane ride home.
I’ve seen some of the great sporting events over the years from Iron Bowls to Orange Bowls; written about some of the game’s greats from Danny Manning to Peyton Manning. In the words of Johnny Cash, I have literally been everywhere man!
I say all of this not to brag even in the slightest, but let you know how blessed this life of sports that began 39 years ago today has been to me. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving. A week from next Monday, I’ll join 18 far more deserving people than me being inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame.
It’s an incredible honor and one which humbles me to a point where I am almost embarrassed. Writing stories about those who have accomplished so much, those who have overcome so many obstacles to be great, and those who have provided lessons only a sport can provide has been something I’ve always held in the highest regard. There are so many who have done it better than me, and Chattanooga has been blessed by their works for decades.
Chattanooga was once a haven for those gifted in telling the stories of our local athletes and I was fortunate to have learned from the very best. There is not a city in America who had it better during the days I was cutting my teeth thanks to the mentoring of the likes of a Mark McCarter. Or the Eddie Bakers and Clint Coopers of the world.
I am the 13th member from the Free Press staff to be inducted into the HOF, and every one of them before me could have written for any newspaper in the world and been a star.
· Mark Wiedmer continues to do it better than anybody in this state today (side note: Weeds started on Valentine’s Day exactly one year after I did). If Weeds wrote about a chicken soup recipe he found in a dumpster, I would read it because I know it would be the best story ever written about the subject. His talents have no bounds.
· McCarter was must read every day the paper hit the doorstep, and the folks in Alabama will tell you the same thing. You can argue Weeds or McCarter all you want, and never be wrong because they are the best two sports writers this town has ever had.
· David Paschal has more SEC knowledge in his head than any writer covering the beat across the South, and I’ve had as much fun with him through the years as anybody I know. We still giggle every time our paths cross about something we did together.
· BB Branton, likewise, is a walking encyclopedia of wrestling.
· Stephen Hargis is the man who carries the old flame for all of us, and the guy we nicknamed after the Doogie Houser character (look it up) because he looked 12-years-old when he arrived but was on a PhD level with his wordsmithing. Stephen is fantastic and the paper is lucky to still have him because in terms of prep coverage, he is held in the highest regard across the state and even more so within the TSSAA building walls.
· Conner Gilbert left us far too early and to let you know what I thought of him I named my son after him. He introduced me to the world of NASCAR and by golly he could pick up the phone and call everyone in the sport from Richard Petty to Earnhardt and they would answer.
· Ron Bush can still take a piece of trash and turn it into written gold with his magic editing button. He made every single person on this list better.
· Sam Woolwine has meant more for the golf community in this town than anyone I know. He has been its caddy, and brother, he always pulls the right stick.
· Austin White was Tennessee football, and I will be eternally grateful for the times he spent with a dumb 18-year-old on those trips to Knoxville back in the 80s.
· Ward Gossett was like an older brother to me, and there isn’t a player or coach from the great Vol teams he covered after Austin retired that he wasn’t close with. He taught me much about developing such relationships and made me a better person for it.
· Allan Morris left just as I arrived, but his influence on guys like McCarter was legendary. He was UTC athletics and Southern League baseball.
· George Starr is an absolute prince of a guy as the folks at Lee College will shout from the mountain tops, and his time at the Free Press was special much in the same way Jim Bell’s was for all of us youngsters because they taught us how to interact with the lifeblood of every college program: the sports information director.
· And finally, there is Roy Exum, who is the man behind putting this band of rag-tags together. Roy hired me and best I can recall 38 others through the years. Most of us didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but Roy saw something in each of us that would fit into the Free Press puzzle. Together, we were the absolute best sports page in the state.
These are the guys I follow into the HOF and I owe each of them much. Just as I was never prouder to be part of that sports section back in the day, I am even more so to be mentioned in the same breath with them with this honor.
As I told my good friend Dave Staley when he sent me a note of congratulations a few weeks ago, I just hope I don’t bring the property values down in the HOF wing built by him and so many other greats who reside there.
Last, but certainly not least, I also owe much to my good friend John Wilson, who has allowed me to continue along this journey the past couple of years. When he founded the Chattanoogan.com, he did so with a vision to continue to give local readers the type of coverage it had grown accustomed thanks to the philosophy of Roy McDonald.
John has thrown his heart and soul into it when there were many who doubted it would ever take. Well, it has, and there is no more reputable source of news for our town than this product borne from his sweat and tears. As I travel to local sporting events, I am inundated with measures of thanks for what the Chattanoogan provides and the gap it oftentimes fills in covering local stories. I am proud to be part of that effort, but even more so, thankful, John has given me the opportunity to do what I love.
Happy Valentine’s Day all, and I hope each of you find someone who looks at you the way writing sports has looked at me through these 39 years.
(Contact James Beach at email@example.com)