1994: I’m a freshman in high school. I’m coming back from a rafting trip with my church youth group and Tennessee is playing Mississippi State in Starkville. We listen in a van on our way back to Knoxville. On the radio. Now some might think this is a lousy way to take in a college football game, but friends I am here to tell you that I’d sooner experience every game in this manner than watch another game in crystal clear high definition with some milquetoast announcer trying deperately not to offend a soul. John Ward is on the call. With his trusty color man Bill Anderson alongside adding his homespun drop-ins, this is the way God meant for us to experience college football. Or the way I feel I was meant to experience it anyway. Tennessee lost that game. Quarterback got hurt. Freshman by the name of Manning finished the game. But listening to Ward on that trip home is a happy memory for me.
To grow up listening to John Ward in Knoxville was to grow up listening to the best. John didn’t just paint a word picture. It was better than that. He uploaded not only the play-by-play information of the game but all the emotion that came with it and injected it directly into your soul.
1989: I’m in my bed listening to Tennessee’s basketball team play Alabama in Tuscaloosa. My dad is sitting in a wooden chair he’s brought into my room. He’s shooting a small rubber basketball into the air. The lights are out and we’re listening to John Ward call the game. Tennessee loses in OT. I’m pretty sure I cried. But listening to John Ward call a basketball game with my dad is another cherished childhood memory.
These are a few of my John Ward memories. There are hundreds more. If you were lucky enough to have grown up with his voice as the soundtrack to an East Tennessee fall afternoon, you doubtless have many of your own.
For me, John was an inspiration. I, like many, used to dream of being “the next John Ward.” Of course there will never be another. TV has renedered the radio play-by-play man virtually obsolete. But it’s just as well. How can you possibly replace perfection?
Is it wrong to refer to him as “John?” We weren’t on a first name basis after all. But calling the man Mr. Ward just doesn’t seem right. Too formal.
To turn on the radio and listen to John Ward call a game was to welcome an old friend into your home or car. No…not a friend. A family member. And when a family member dies you drop the formal stuff.
2017: I’m sitting in my dentist’s office waiting to be called back. John is in the waiting room with me reading a book. Do I talk to him? He probably doesn’t want to be bothered. But I can’t resist. Nervously I say, “Mr. Ward?”
John proceeds to talk to me for about 15 minutes until I’m called back. I think I got two or three questions in. The man likes to talk. And I like to listen. Especially to him. He tells me about his first radio jobs (one was on WKGN where I work now). The last time I got to hear his voice was in person in a one on one conversation. How lucky is that?
Every time we heard The Voice was pure luck. For that, we should all be thankful.