By Steve Williams
The Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame thanked one of its own at last week’s 35th annual Dinner and Induction ceremonies.
Ben Byrd, the longtime sports editor and columnist of The Knoxville Journal who was inducted into the GKSHOF in 1987, was a special award recipient in the “Thanks for the Memories” category. Kathy Byrd received the award on her father’s behalf.
Ben, who turned 91 in April, isn’t doing too well, according to his oldest son, Rick, the highly successful basketball coach at Belmont University in Nashville.
“Overall his health has been great until the last year,” said Rick via e-mail a week or so ago. “He is in the Ben Atchley Veterans Home out on Pellissippi Parkway. He is in a wheelchair and definitely has some dementia as he comes up with some wild stories, but he remembers all of us and his friends and his long term memory is pretty good.
“Mom (Jo) is still living where they did until he had to go to the assisted living facility but is pretty close to needing a place herself. We have been lucky with terrific parents.”
I want to get out there and visit with Ben soon. In the meantime, I want to extend my gratitude to him, starting by saying I still remember the day in the spring of 1973 that he interviewed and offered me the prep editor’s position on his sports staff. I took the job and worked hard at it for 15½ years until becoming a victim of the company’s downsizing in the fall of 1988.
Just two years prior to that, I had been named the Prep Sportswriter of the Year in Tennessee by the Lawrenceburg Quarterback Club, but enough about me. Ben’s recommendation, I’m sure, went a long way in me receiving the award anyway.
We had a great sports staff under Byrd, and over the years I’ve often had people tell me they thought our sports coverage was the best in town.
When I started at The Journal, Ed Harris was the executive sports editor in the twilight of his career and Russ Bebb was assistant sports editor. Alex Simpson and R.G. Smithson were others on the staff. Randy Moore came aboard a year after me, then Gary Lundy, Cindy McConkey, Dennis Tuttle and others.
Of course, I can’t leave out Mike Waters, my high school classmate and friend from Clinton who first joined The Journal on a part-time basis not too long after I started. Mike and I worked together covering sports for our hometown paper, The Courier-News, while in high school. Mike was a big help to me covering the prep beat at The Journal while eventually also assisting with the entire sports department.
Ben pretty much let us all do our thing. That was the key to all the sports awards our staff won over the years.
Knoxville in 1973 was much different. Nobody had heard of a Sunsphere or dreamed of a World’s Fair.
Pat Summitt was on her way to Knoxville, but Johnny Majors had yet to come marching home. Ben would write a book about that later.
We still hadn’t enjoyed the Ernie and Bernie Show either.
It was the era of long hair and leisure suits.
I remember Ben often wearing a sport coat minus a tie but with big shirt collars.
I noticed too he often went down to the snack bar and brought back a hot cup of coffee and snack cake to his desk before writing one of his Byrd’s Eye View columns.
Smoking was common back in those days and even still allowed in The Journal newsroom that was on the second floor in The Knoxville News Sentinel building.
I enjoyed lighting up a Dutch Masters’ cigar and I still can see Ben smoking one of his cigarettes, leaning back just a little in his chair and respectfully blowing the smoke up in the air away from others close by.
Basketball probably was Ben’s first love when it came to UT sports. After all, he named his second son, Emmett Lindsey Byrd, after former Vols basketball coach (1947-59) Emmett Lowery and legendary sportscaster Lindsey Nelson. He also authored “The Basketball Vols” in 1975.
I would be willing to bet too the only time Ben ever pulled against a Tennessee basketball team was in 2008 when the Vols were playing son Rick’s Belmont Bruins.
“I would simply say that as a father he was totally supportive of me as an athlete and a coach,” said Rick, “but never really tried to coach me and certainly did not second guess anyone who ever coached me. (He did start to strongly second guess some officiating when I started coaching!)
“He is from a lost generation of sportswriters who simply reported on the games, coaches and athletes without being critical. He realized it was, and is, a game.”
I also respected how Byrd would let a season play out before passing judgment, compared to some sports columnists who may change their tune after every win or loss.
“There are a million things I could say, of course, about the ways he loved and supported both me and my brothers – encouraging us, loving us unconditionally,” said Kathy via e-mail.
“A couple of things stick with me with regard to sports and our relationship with each other,” added Kathy, who is dean of the English Department at Pellissippi State. “One is that although girls who grew up in the 1960s did not typically receive a lot of encouragement to play sports, Dad supported my athletic pursuits wholeheartedly. Although my organized sports opportunities were limited, I was always out playing whatever I could either for school, or in a league, or just with the boys in the neighborhood. He and I were both very disappointed that Knox County did not have girls basketball during my years at Doyle High School (1969-1973).”
That, fortunately, would soon change, and Byrd became one of the first mainstream sportswriters in the country to provide equal coverage for women’s college basketball.