sports (2006-34)

Ordinary people make high-school sports extraordinary

Don’t Forget the Also-rans

by Tony Basilio

Of all the aspects of the way I make my living, invariably someone will ask me, what is your favorite? When I tell them covering high school sports, they look at me like I’m nuts. You mean it’s not the interaction with the future NFLers over at UT or the professional athletes you get to rub elbows with through your entry into mid-major market radio in East Tennessee?

It’s like the late, great Dick Schaap once told me when I was interviewing him about his memoir Flashing Before My Eyes . I asked Dick, “You’ve dined with kings, presidents and world leaders. You’ve been around world famous entertainers across the globe. Why in the world are you still drawn to sports?” His reply is something that’s always stuck with me in its simplicity, yet profoundness. He said, “It’s not about the sports with me, and it never has been. It’s about the people who play the games. It’s about the people. And do you know what? Some of the most interesting people that I’ve met along the way are athletes no one has ever heard of. You see, everybody has a story to tell in their lives and if you look hard enough, you will find them,” Schaap said.

So, there I was on Friday, Aug. 18, awaiting the start of the football season (in what the TSSAA in its infinite wisdom calls “Week Zero”) at Campbell County High School in LaFollette, flanked by Former Vol All American Will Overstreet and my radio co-hort, Jeff “Beano” Henderson for the beginning of another year of high-school football on 7-WMAK TV.

When we announced our schedule, people thought we were nuts for picking Campbell County versus Lenoir City. Both teams were coming off lackluster seasons. For Lenoir City, a jump in enrollment found them matriculating into 4A, where they were soundly thumped to the tune of a 4-6 season. On the Campbell County side, a school and a community still trying to pick of the pieces from last year’s shooting incident, they were trying to forget a 1-10 season. Who in the world would choose to open a season with two teams who combined for a 5-15 record a year ago?

Both squads have had their fair share of recent tragedy. Campbell County’s a public one in the aforementioned shooting that left a vice principal dead and a community wounded. Lenoir City, a team that had three sets of twins at one time was down to two, after Brian Christian, the twin brother of middle linebacker Brad Christian, died last winter of complications from pneumonia. 

Lost in the shadows of a program that has been beset with mediocrity through its history is the fact that Campbell County is a majestic place to see a football game. The view from the press box was worth the price of admission alone. Mountains and wondrous foliage as far as the eye could see dotted a landscape that included a herd of cows grazing in the foreground, just beyond the playing field in the north end zone. So, even if we were going to see some sub-par football, at least we picked a beautiful spot to do it.

Apparently Lenoir City and Campbell County didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to stink out loud. A quarter into the affair, the brass at 7-WMAK in the scheduling department was more than vindicated. Lenoir City got off to a quick start going, 68 yards in two plays. It seemed Campbell County was well on the way to building on its nine-loss season of last year. Then, something happened. The Cougars, behind the leadership of senior QB Brance Stiner, answered with a long drive of their own, taking a 7-6 lead. From there, the two teams, on a night that turned humid through the mid-first quarter, overcame recent history and turned in a classic. For the record, Campbell County hung on and defeated the Panthers in the final minute on a goal-line fumble. Lenoir City was denied, six feet away, in a game that truly had no losers.

This game between two pedestrian East Tennessee football programs is exhibit A for the beauty of high school sports. It doesn’t matter how many division-one prospects are on a field. Or for that matter how much local hype. The game is about young athletes overcoming and achieving, even in the face of tragedy and adverse odds.

In a lot of ways, high-school sports mirror life itself. The stars get the headlines, but ordinary people are the underpinnings of this great land we inhabit. In a culture that exalts the Madonnas and Branjolinas, the real heroes toil in anonymity. For this reason, with high-school football upon us, I encourage you to see a game, any game, and rediscover the simplicity of effort, courage and community at a high-school game near you.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.