It’s been quite a week for former East Tennessee State athletes.
Mister Jennings had his jersey retired in France, Tom McCormack won a national cross country championship and Aaron Schoenfeld scored his first MLS goal.
Jennings, one of the most popular ETSU athletes in any sport, received quite a surprise. He was contacted by one of his former teams, LeMans Sarthe, and asked if he would come back to take part in an anniversary celebration of a squad for which he was a French League MVP.
When he got there, Jennings found out he was brought to France under a less-than-honest guise.
As it turns out, in his two years at LeMans, Jennings had the same kind of effect he had on Johnson City. The fans loved him, even many years later.
He was in town as the guest of honor.
When he arrived at the arena to watch his former team play, the secret plan began to come together. Jennings became a little suspicious. He was brought out to center court to throw up a ceremonial jump ball. Then he noticed a black rope leading up to the rafters.
“That’s when I realized something was up,” he said.
When the rope was pulled, a curtain came down. A bright orange No. 7 jersey was unveiled. On the back, above the number, was “K. Jennings.”
Mister’s jersey had been retired.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Jennings said. “It was very humbling. I had no idea. It really turned out to be one of the best trips I ever took. I felt like I was about to play. It felt that good.”
The team paid for Jennings and his brother to come to LeMans. They brought along a friend. After the Saturday ceremony, a sightseeing trip to Paris was scheduled, all expenses paid.
Jennings said he figured he’d never go back to France, but if they were paying, he was going.
Jennings played for LeMans from 1997-99. He averaged 19.4 points and 6.7 assists in 1998-99 and was the league’s MVP. A town known more for the 24 Hours of LeMans race has a basketball hero.
“I couldn’t go too many places without people knowing me or treating me to dinner,” he said of his playing career in LeMans. “It was a real good time over there. They were passionate about basketball. They liked to see good basketball.”
Jennings recalled showing up at the arena during his playing days and seeing a cutout picture of his face on each of the 6,000 seats.
“It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen,”he said. “And some people kept those for that long and had them at the game.”
Jennings, who played 164 NBA games in three years for the Golden State Warriors, played for three teams in France over six years. He also played in Spain, Russia, Germany and Turkey.
Jennings, in his fifth season as an assistant coach at Bluefield College, saw a few familiar faces during the recent trip. A former teammate was present, and his former coach was on hand and said Jennings was his favorite player he ever coached. Some of the newspaper men and TV reporters were still working.
It was the third time Jennings has had a jersey retired. Culpeper High School in Virginia, ETSU and now Le Mans.
“It never gets old,” he said.
McCormack also seems to never get old. The retired Johnson City fireman won the 60-64 age group at the USA Track and Field national cross country championship, running the 5-kilometer course in Flemington, N.J., in 17:16.
When McCormack and his wife, Teresa, arrived the morning of the race, he jogged the entire course, only to realize he had lost the key to the car they rented in Philadelphia, some 70 miles away. Minutes before the start of the race, Teresa jogged to the car to look for the key. When she came back, Tom was on the starting line. She yelled to him that she had found it.
“At that point I could concentrate on the race,” said McCormack, who holds numerous Tennessee age-group records. “You don’t know what a burden that took off.”
So McCormack began his race, jumping out to an early lead, with a clear mind.
The only problem was, Teresa really hadn’t found the key. She just didn’t want her husband to worry about it with a national championship on the line.
Once McCormack got going, he wasn’t really challenged.
“About 400 yards in I was leading,” he said. “I just kept going and continued on. I kept listening for someone to come and catch me. I led the whole race. Never did look back.”
He won by more than a minute. A while after he finished, with his medal around his neck, McCormack found out more good news. His time age-graded to the second fastest time of the day and he was presented with a check for $300. Not a bad day for a runner who wasn’t even mentioned in the USA Track and Field’s preview story as a possible contender in his age group.
And while he was running, Teresa did, indeed, find the key.
“It was a great day,” McCormack said.
McCormack said his running partner, Earl Brown, played a big role in the victory.
“Without his help, I don’t think I would have been as successful,” McCormack said.
Schoenfeld, meanwhile, made his first MLS goal for the Columbus Crew a memorable one. In a game against the New England Revolution, his left-footed, turnaround shot curled into the upper left corner of the net and was nominated for MLS goal of the week.
The goal can be seen on Youtube.com under the headline “Aaron Schoenfeld curls fantastic shot to corner.”
He also had an assist in a 3-2 loss that dropped his team out of playoff contention.
Schoenfeld hadn’t played since late July because of injuries. The Crew has one more game left, playing host to New England today.