Fifty trips around the sun have been a ball

mugI never make a big deal out of birthdays, but this was a big one. Maybe THE big one, as in the Big 5-0. Pretty sure I won’t be around long enough to hit triple digits so this is as good a milestone as any to take a stroll down sports memory lane.

More than half of my 50 trips around the sun have been spent as a sportswriter, the entire 50 as a fan, and a few back in “the day” as a decent athlete. I’m not sure if I should be proud or sad that so much of my life has been dedicated to games, relatively meaningless affairs in the grand scheme of things, but definitely not boring. Here are a few highlights:

* Greatest Athlete of My Time: This is my list and there’s no room for debate – Muhammad Ali. Not just for what he accomplished in the ring. His very public stances on the issues of race, religion and international relations have made him a transcendent figure for my generation and he continues to serve as a symbol for the changing times he lived in.

* Best Athlete I Ever Covered: My first Beach Ball Classic was the year Kobe Bryant came to town as the only decent player on a bad Lower Merion (PA) team. He tried to carry his teammates on his back against more talented teams and players but you could tell he was going to be special. I remember hearing his team won the Class A state championship that year, a minor miracle given what he had to work with. Nearly 20 years later he’s still breaking NBA records.

* Best Game I Ever Saw: I still have a chunk of goal post in my man cave from the 1984 Alabama-Tennessee football game. I was a freshman at UT when the Vols rallied from a 27-13 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat the Tide 28-27 on a last-second 2-point conversion by quarterback Tony “T-Rob” Robinson. Neyland Stadium erupted as we tore down the uprights and paraded them down The Strip. A dorky RA tried to seize my souvenir under the guise of stolen university property.

* Best Game I Ever Covered: The outcome wasn’t so great but the experience was unreal. I was chosen to cover the Carolina Panthers’ run to the 1997 NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Carolina made it close for a half but Brett Favre put on a show in the second half. The stadium was so old and crowded that I didn’t have a desk or computer access to write after the game, so I hopped the shuttle back to the media hotel and found an empty media hospitality room with cold beer, hot food and a fax machine spitting out stats, notes and quotes.

* Favorite Sport to Watch: If you know me, this one is easy. Although I love sports in general and will often watch a bad game over a good TV show, football is my first and only real love. The passion and excitement for high school and college football in the South was seared in my brain from birth, and I still love watching the analogy for warfare play out on the gridiron.

* Favorite Sport to Cover: This one might come as a surprise. During my 25-year tenure as a sportswriter, I have had to cover some crazy sports – donkey basketball, camel racing, cow-pie bingo, Frisbee-catching dogs. But none is more fun than the sport of kings, horse racing. My love for horses and gambling are part of the appeal, but there’s nothing more exciting to me than standing near the final turn and watching the colorful and powerful steeds stampede down the home stretch. See, I’ve got goose bumps.

* Favorite Sports Team: It was hard being a fan and a sportswriter at the same time, but I managed to maintain my alliances to a handful of teams. My Volunteers are still my only college squad, although I have grown to root for Clemson and South Carolina during my 20 years in the Palmetto State. The Chicago Cubs are still my biggest burden, but hopefully the Lovable Losers will win their first World Series in over a century during my lifetime.

* Favorite Sports Moments to Cover: The list is long, especially for events on the Grand Strand. I had the chance to cover the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ transition from the Durham Bulls, the Coastal Carolina football team play and win their first game, South Carolina hire coaching legends Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, Myrtle Beach High football turn into a state powerhourse and countless other local teams accomplish state championships.

* Favorite Sports Moment to Attend: Who would have thought the Harlem Globetrotters would be my inspiration to be a sportswriter? When I was 10, a neighbor and sportswriter at The Nashville Banner got a bunch of freebies to see the ‘Trotters take the Washington Capitals to school … again. I joined him and his sons to our seats, but he went and sat courtside. Even got a bucket of confetti thrown on him. “What a job,” I thought.

“What a job” I still say 40 years later. I’ve been able to interview and/or watch some of the greats play their games at close range – Jack Nicklaus, Joe Montana, Dale Earnhardt (Jr. and Sr.), Arnold Palmer, Jerry Rice, Cal Ripken Jr., Michael Jordan (albeit baseball) and, yes, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. It has been a long, strange 50-year ride, but it has been a ball.

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