By Tom Mattingly
How did it happen that Lindsey Nelson, a product of Columbia, Tennessee, became one of the best sportscasters of his era?
It was all very simple, with the humblest of humble beginnings, with Lindsey pulling out all the stops. He was totally committed to Bob Neyland’s axiom, “Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way – SCORE!”
That’s exactly what he did.
For those of you who might have lived on or near Valley View Road, you were a part of history and probably didn’t realize it.
Sometime in the summer of 1947, Lindsey was in search of gainful employment and needed to assemble an audition record (an actual acetate disk, not a tape, in those days) for an assignment broadcasting sports for Knoxville radio station WKGN.
“The recorder inscribed a voice on the record, all right, but it wasn’t too clear,” Lindsey wrote in his autobiography, “Hello Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson.” “Perhaps that was just what I wanted. Maybe a thin reproduction, a suggestion of performance, would serve my purpose best.”
One afternoon at home, with no one else around and trusty recorder in hand, Lindsey began doing play-by-play of an imaginary scrimmage at Shields-Watkins Field some distance away. He didn’t tell anyone it was imaginary, saying only he was far enough away from the field “in order not to intrude” on the festivities.
With the tape completed, Lindsey delivered the finished product in a plain brown wrapper to station manager Charlie DeVois on a street corner downtown, much the way spies did in the movies. It was a cloak-and-dagger operation.
Or that’s the way it appeared.
With that little exchange, a career was born. He got a nightly 15-minute sports gig and a chance to broadcast high school football.
His first game was from the old Evans-Collins Field, just off Magnolia Avenue, near Winona Street. Lindsey did not recall the combatants, but that omission didn’t seem to matter. He was in the broadcast business… to stay.
“I had tried to put together all I had ever learned from the afternoons with Bill Stern at the Rose Bowl [as Stern’s spotter in 1940], with Fort Pearson at the Sugar Bowl [as Pearson’s spotter at the 1941 contest in New Orleans], and with the writers in the press box at the Orange Bowl. I tried to draw on Stern’s sense of drama and Pearson’s professionalism. I had studied the teams, and I tried to be exciting and accurate.”
After that first broadcast, DeVois grabbed Lindsey, excitedly, and asked him what he had just done.
It was just a football game, Lindsey said, matter-of-factly.
“No, no,” said DeVois, “You have just done the best football broadcast ever heard in this town. The very best.”
Lindsey probably couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Preparation had become well acquainted with opportunity. Everything Lindsey had done to that time was suddenly a prologue to glory. It was akin to giving Picasso a paintbrush, Heifetz a violin, or Barney Fife a pistol.
Exciting things were about to happen.
“I went home,” Lindsey wrote, “and patted my spotter’s boards gently. They had been to the Rose Bowl. Maybe I could someday work in the Rose Bowl. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Then he added this comment.
“If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true?”
Lindsey did make it to the Rose Bowl, finally, calling the 1964 contest between Illinois and Washington (Illinois 17, Washington 7) for NBC. That dream, as well as many others, had come to fruition.
That happened because of an audition record prepared one afternoon in Northeast Knoxville. Lindsey didn’t give the venue’s street address, but the McClung Collection at the Knox County Public Library did: 1606 Valley View Road. That’s where the first tentative steps leading to a storied broadcast career took place.
Since then, history has taken a number of twists and turns with the road being renamed (Valley View Drive) and street number 1606 being consigned to history.
Lindsey led an exciting life in sports communication, doing major league baseball for the Mets, Giants, and Reds, the videotaped Notre Dame replay, and pro football on both Sunday afternoon and Monday night.
His sports coats were legendary. His broadcast intro, “Hello, Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson,” was likewise well known to sports fans of his era. When fans heard that mellow baritone, they knew very quickly whose it was.
Here’s an important lesson. Never discount the power of a dream.