Farewell, John Ward

I spent all of today in my office. I’ve had to revamp my book on the Rocky Top Revolution so often that I’ve probably written four full-length novels by now. But today I added more fan interviews, more media interviews — all the stuff you need to write a book about an unprecedented event. Little did I know that when I emerged from my office — internet and phone are off when I’m working — that I would walk right into another.

The news of John Ward’s death kind of hit me out of left field. For some reason, I was blindsided. That doesn’t make sense, does it? After all, Mr. Ward was elderly. He’d been retired for years and years. When we saw him last on November 25, he looked frailer than we’d ever seen him. He stood in the middle of Shields-Watkins Field, being honored by the university he’d given all his years to, tears in his eyes as the Vols put up the worst season in school history.

For some of us, that hurt worse than the actual game did. I mentioned that in my column “The Night the Lights Went Out In Neyland” after the last game of the season…the loss to Vanderbilt.

“To John Ward, we are sorry that as you cried tears of joy at the honor you received from Tennessee fans, the seeds were already sown for you to witness the ultimate destruction of the program you love. We did not do our best for you.”

But interestingly enough, today I was working on a chapter that focused heavily on John Ward…a chapter where I was discussing the differences between the fans of today and the fans of my generation, who grew up listening to John Ward call every single game. One of the things I wrote about in this chapter was my first memory of UT football — the afternoon that made me a Tennessee fan — at age four. Seems uncanny now that I was penning these words as John Ward breathed his last:

“What I thought was weird is that they were all staring at the radio. Even back in the 1970s radios were pretty boring. Not much to see. But the man’s voice coming over the radio snared my attention. I didn’t know it then, of course, but the man’s name was John Ward and for the first time, I was listening to the voice of the Vol Network.

“For a few minutes, I just stood there listening. Ward would speak on the radio, and then my dad or one of my uncles would make a comment. Two or three others would say something — my dad had eight brothers and sisters so there were a lot of people in that tiny Tennessee farmhouse — and then they’d all go silent again when the man on the radio started to speak.

“All of a sudden, Ward’s voice got excited. “Thirty…twenty-five…twenty…”

“When he got down to ten, he was getting into numbers that were familiar territory for me.

““Five…four…three…two…touchdown Tennessee!””

Generations of Tennessee kids grew up with similar experiences. We didn’t grow up with the cluster club of ESPN viewing opportunities. We saw maybe two games a year on television outside of Knoxville. So we all listened to the games on the radio, even though we were at the height of the television age. When the games were on TV, we’d turn down the volume and listen to the radio call anyway. When we went to Neyland Stadium for a game, which was a huge luxury for us in the 1970s and 1980s, we took our transistor radio with us so we could listen to Ward call the game.

It was unthinkable to watch a full game of football without hearing his voice. No one says the word “Tennessee” like John Ward.

John Ward was as much a part of our game day experience as the orange and white, Smokey, Rocky Top, running through the T, checkerboards and touchdowns. No matter where any of us were, when that whiskey-and-honey-smooth voice crackled over the airwaves, we were instantly transported to Neyland Stadium whether we’d ever been there or not. He could be talking about a car dealership or a PSA about Tennessee trash, and with the first syllable of his voice you always heard the same things.

Give him six.

Touchdown, Tennessee!

Wherever you listen throughout the world…it’s football time in Tennessee —

There was something about his voice that spoke to all of us — a father, a favorite uncle, the cool older guy who lived on the corner — all the older gentlemen in our lives that we never wanted to disappoint. You could tell, too, that the players felt the same way. No one wanted to disappoint John Ward. Especially not John Ward.

Especially not us.

I think we all knew how to do Ward imitations of his iconic calls. Heck, John Ward clips served as my ringtones for several years. I never lose my phone in Ohio. No one up here understands that when they hear my phone go off, they’re listening to one of the grand old traditions of the South. This isn’t some plastic Woody Hayes-driven Hang on Sloopy northern crap.

This is John Ward, and he is everything every broadcaster wanted to be and nothing like the sterile sports world up here.

We like our broadcasters to have a little color and a lot of personality.

John Ward and Bill Anderson played off each other so well for over three decades that we had a lot of color and an overdose of personality. Every game call you heard was a gift, wrapped up in John Ward’s voice and presented to every UT fan that couldn’t be on Rocky Top for the game that afternoon.

In my lifetime, there have been a few passings (outside my family) that have impacted me really hard. The hardest loss for me was Coach Summitt. To a little girl raised in the town where Wilma Rudolph had lived and run on her way to being the first female athlete to win three individual Olympic gold medals in the same games, Pat Head was my athletic idol. I met her after she returned from her silver medal trip to the Montreal Olympics, and our families knew each other. Her death almost two years ago was the hardest for me personally.

John Ward’s death is almost as hard. Everyone who wanted to grow up and work in sports journalism knew his name and his voice. When my high school football coach asked me to call the games at the stadium, John Ward’s face was the first one to flash across my mind.

Could I do it?

What would Mr. Ward say if I asked his opinion about a girl doing the play by play?

I never got the chance to find out. Never got to ask him what he thought of a girl calling games. Never got to learn if his advice when I told my journalism advisor I wanted to go into sports broadcasting would have been different, if maybe I should have stayed the course. I think his advice would have been different.

John Ward was the kind of man who never wanted the expected, who never dashed a dream if he could help it, who never believed in the word ‘impossible’.

John Ward was unabashedly a fan of the sports he covered and the school he loved. We got excited over our radios at home when he got that sudden charge in his voice, that split-second where electricity zipped through the airwaves and shocked us right in our seats. After that, you weren’t just listening to the game. You were seeing the game through his eyes, from arguably the best seat in the house. You watched field goals go wide, or interceptions coming back. You watched the long, perfect spiral of a Peyton Manning pass just like you’d watched Condredge Holloway scampering down the field as the Artful Dodger scored again.

You felt the heartbreak and the joy, the anguish and the shock, the losses and the wins because to your mind, those memories are always underscored with John Ward’s voice. And you watched the Tennessee Volunteers get to the promised land, reiterating to Vols faithful that UT was a storied program, in one of the greatest cathedrals to Saturday afternoon devotion and Sunday morning poll releases, and that on the hallowed field of Neyland Stadium only the greatest were worthy of the checkerboards.

And every single trip to the checkerboards, every field goal, every goal line stand was narrated by John Ward. Every game was a gift, and John Ward was part of that gift.

I have three grandsons now, who will grow up being able to watch any football or basketball game they want to. Tragically, their only connection to the great John Ward will be my stories and some YouTube links that preserve the images and that iconic voice.

But they will know what John Ward means to the University of Tennessee, because it’s both my obligation and my joy to teach them that. When they’re old enough to understand what I’m talking about, those lessons will be accompanied by the soundtrack that was John Ward.

It’s hard to imagine John Ward is gone, but his passing isn’t something unnatural or tragic. As The Byrds put it:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together…

For decades, Vol Nation knew that John Ward ushered in the season that is Rocky Top. His voice built us up for the excitement of the game, and broke the game down so we’d understand what had just happened. His voice danced with joy when the unexpected happened, and mourned when that unexpected thing didn’t turn out in our favor.

And now, once again in the steamy days at the end of June, it is now a time to mourn. But we don’t mourn for John Ward; we mourn for ourselves. We mourn that his voice lives on mostly in our memories or in the few calls you can find online. We mourn that our current and future players won’t have the connection to John Ward that we do. We mourn that one of the strongest links to the UT teams of our childhood has faded from the here and now.

That happens to all men, in time, but as long as there’s football and basketball at UT, John Ward’s wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop love for the university will reverberate in his legacy for generations to come. So while this is the season to mourn our loss of John Ward, it’s also the season to find ourselves once again united as Vol Nation.

John Ward gave us so many iconic moments, Tennessee. Time now to give him one. Time to send him home on a checkerboard wave of love and respect, with our thoughts fixed on one of those iconic moments — whichever one is your favorite. There are so many, but they’ll all do. For me, it’s the 1986 Sugar Vols and the sixty-yard touchdown run by Jeff Powell. If I could bottle John Ward and Bill Anderson’s call of that game, I would.

Then I’d uncork it and play it for every Miami fan I met. The two and a half hour game call was John Ward’s gift to me, as a member of Vol Nation. I know for a fact that if you listened to any of his game calls, he gave you a gift as well.

God bless and Godspeed, John Ward. In heaven, it’s always football time in Tennessee.