I was three weeks out from college and sitting in a car in the Bristol Herald Courier parking lot thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”
That’s when the newspaper’s retired sports editor, Gene “Pappy” Thompson came out and said, “Come in. I’ll show you what they’ve done with your story.
The article was kind of an essay. It was a feature about local high school track star Judy Thomas, a state champion hurdler heading to the University of Kentucky.
Forty-four years later, I’ve had enough. I retired as a full-time sportswriter.
What a long and strange journey it has been.
I got this job in Bristol after the former sports staff resigned en masse overnight two months earlier over a dispute with the newspaper’s management.
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I was the newest recruit aboard a five-man sports team.
Five years later, I was still Woody Vance’s “new kid on the block”, crisp editor.
Why not? Woody was near the end of a 50-year career that began in the early 1930s. Every day at work, he put on a visor and searched his desk drawer for a block of cheese and a small knife.
“Hi Bob. Want a piece of cheese? as he prepared to cut the hardened edge.
He was a crisp character.
Woody retired after 50 years with the company and didn’t show up for his going away party. When two concerned co-workers visited his house, Woody was sitting in his bathtub smoking a cigar.
“To party?” He asked. “I thought it was just a bunch of people drinking.”
This job was a blast, but it wasn’t always a breeze.
Long hours, nights, weekends, the pressure of deadlines offset by the intoxicating smell of ink and the feeling that the work was important.
In 44 years, first at the Herald Courier and then at the Roanoke Times, I worked for nine sportswriters and was acting editor for nine months. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in printing.
I initially wondered if my decision to quit after two decades at Bristol and come to Roanoke in 2001 to oversee the newspaper’s high school sports coverage was such a hot idea.
After giving my opinion in Bristol and before taking Interstate 81, the newspaper’s sports columnist, Jack Bogaczyk, called me with some disturbing news.
The newspaper’s sports editor at the time, Bill Bern, had suffered a heart attack.
Fortunately, it was mild. Bert, as he was called, returned to work within a month.
Six days after starting the new job, I received another jolt.
This time it’s thanks to a young lady who ran a red light in downtown Roanoke and left my Honda a total pile of metal at the corner of First Street and Church Avenue.
A week at a new job and I have no car, no full-time residence, and a boss in the hospital.
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
When people ask me how long I’ve worked in the press, here’s my answer.
During my freshman year on the job, I covered a Region C basketball championship game featuring a freshman star named Curry. It was Dell, not Steph.
Right away, these are unforgettable moments.
I covered NASCAR’s first night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and quoted winner Cale Yarborough as saying it was “the best thing since axle grease.”
I interviewed tennis legend Rod Laver as he was changing clothes in a locker room, and the tall Aussie said, “I’d love to have a Foster’s with you mate, but I gotta catch a flight.”
I worked the phones looking for information the night NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash on his way to a Bristol race.
I sat in a conference room and talked one-on-one basketball with the great Al McGuire.
I watched the incomparable Calvin Talford at Castlewood High in Russell County where his senior year in 1987-88 included a 50ft triple jump, a 7ft high jump, 48 dunks and an average of 30 basketball points, five touchdowns in a football playoff game, and enough baseball skills to be drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.
I covered Virginia Tech football and basketball for 18 years.
Recruiting, not being the science it is today, prompted me to ask technical assistant coach Tommy Fletcher about the team’s promising newcomers in 1982.
“The Smith kid from Norfolk looks pretty good on defense,” he said.
Yeah, that Bruce Smith guy did well.
I was in Atlanta for Bill Dooley’s last game as Tech’s football coach, the Peach Bowl win over NC State when Chris Kinzer threw the game-winning field goal and posted the “No. 1” salute to the bench Wolfpack.
I was in New Orleans when Michael Vick nearly led Tech to the BCS Championship before Florida State’s Peter Warrick had other plans.
I still have a Sugar Bowl watch.
But here I am after 44 years about to give it up, at least full time.
Twenty-one years at the Roanoke Times have been memorable.
When I arrived, Norman Lineburg, Willis White, Joel Hicks, Jeff Highfill and David Crist were all high school football coaches.
Just like Winfred Beale, and he’s still going strong in Floyd County.
I saw Cave Spring’s JJ Redick score 43 points, mostly because of the logo, in the Group AAA men’s basketball championship game at Liberty University in 2002.
I saw Glenvar’s Allyson Fasnacht throw an 81-foot-9 basketball that went through the hoop in a women’s tournament game at Salem Civic Center.
I watched Blacksburg golfer Jake Mondy land what might yet be the greatest golf shot ever on his way to winning the Group AA Individual Championship at Blacksburg Country Club.
Hitting from the next tee after a penalty stroke, Mondy hit over a huge tree and the ball came to rest a scorecard wide from the cup. Trophy please.
Moments like these stand out, but what really resonates are the personal stories of triumph and tragedy that I’ve been able to bring to readers along the way:
Amazing Faith Surry County basketball coach Joseph Ellis, who in the press room after his team won the Group A men’s state title at VCU’s Siegel Center, recounted his fight against the cancer which would cost him his life a month later.
I looked back 10 years after the fateful Friday night intersection in 1997 at Victory Stadium when Pulaski County’s Lee Cook and William Fleming’s Jamie Penn collided during a routine game. One never got up. The other did but was shot several years later by gun violence. I am forever inspired by the strength of the members of both families.
I’ve heard of the selfless service of Carnis Poindexter, who was denied the opportunity to play tennis in segregated Roanoke in the 1950s and early 1960s, just to mentor dozens of youngsters. Deacon for 50 years at an African-American church in Roanoke that houses a stained glass window dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, Poindexter demonstrated that not everything should be defined in black and white.
Then there was the inspiring courage and faith of cancer-stricken John Battle High School student Andrew Mullins, whose life as an angel here on Earth prompted the Virginia High School League to create a annual award of excellence in his memory.
I may not be done telling stories like these, but it will have to be by another means.
I’m told that my position at the Roanoke Times will hopefully not be filled by another dinosaur from a bygone era of newspapers, the print version of which will one day also go to the fossil heap.
Technology has rapidly changed the business, both for good and for bad.
In 1978 we wrote newspaper articles about big black IBM electric typewriters. Sometimes on deadline a story was ‘written’ by locating a payphone (explain to your kids, people) and offering words off the top of your head to someone taking dictation on the other end .
Portable laptop computers came into fashion in the 1980s, but not without problems in the pre-wireless era.
A dedicated phone line was often needed to deliver a story. In most high schools, that meant connecting through a fax machine.
One night long ago at Marion High School, I was kicked out of school in a frantic need for a phone line.
I drove to a local motel where a loud party was taking place in a ballroom.
I approached two women at a desk and said, “I need help. I am desperate.”
One of the ladies looked at me and said, “Well, the dancing is right there, honey. Come in. You might get lucky.
I actually got lucky.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013. I spoke to Willilam Fleming football coach Bobby Martin about my condition in August.
In October I covered a William Fleming home game against Northside.
The colonels didn’t have a prayer, but after the game the coach gave me one anyway.
Martin asked his players to form a circle in the center of the locker room with me in the middle. The players closest to me put their hands on my shoulders. Others have arrived.
In 44 years, I hope I have.