Chris LowESPN Senior Staff Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — John Ward’s unmistakable and wonderfully crisp voice painted the picture of Tennessee football and basketball on the radio for parts of four decades.
On Wednesday night, generations of fans who hung on his every “Give him six!” and every “Bottom!” came to Thompson-Boling Arena to pay their last respects to the late “Voice of the Vols,” who died on June 20 at the age of 88 after battling a lengthy illness.
They were there to celebrate a man (and a voice) who will forever be as much a part of the University of Tennessee as the color orange, checkerboard end zones and Gen. Robert Neyland.
Former head football coach and athletic director Doug Dickey was there. So was former College Football Hall of Fame head coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer. Fox and NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who played on Tennessee’s 1985 SEC championship team, was one of many former athletes there. Peyton Manning was unable to attend, but he sent in a video as part of the tribute.
When Ward died last week, he was surrounded by those closest to him from the Vol Network and VFL Films. One person texted Manning to let him know that Ward was gone. Manning immediately texted back with the audio file of Ward’s call of Manning’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Joey Kent on the first play from scrimmage in Tennessee‘s 41-14 win over Alabama in 1995, snapping a nine-year winless streak against the Crimson Tide.
Davis, who travels extensively as part of his NFL duties with Fox, flew from Las Vegas to Orlando early Wednesday morning and was on a connecting flight to Knoxville a few hours later to be a part of the tribute.
“He gave us honor. He gave us pride. He gave us legitimacy,” said Davis, who met Ward on his recruiting visit to Tennessee in 1982. “When you played football or basketball at Tennessee, you became legit when Mr. Ward called your name.
“He gave us the feeling that we could walk with kings.”
Over the past year, as Ward’s health declined, Davis regularly sent Ward handwritten postcards from wherever Davis was calling a game.
“The idea that I could take Mr. Ward everywhere I went is why I sent the postcards,” Davis said. “I wanted him to know that he was with me. He was a hero to me.”
Even those who couldn’t attend were there in spirit. Former Pro Bowl linebacker Al Wilson, the heart and soul of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team, said one of the great honors he had while playing at Tennessee was having Ward participate with the team in the Vol Walk in the final home game of the 1998 season.
“Growing up listening to him on the radio, it was surreal whenever I got a chance to talk to John,” Wilson said. “I was a big fan of his. So getting a chance to talk to John Ward was kind of like the way the fans would see the players when they would talk to us. When you start talking about Tennessee’s great tradition, John Ward is right there at the core.”
Jimmy Sexton, one of the country’s most prominent sports agents, grew up in Memphis and graduated from the University of Tennessee in the mid-1980s. To this day, he said it’s impossible for him to think about Tennessee and not think about John Ward.
“I was trying to explain this to the younger people in my office,” said Sexton, whose clients include Nick Saban, Bill Parcells, Julio Jones and Tim Tebow, among many others. “Your Saturdays were spent outside raking leaves, playing football or whatever and listening to John Ward on the radio. The very first game I attended in Neyland Stadium was the early ’70s, and it was like I’d been there for 300 other games. That’s because John Ward put you there every Saturday.”
Some of the first fans in the arena on Wednesday were sisters Gloria and Carol Cottrell, who showed up two hours before the event. They grew up in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and were indoctrinated into Ward’s radio magic at an early age.
“Back then, we didn’t have football games on TV and we didn’t get to go to many games,” Gloria Cottrell said. “I just remember Dad would be working outside and have that radio on every Saturday. We’ve been listening ever since … until he retired. John Ward was UT.”
“Your Saturdays were spent outside raking leaves, playing football or whatever and listening to John Ward on the radio. The very first game I attended in Neyland Stadium was the early ’70s, and it was like I’d been there for 300 other games. That’s because John Ward put you there every Saturday.”Sports agent Jimmy Sexton
David Thomas, 68, drove up from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was sporting an orange No. 16 Peyton Manning jersey.
“I was here for Pat Summitt’s service too,” Thomas said of the late Tennessee women’s basketball head coach. “Just like Pat, John was one of us. His energy and his love for Tennessee just drew you in.”
Everybody has a favorite Ward memory. Tennessee superfan Earl Brown, who along with his wife, Judy, rarely misses a football or basketball game — home or away — goes back to the Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King days of hoops in the mid-1970s.
“We were playing a game at Alabama, and Bernard had his knee all taped up and wasn’t playing like Bernard,” Brown recalled. “John kept talking about his knee being all taped up, and then in the second half, Bernard just takes over and starts dunking on everybody, and John says as only he could, ‘Tape up his other knee.'”
As videos of some of Ward’s most memorable calls blared on the arena loudspeaker, many fans clapped. Some wept. But everybody basked in the stroll down memory lane. And some of the best stories revolved around Ward’s legendary sharp wit.
Fulmer joked, “I never felt like for one minute that it was the ‘Phillip Fulmer Show.’ It was the ‘John Ward Show’ with Phillip Fulmer present. He could be tough off the air. One time he told me, ‘You were lucky to have some good players in that game that bailed you out,’ and he was right.
“Tonight, we celebrate a true Volunteer. John Ward was ours.”
Ward’s tree of broadcasters and those who went on to a career in sports media that he mentored and/or inspired is massive, and many of those people were in attendance Wednesday. Mike Keith, the radio play-by-play voice for the Tennessee Titans, grew up listening to Ward in Nashville and later worked under him at the Vol Network.
“The secret to John Ward wasn’t his massive IQ or his voice or his attention to detail,” Keith said. “It was that John Ward loved the state of Tennessee with all of his heart, loved the University of Tennessee with all of his heart, loved the team and loved the coaches with all of his heart, but if it’s possible, he loved the fans even more.”