Was it really June 1978?
I was three weeks out of college and sitting in a car in the parking lot of the Bristol Herald Courier thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”
That’s when the paper’s retired sports editor, Gene “Pappy” Thompson walked outside and said, “Come on in. I’ll show you what they did with your story.”
The article was a tryout of sorts. It was a feature on local high school track and field star Judy Thomas, a state champion hurdler headed for the University of Kentucky.
Above the fold.
I was hooked.
Forty-four years later, I’ve had enough. I have retired as a full-time sports writer.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
I got that job in Bristol after the previous sports staff quit en masse one night two months earlier over a dispute with the paper’s management.
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I was the last hire on board on a five-man sports staff.
Five years later, I was still “new boy” to crusty wire desk editor Woody Vance.
Why not? Woody was near the end of a 50-year career that began sometime in the early 1930s. Every day at work he put on a visor and reached into his desk drawer for a block of cheese and a small knife.
“Hey, Bob. Want a piece of cheese?” as he prepared to cut off the hardened edge.
He was a crusty character.
Woody retired after 50 years in the business and didn’t show up for his going-away party. When two concerned colleagues went to his house, Woody was sitting in his bathtub smoking a cigar.
“Party?” he asked. “I thought it was just a bunch of people drinking.”
This job has been a blast, but it has not always been a breeze.
Long hours, nights, weekends, deadline pressure 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 have worked for nine sports editors and was an interim editor for nine months. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in print.
Initially, I wondered whether my decision to resign after two decades in Bristol and come to Roanoke in 2001 to oversee the paper’s high school sports coverage was such a hot idea.
After I gave my notice in Bristol and before heading up Interstate 81, the paper’s sports columnist, Jack Bogaczyk, called with some unsettling news.
The paper’s sports editor at the time, Bill Bern, had suffered a heart attack.
Fortunately, it was mild. Bert, as he was known, returned to work within a month.
Six days into the new job, I received another jolt.
This time it came courtesy of a young woman who ran a red light in downtown Roanoke and left my Honda a totaled heap of metal on the corner of First Street and Church Avenue.
One week in at a new job and I’ve got no car, no full-time residence and a boss in the hospital.
No one said this was going to be easy.
When people ask how long I worked in the newspaper business, this is my answer.
In my first year on the job, I covered a Region C basketball championship game that featured a freshman star named Curry. That was Dell, not Steph.
Right away, there were unforgettable moments.
I covered NASCAR’s first night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and quoted winner Cale Yarborough saying it was “the best thing since axle grease.”
I interviewed tennis legend Rod Laver while he was changing clothes in a locker room, and the great Aussie said, “I’d love to have a Foster’s with you, mate, but I’ve got to catch a flight.”
I worked the telephones looking for information the night NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki was killled in a plane crash on his way to a Bristol race.
I sat in a conference room and talked basketball one-on-one 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 50-foot triple jump, a 7-foot high jump, 48 dunks and a 30-point average in basketball, 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 Tech assistant coach Tommy Fletcher about the team’s promising newcomers in 1982.
“The Smith kid from Norfolk looks pretty good at defensive end,” he said.
Yeah, that Bruce Smith guy turned out OK.
I was in Atlanta for Bill Dooley’s final game as Tech’s football coach, the Peach Bowl victory over N.C. State when Chris Kinzer kicked the game-winning field goal and flashed the “No. 1” salute to the Wolfpack bench.
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.
It still works.
But here I am after 44 years about to give it up, at least on a full-time basis.
Twenty-one years at The Roanoke Times have been memorable.
When I showed up, Norman Lineburg, Willis White, Joel Hicks, Jeff Highfill and David Crist were all coaching high school football.
So was Winfred Beale, and he’s still going strong in Floyd County.
I saw Cave Spring’s J.J. Redick score 43 points, mostly from the logo, in the Group AAA boys basketball championship game at Liberty University in 2002.
I saw Glenvar’s Allyson Fasnacht throw a basketball 81 feet, 9 inches that went through the hoop in a girls state tournament game at Salem Civic Center.
I saw Blacksburg golfer Jake Mondy pull off what still might be the greatest clutch golf shot anyone ever hit on the way to winning the Group AA individual championship at Blacksburg Country Club.
Hitting from the next tee box after a penalty stroke, Mondy hit over a huge tree and the ball stopped the width of a scorecard from the cup. Trophy please.
Moments like those stand out, but what really resonates are the personal stories of triumph and tragedy I have been able to bring to readers along the way:
The incredible faith of Surry County basketball coach Joseph Ellis, who in the pressroom after his team won the Group A boys state title at VCU’s Siegel Center, recounted his battle with the cancer that would take his life one month later.
I took a look back 10 years after the fateful intersection on a Friday night in 1997 in Victory Stadium when Pulaski County’s Lee Cook and William Fleming’s Jamie Penn collided on a routine play. One never got up. The other did but was taken down several years later by gun violence. I am forever inspired by the strength of the members of both families.
I heard of the selfless service of Carnis Poindexter, who was denied opportunities to play tennis in segregated Roanoke in the 1950s and early 1960s, only to mentor scores of young people. A 50-year deacon at a African-American church in Roanoke that houses a stained glass window dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, Poindexter has demonstrated that not everything needs to be defined as just black and white.
Then there was the inspiring courage and faith of cancer-stricken John Battle High School student Andrew Mullins, whose angel-here-on-Earth life prompted the Virginia High School League to create an annual achievement award in his memory.
I might not be finished telling stories such as those, but it will have to be through a different vehicle.
I am told my position at The Roanoke Times will be filled, hopefully not by another dinosaur from a long-gone era of newspapers, the printed version of which one day also will go to the fossil heap.
Technology rapidly changed the business, both good and bad.
In 1978 we pounded out newspaper stories on big, black IBM electric typewriters. Sometimes at deadline, a story was “written” by locating a pay telephone (explain to your kids, folks) and coming up with words off the top of your head to someone taking dictation on the other end.
Portable laptop computers came into vogue in the 1980s but not without problems in the pre-wireless era.
A dedicated telephone line often was needed to transmit a story. At most high schools, it meant connecting through a fax machine.
One night long ago at Marion High School, I was locked out of the school in frantic need of 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 some help. I’m desperate.”
One of the ladies sized me up and replied, “Well the dance is right in there, honey. Go on in. You might get lucky.”
I have indeed been fortunate.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013. I told William Fleming football coach Bobby Martin that August about my condition.
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 instructed his players to form a circle in the center of the locker room with me in the middle. Players closest to me put their hands on my shoulders. Others reached.
The coach preached:
In 44 years, I hope I did.