Twenty-five years ago, the Johnson City Press took a chance on an East Tennessee State student for a part-time position in the sports department.
A quarter century later, he’s still there — a few years older and hopefully a couple decades wiser.
If someone doesn’t believe life is a mist that appears for a little time and vanishes, it probably means they haven’t considered how fast 25 years can flash before your eyes.
In this column, I’ve tried to hit some things that jumped into my mind when thinking about my time at the Press. This is not an attempt at listing every wonderful thing I’ve seen, and I can’t begin to mention all of the people who have impacted my life in the last quarter century.
But these are a few memories that stood out since I joined the fray on Sept. 6, 1986.
Things were a bit different at the Press back in the day. The computer keyboard was huge compared to today’s standards — about the size of an old standard typewriter — and the monitor looked like it belonged on the set of the 1960s television show “Star Trek.”
Copy was printed and then run through a wax machine before being positioned on a page. Scalpels could correct a comma into a period with one well-placed slice, and the scoreboard page was sometimes a nightmare to piece together.
Pages were designed with a ruler, pencil and paper before being stuffed into a tube and jettisoned to the composing department.
The paper, which nows goes with one click to Kingsport for printing, was produced right in the building.
The sports department was in transition as Kelly Hodge had just taken over as managing sports editor. Kelly is still there, and Doug Janz remains at the Press in the Tempo department.
I started as an office boy of sorts, taking phone calls and writing staff reports and briefs.
My first writing assignment was covering a high school football game between Sullivan Central and Dobyns-Bennett. The Indians were 8-0 and the Cougars were 7-1, and the Big Ten Conference title was on the line. D-B won, 28-9.
It wasn’t long before I was covering high school sports all over the place. And even though I spent about eight years driving to Knoxville for home games of the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team in the 1990s, high school sports was my niche.
I remember one Saturday in 1996 covering an afternoon game in Thompson-Boling Arena, and speeding — yes, I admit it — back to Viking Hall for the championship game of the District 1-AAA basketball tournament that evening. Elizabethton stunned two-time defending state champion Science Hill, but the Cyclones would later experience their own upset in the regional semifinals at the hands of D-B.
So here’s a trip down memory lane that starts with Bill Lane:
The Kingsport Times-News reporter was at that Central/D-B game, and he helped me immensely with what could have been an overwhelming night. He had been in the business almost a quarter century at that time, and is still going strong today.
I covered the Texas-Tennessee women’s basketball game that set a Guinness Book record for attendance (24,563). Texas killed the Lady Vols, 97-78, and I got my picture in Sports Illustrated (sort of). I was in the background of a picture in the article, which was titled, “Texas Waltz in Tennessee.”
I started covering Unicoi County baseball, and it was really a privilege to record many of the key moments of the Devils Dynasty in Dixie.
The Blue Devils finished state runner-up to Goodpasture Christian that season, and it was their third straight No. 2 finish. It was the first state tournament I had covered, played at Nashville’s Greer Stadium. I remember being wide-eyed about the whole experience.
I took over as the main reporter for Science Hill basketball, and the timing was incredible.
The Hilltoppers were about to put one of their best-ever teams on the floor. I remember being a little intimidated by fiery head coach George Pitts, and one evening we had a small disagreement. After the next game, Pitts pulled me aside and assured me he didn’t want to be my enemy. And a friendship was born.
I respect Pitts as a person, having watched him go through the personal tragedy of losing his wife yet taking the time to make sure a young reporter knew how important it was to spend time with family.
Pitts’ teams won three state championships, but it was the 1989-90 season that delivered what I consider the defining moment of Science Hill basketball. Trailing 51-36 in the third quarter of a Class AAA substate game against Sevier County, it looked like the Hilltoppers’ 33-1 season would end in great disappointment.
But a heart-pounding rally was capped by Orville Whittington’s fading, falling, backboard-kissing, buzzer-beating shot that put the Hilltoppers in the state tournament. They would go on to win in triple overtime against Memphis Christian Brothers, and then shocked previously undefeated Nashville Whites Creek before beating Chattanooga Tyner in the title game.
There were great moments at the state tournament, but none of them would have happened without Whittington’s heroics.
For some reason, I distinctly remember a moment at that state tournament when Bill Lane appeared to be turning green with illness a few hours after trying alligator meat at Manuel’s Cajun Country Store. A group of writers made the short trip to the restaurant before the championship game. I guess former Bristol Herald-Courier writer Lori Worley and I can still laugh about it since Bill recovered nicely. Lori and I did not try the alligator.
I wrote an article that was not well received in Erwin about the Unicoi County baseball team choosing to forfeit a game in South Carolina in the early part of that season. A short time later, I covered a game in Afton where the Blue Devils saw their amazing 98-game Watauga Conference winning streak come to an end at the hands of Chuckey-Doak.
But this season will remain locked among my best memories. The Blue Devils were 5-6 at one point, but completely turned their season around.
It led to probably the most dramatic moment I’ve ever witnessed in a high school baseball game. Cubby Lane, a sophomore who was batting ninth in Unicoi County’s order, smashed his first home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh inning, a walk-off piece that ended Chuckey-Doak’s season and spurred the Blue Devils on to the first of two straight Class AA state championships.
I can still see the ball hitting off the telephone wires in left-center field, and the players mobbing Lane at home plate.
Two days later, I remember sitting in the dugout and apologizing to coach Charlie Baxter for the earlier story — which could have been handled better by a more-seasoned reporter. Baxter graciously accepted the apology and we have had a great relationship to this day.
At the Elizabethton football media day, head coach Dave Rider spoke highly of a freshman he expected to be a really good player for the Cyclones.
As it turned out, Shawn Witten would go on to become one of the best players in school history. But there was another Witten at that media day, and Rider said, “Wait ‘til you see this one play.”
The oversized eighth-grader looked like he was ready to suit up for the Cyclones’ varsity that day. These days, Jason Witten suits up for the Dallas Cowboys. Rider is the boys’ granddad, and no doubt a proud one.
For a whole decade, I was blessed with the opportunity to watch and cover my three daughters as they played soccer and basketball at Elizabethton.
I certainly received my share of criticism for biased reporting through those years — face to face, calls to my bosses, and numerous e-mails. For the people who voiced their complaints in a courteous manner, I respect your right to express your opinion.
And while I’m certain I failed at times, I always tried to filter what I wrote through the lens of “would I write this same thing if I didn’t know these kids personally?” I really tried to bend over backwards in an effort to avoid bias.
One of the most entertaining softball games I ever covered was Unicoi County’s game against Hume-Fogg in the state tournament.
The Lady Blue Devils would go on to win their first state title, but it probably wouldn’t have happened without the 13-inning marathon win over Hume-Fogg. For three international-tiebreaker innings, the two teams played such magnificent defense that a 2-2 score did not change despite each inning beginning with a runner on second.
Unicoi eventually scored five times in the 13th inning, and won 7-2. And Baxter, who had moved over to coach softball, guided his team on to the state championship.
If the 2002 game wasn’t the most entertaining in softball, the 2009 title game was. Unicoi held off powerful Goodpasture Christian 3-1, giving coach Grady Lingerfelt his first state championship.
Pitcher Kara Woods, perhaps the best this area has ever seen, was masterful. I feel fortunate to have witnessed so many of her inspiring performances on the softball field.
In closing, one of the things I found to be most rewarding about sports writing is the helpfulness of people in this profession.
At any point if I needed help with information, I could call someone who works at the Kingsport, Elizabethton, Bristol, Greeneville, Knoxville or many other papers. There is a spirit of cooperation among sports writers that defies the hustle and decay of every-day life.
And for that, I am truly thankful. Here’s to the next 25 years, Lord willing.
Douglas Fritz can be contacted at email@example.com.