We moved to Virginia today. It’s a new adventure for our family, with all of the emotions that come from leaving a place you love and going to a new place to love.
I started writing about the Vols the first time I moved to Virginia, 12 years ago. In United Methodist world this is the time of year when pastors move to new appointments, and my first was one county over from where we are now, back in 2006. Before that I lived in Knoxville my entire life. It was home. I was 24, single, and suddenly hours from anyone I knew. And so I started writing ten days after I started preaching, more than anything because I missed home.
In time, Ceres became home. And then Athens. And we are so full of hope to say the same thing about Pulaski.
But today, we lost one of my favorite things about Knoxville being home. One of the biggest reasons I loved and love Tennessee enough to write about it for so many years. And if you’re reading this, I bet he was one of your favorite reasons too.
John Ward is the only autograph I’ve ever sought out. I have a handful of others that someone got or bought for me, or passed down from one generation to the next. But the only one I’ve ever stood in line for – sports or otherwise – belonged to Tennessee’s play-by-play announcer when I grew up.
It was my junior year of high school at Foothills Mall in early 1998, before we knew what that year would become. One of my closest friends, then and now, is the son of Gaylon Hill, who played on the offensive line at Tennessee in the early 1970’s. And we stood in line together; him with some pictures of his dad, me with nothing. But I was more than happy to get one of Mr. Ward’s own pictures from the stack next to him.
I was embarrassingly nervous. But Mr. Ward cut the tension, first by remembering my friend’s dad. It’s an impressive thing to know an offensive lineman – a name you rarely call doing play-by-play – 15 or so years after the fact. It’s even more impressive when you consider he had been doing this for more than three decades.
After signing some pictures of Gaylon, Mr. Ward asked if my friend also wanted a photo of himself from the stack. To my unbelief, my friend said, “No thanks.” And John Ward, in perfect cadence, replied, “Why not?”
To me, it was those little things. We all remember the catchphrases and the big moments. But I adore the details. There’s a little chuckle in Jeff Powell’s run in the 1986 Sugar Bowl when he says, “Forty-five, forty…” as if to signify that he, too, can’t believe all of this is happening but it is. He also let the moments be the moments without over-inflating them. The way he says, “Thirty-four, twenty-seven“ after Aaron Hayden’s first touchdown at the Miracle at South Bend is perfect. Instead of spending two dozen words to speak to what a tremendous comeback this would be for Tennessee, he does it in one syllable.
And I remember all of this because so many of us not only turned down the TV and turned up the radio for all those years, but heard his voice on so many highlight tapes season after season. I have no doubt Mr. Ward would tell you there are many, many people at the Vol Network who helped make him great; they all certainly helped make it great to be a kid in East Tennessee in the 1990’s. I did play-by-play for Alcoa High School for three years in the early 2000’s, and would find random calls Ward made coming out of my mouth unintentionally when Alcoa did something similar because I’d seen those tapes and heard those calls so many times.
And that’s the thing, at least for my generation. The story was undeniably great. But the storyteller was so unbelievably good, we would’ve been lucky to have him regardless of how many wins he got to tell us about.
I believe in story. It’s what changes things. Even when we think we’d rather have the bullet points, it’s story that truly transforms. In my line of work, I find we sometimes think things would’ve been easier if God just gave us more lists. But what we get is story. And the character at its heart, even as a carpenter by trade, chooses to speak its language. Because a good story can save your soul.
So tonight, in an unfamiliar house in a place we’ll soon call home, I’m comforted yet again by the sounds of my childhood. They were some of Tennessee’s best stories. But a good story is only good if you tell it well.
And nobody told it like John Ward.