Farewell, Friend: How Do We Say Goodbye to John Ward?

Every time I sit down to write, a blank canvass stares back at me. The space is waiting to be filled with words. With excitement. With pain. With sadness. With euphoria.

With life.

Tonight, I have to write about death, and I don’t know where to start. How can any of us? What all do we owe the great John Ward, the voice the Vols for so many years, who told us so many stories, shared with us — authored to us — so many great memories, so many great games? I owe him greatness on this computer screen with words of my own.

I’ll fall short.

The first word that comes to my mind, honestly, when I think of John Ward is “Vols.” I think he’d love that. He’s synonymous with the university, with the athletic department, with years and years of success and failure, the ebbs and flows of any program. The second word I think of when I hear John Ward is “storyteller.” I think he’d love that, too.

He was more than an announcer. Every Saturday of my childhood, I let him and Bill Anderson into my living room. They sat down with me, sometimes around a three-channel television and sometimes without, and gave me three hours of joy, of heartache, of happiness, of dejection.

They never knew the ending, but the story of each game was a journey where we lived and died.

So many words fill my head now, so many of his calls. “The national champions are clad IN BIG ORANGE.” “Ladies and gentlemen, he’s running all the way to the STATE CAPITOL!”

“GIVE HIM SIX! TOUCHDOWN, TENNESSEE!” “BOTTOM!”

The catch phrases are simple, the deliveries were on-point. There’s no way to forget them.

When somebody gets his mitts on a story and truly does it justice, you not only remember the story but the teller. Sometimes, the stories fade, but the experiences meld together to mean a lot more. For me, John Ward narrated my childhood…

When I try to tell a story, I feel as if there are things lurking just below the surface of the skin of my fingertips, jumping toward the surface, trying to come out. Honestly, that’s the way it is. Sometimes, when I have a story on my mind and I’m driving home, I’ll have to stretch my fingers or pop them to keep them at bay. Other times, I’ll clinch my fists to fight them back.

My feelings take shape long before I sit at a keyboard, and I’m often left feeling spent afterward; whether I knocked it out of the park or grounded out to the pitcher, I’ve gotten it off my chest. There’s a sense of accomplishment, and of nakedness. “Here I am world, for better or for worse.”

You try to do life — experiences — justice with words. Sometimes, you succeed. Other times, you fail. But you want to tell a story. You want to paint a picture. You want to leave a mark.

Few people in my lifetime have done that for me when it comes to art. For my money, nobody spins a yarn like Stephen King. It’s impossible for somebody to hear the English language and translate it like Cormac McCarthy. When it comes to sports writing, Wright Thompson wields a mighty pen. Chris Cornell’s voice wove tapestries of silk and gravel. Jason Isbell writes songs that see to our souls.

In sports announcing, it was John Ward. Hands down.

Yes, I appreciate legendary Los Angeles baseball announcer Vin Scully — the standard bearer when it comes to storytelling from the booth. But as a Southern boy with orange blood, those Dodgers may as well been on another planet. I appreciated them from my Vanntown home every now and then when Scully’s voice came across my television speakers. But Ward was my own personal sports preacher, sitting high above the cathedral of Neyland Stadium and laying the gospel of “Go Vols!” on me every Saturday before the real preacher hit me upside the head with the Lord to end the weekend.

When I was about 8 on up through about the age of 17, many of my Saturdays were spent waking up early for “Coaches’ Coffee” on WYTM-FM in Lincoln County, Tennessee, where our beloved Falcons sat at Stone Bridge Restaurant in Fayetteville and talked about the game from the night before. Given that we won three state championships in my childhood, most of these mornings were victorious. I’d listen to the radio while playing my Nintendo Entertainment System and always look forward to hearing Leonard’s Losers afterward.

Sometime in here, I’d grab a football, lay on my bed, and toss it in the air, waiting on Ward and Anderson to start the pregame show. Then, they’d deliver the main event, and I’m not sure I ever remember anybody Ward loved more than Heath Shuler, who became one of my all-time favorites. Listening to Ward call a Shuler play was music.

Then came Peyton and Tee and Al Wilson and Phillip Fulmer. Then came heights the program hadn’t reached in my lifetime.

Ward called them all.

When I first met him as a college sophomore — my first year covering a college football game of any type and the year after UT won the national championship in 1998 — I tried hard to be unfazed. After all, as a professional journalist, you’re supposed to be unflappable. Nothing — nobody — is supposed to rattle your chain.

I failed.

I’m pretty sure my eyes were bigger than the plates on which they were serving the media dinner. When I shook his hand, it felt as if I’d dipped my hand in the Tennessee River, it was sweating so much.

There he was, newly retired and a real-life legend. This man was one of my idols. He’d meant so much to me, and I knew no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be able to tell a story like him. Ever.

His voice was college football’s watermark for me. It still is. It always will be.

The Vols won the national championship in 1998, and he walked away. What a storybook ending for the greatest storyteller of my lifetime. How could it end any better than that? Then, in a flash, he was gone. We had to get snippets of his golden voice from halftime interviews and Natural Gas commercials. It was like little moments of sunshine in the cold and barren wasteland of the past 15 years of Tennessee football.

Every time he spoke, I thought of better days, better times; not only for Vols football but the simpler days, when all I had to do was wake up and live my life and maybe listen to a football game here and there.

The night before my Papaw died, my dad and I sat down with him and listened to John Ward call a rare Thursday night Tennessee game. Papaw was too far gone then, but we’d listened to so many Vols games together that it was only fitting that we got to do it one last time, whether he remembered it or not. The night of my first date at 16, as I was walking out of the house, John Ward was on the radio, getting ready to call a Tennessee-Oklahoma State game in 1995.

In many ways, his voice is a soundtrack to my youth.

That voice left us many years ago, and now he has, too. How can we thank him for all hours we spent with him? How can we do justice all the moments, all the calls, all the wins, all the losses? What can I say to convey to all of you what I can’t articulate in my brain?

I can’t. We can’t. There’s no way.

There are no itchy fingers tonight just waiting to type something as I sit here writing this because there are no words. None of us can do or say enough.

Thank you, John. For being the constant voice of my youth, for giving me so much more than football and basketball. For telling me stories that became memories.

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John Ward worked harder than anyone else preparing for the games. He had all the stats in front of him but he didn’t really need them because he’d already memorized the pregame materials. I remember hearing how hard he worked the interns and the sports information staffs because he had such high standards and a commitment to excellence for Tennessee fans. John Ward made me fall in love with Tennessee basketball. No one could help you visualize the action on the basketball court like John Ward. He told stories, handled the color commentators and kept you up with the game… Read more »