“What did he do? All he did was score. Joey Kent! TOUCHDOWN ON PLAY. NUMBER. ONE!”
As a seven-year-old kid sitting in my grandparent’s den, those words came out of the radio speakers as my Papaw threw his hands up clapping, and I jumped up and down because Tennessee had scored. I didn’t understand all the history yet. I didn’t know how long the Vols had gone without beating Alabama. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Alabama was that much more important than anyone else. I was just a kid, sharing something my Papaw loved, that was taking the first steps on journey that has led me across the country following my team. I didn’t know much then, but I had picked up on one thing. I’d never heard anyone like that voice on the radio.
The founder of The All Vol Call In Show regularly reminds us of ways we can improve as writers, pushing us to always be as professional as possible. He wants us to grow as a respected source of news and information for Tennessee fans, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I try my best to take all the, “I’s,” out of the articles and be a writer first. Today is a bit different though. Today is a piece for a man that, though he never knew it, shaped my life. A man that did that same thing for folks all over Vol Nation. Frankly, he was as much a part of Saturdays in the Fall as Orange and White, Checkerboard Endzones, and Rocky Top. He was the Voice, he was ours, and he was a friend to those of us that listened intently. Today, through teary eyes, I want to write a small something to say goodbye. So, there are going to be plenty of personal stories, and more than a few, “I’s.” Sorry, boss.
God made exactly one John Ward. Throughout the history of broadcasting, there have been many people that were outstanding at what they did. Many announcers are beloved by their fan bases and showed excellence in broadcast journalism every time they came to do their job. That is just fine. John Ward was the best there has ever been at what he did. We all know it. Vol fans were quietly proud, gave a knowing nod and smile to those that ever mentioned their guy, and tried to be civil. We never made a fuss because we knew that John was as good as it got. We weren’t going to budge on that, and there was no need to have any conflict. So, we smiled nicely and went on our way, knowing that the perfect gentleman with the blue towel around his neck, our guy, was the best there was. He’s gone now, and it is just time to make sure what everyone that had the opportunity to listen to him call a game already knows, is said. He was the best, and we’ll brook no argument on the matter.
I sat in that den at my grandparent’s house for most of the football Saturdays I have seen in my life. Every week we did something that I found odd as a child. When the lead up to the game started, my Papaw would mute the TV, and we would turn on the radio to listen to the Vol Network. For years, I had always wondered why Papaw would put headphones on to watch Tennessee play on television. It was after just a few drives that I understood. That meant Papaw now scrapped the headphones and just turned up the stereo. (My Mamaw is saint, for those of you wondering. She has listened to quite a lot of Mr. Ward over the years as well, often quite loud and quite late. I still laugh when I think of all she has put up with over the years.) It wasn’t until I was older and made friends across the state that I realized something: What Papaw and I did with the radio every Saturday happened in a lot of homes across Vol country. John Ward and Bill Anderson had that perfect combination of professionalism, information, and passion. Those broadcasts were just superior to whatever would be on the television. I’ve even complained that the only bad thing about going to Neyland Stadium was that you couldn’t listen to John Ward on the radio during the game. Imagine my surprise when, as a child, I saw people in every section wearing AM/FM headphones just to get around that. That didn’t happen at other schools. I’ve been in most of the stadiums in the SEC and several more besides. Nowhere did such a significant percentage of fans in the stadium wear headsets to hear their radio announcer.
Then again, nowhere else had John Ward.
Growing as a fan, I did what so many of us have done. I started to investigate the history of the program. I asked Papaw a few million questions, (probably a saint as well, now that I think about it) scoured record books, and read all the articles I could get my hands on. Then my parents got me some of the VHS tapes that the Vol Network produced chronicling the best plays, players, and teams in Tennessee history. I memorized them from seeing them so many times. And the voice narrating that history to me? The person that made all those calls that still make the hairs on my arm stand up? John Ward.
The more I listened, the more I was transfixed. All the talented players I had read about, the great games from program history, I knew all of that. I had even seen most of the video footage at one time or another. What none of those could convey though, was the feeling of the moment. The excitement, despair, angst, or elation that everyone in Orange felt as it happened was lost even in reviewing the old tapes. That is, until you listened to Mr. Ward call the plays. You felt every emotion that Tennessee fans had as the plays unfolded. For an instant, you were present as the Sugar Vols upset Miami or Condredge Holloway made a miraculous escape to score, despite not having been born when those games were played. Mr. Ward could pour emotion into his words with an unrivaled gift, and his words became a living link to Tennessee history. He could put those that had been at the games back there in a breath and recreate the moment for those of us that had never seen it.
You see, John Ward had a gift. Ask any fan of any other team if they want to hurry home to watch the game or take a little more time but have the game on the radio. The answer will almost surely contain a comment along the lines of, “I want to get home as quick as I can because I will miss something if I am just listening to it.” Tennessee fans were different, though. Sure, we all wanted to watch the game, but if we had the radio we were just fine. I remember my Papaw telling people that we were going to, “Watch the game on the radio.” In a room full of Vol fans, no one corrected him. John Ward could paint with his words. It was like having the screen just behind your eyes, each scene playing out as the brush strokes of his words illustrated it. Yeah, with John Ward calling a game, you could watch it on the radio. I did many times, and sometimes, I preferred it that way. Again, even as a kid, I knew that something was special about that man on the radio, and I wanted to take the time to enjoy it in a way I knew was unique.
At times as young, Tennessee fans, we all wanted to be our favorite players, the coach, or the drum major as they opened the T. Most schools have something like that. At Tennessee though, I think most of us wanted to be John Ward at some point. We all, in quiet moments when no one was looking, called out a long run in our minds, “He’s to the twenty, to the fifteen, ten, five, four, three, two, one…..GIVE. HIM. SIX!” As a matter of fact, re-read that last sentence, think of a play it applied to, and try not to smile. Mr. Ward brought so much joy to so many Tennessee fans with his words for so long. He created so many memories, became a part of so many moments, and became a piece of the Tennessee Tradition himself along the way. I think that is perhaps because he was one of us. John Ward was a Tennessee fan, doing a job that he loved, and he was never hesitant to let it show. His passion and excitement were infectious, and his creativity with his words only furthered the experience. He had all the skills to be excellent at his chosen profession, one of the very best, and then let those skills soak in a passion for Tennessee sports, his team, that ran as deep as any Vol fan out there. That combination was special.
See, that is what made John Ward so special, at least to me. Tennessee football, it is a love that I shared with my Papaw. As I have gotten older, it has been something I have shared with many of the dearest friends I’ve known. John Ward wasn’t only employed by UT, he was a part of UT. He became part of that aura and tradition himself. Many of my fondest memories, some of the clearest moments in my life, happened against the backdrop of words by John Ward.
I had the privilege to meet Mr. Ward one time. I was still a kid, but older and thoroughly steeped in Tennessee history and lore at this point. Mr. Ward was eating at a restaurant in the town where I grew up and I recognized him from across the room. The waitresses knew that I bled Orange, and that meeting John Ward would be like meeting a super hero to me, so they told him about me, and they had me come over. He shook my hand over his dinner, smiled, and signed a picture for me after we talked for a few moments. I’m sure now that what must have been an inconvenience for him was one of the highlights of my young life. That picture still hangs in my old room in my parents’ home. It felt right to me that it should stay there. It was my time spent with a piece of Tennessee tradition that had been a hero to me, a piece of that unexplainable magic that hangs over Neyland Stadium on an October Saturday that I had been able to touch.
John Ward was a friend to many Tennessee fans over the years. I did not have the opportunity to know him as a man. I only knew him as a legend in his own right, and as a part of what made my team special. He became a part of many of my most dearly held memories, pouring the passion we all felt into his words while we were still clapping and cheering. His voice, The Voice of the Vols, played a part in shaping who I am today, and his loss hurts. My prayers and condolences reach out to his family, friends, and those that knew him best. We thank you for sharing him with us for all those years. I only hope Mr. Ward comes through Heaven’s Gates as fast as Joey Kent ran on that night in Birmingham. Rest easy and enjoy a well-earned reward to the best that there ever was.
Thank you, John, from the bottom of our hearts.