‘The best football broadcast ever heard in this town’

By Tom Mattingly

Watching the barrage of televised college football bowl games over New Year’s weekend brought back memories of those long-ago days there were four games on the tube on New Year’s Day, the Cotton (CBS), Orange (NBC), Sugar (ABC), and Rose Bowls (NBC).

As history would have it, the Tennessee Vols made it into each of them on a regular basis, providing many exciting moments in the school’s football history. Tennessee’s appearances in the Rose Bowl were in the days radio ruled the roost.

During his distinguished career, Columbia, Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson was often referred to as the “Voice of the Cotton Bowl,” being closely identified with the game broadcast. He enjoyed telling the story of going to the field for a pre-game interview and nearly missing the kickoff when the press box elevator malfunctioned.

The Cotton Bowl was part of Lindsey’s exciting life in broadcasting. He also called major league baseball for the Mets, Giants, and Reds, the Notre Dame football replay on Sundays, and pro football on both Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. His sports coats were legendary.

More than 25 years have passed since his friends, including Notre Dame broadcast replay partner Paul Hornung, bade him fond farewell at Rose Mortuary Mann Heritage Chapel in West Knoxville.

How did it happen that Lindsey became one of the best sportscasters of his era, maybe ever, regardless of the sport?

It was all very simple, with the most humble of humble beginnings, with Lindsey pulling out all the stops. He believed in Bob Neyland’s axiom, “Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way – SCORE!”

For those readers who might have lived (or still live) on or near Valley View Road, near the Whittle Springs Municipal Golf Course in Northeast Knoxville, you’re living in the midst of history and very likely don’t realize it.

Sometime in the summer of 1947, Lindsey was in search of gainful employment after returning home from World War II. He needed to assemble an audition record for an assignment broadcasting sports for WKGN radio.

One afternoon at home, with no one else around and tape recorder in hand, Lindsey began doing play-by-play of an imaginary scrimmage at Shields-Watkins Field several miles away. He wrote that he was far enough away from the field “in order not to intrude” on the festivities.

‘The recorder inscribed a voice on the record, all right, but it wasn’t too clear. Perhaps that was just what I wanted. Maybe a thin reproduction, a suggestion of performance, would serve my purpose best.”

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, all top-secret stuff.

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 at the old Evans-Collins Field, just off Magnolia Avenue, near Winona Street.

“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.”

“You have just done the best football broadcast ever heard in this town,” said DeVois afterwards. “The very best.”

“The best football broadcast ever heard in this town.”

Preparation had suddenly become well acquainted with opportunity. Everything Lindsey had done to that time suddenly was a prologue to glory.

“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, calling the contest between Illinois and Washington for NBC. That dream, as well as many others, came true.

This all came about because of an audition record prepared in the yard of a house in Northeast Knoxville. The McClung Collection at the Knox County Public Library gave a street address for the record: 1606 Valley View Road.

There’s nothing there to commemorate the opening stanza of a storied career, no marker or anything like that.

But there ought to be.