The voice was unmistakable. Hard to describe it in words, other than it sounded beautifully original.
Generations of Tennesseans could recognize that voice in a crowded New York City subway at rush hour because it is seared in our collective memory. You’d hear him speak and know instantly, without a shred of doubt that, hey, that’s John Ward. That’s our John Ward.
It must be “Football Time in Tennessee!”
That was one of his many iconic phrases, too many to count and all so indelibly fantastic that UT fans still recite them with the same inflection and exuberance as Ward did for three decades as the “Voice of the Vols” for football and basketball.
Ward died this past week at age 88, leaving my beloved home state in mourning but also remembrance. The term “legend” often gets overused, but no other description accurately explains Ward’s impact on millions of people who knew him primarily by his voice but embraced him as extended family.
Radio play-by-play announcers carried that status with fans of a certain age, especially when their tenures spanned multiple decades. Those men brought games to life through their words before the explosion of cable TV, and now practically every game is televised.
Those broadcasting titans painted pictures of games we couldn’t see ourselves and did so with their own personal flair. Their catchphrases became our catchphrases.
Every sports market had their own John Ward. Here, it was Ray Christensen, Herb Carneal or Al Shaver. Generations of Dodgers fans went to bed to the sweet sound of Vin Scully calling the game. Baseball and college football are chock-full of play-by-play icons.
There was something about radio as a medium that created emotional attachment with announcers. Maybe it’s romanticized some, but long before ESPN, conference networks and social media fragmented our attention, fans of teams often had that one trusted voice.
Brad Nessler is a Minnesota native who grew up listening to Christensen call Gophers games before moving to an Atlanta suburb 38 years ago. Nessler handles SEC football play-by-play duties for CBS. He said radio announcers who provided appointment listening for generations are rarer now because of advancements in technology.
“Streaming devices and kids just looking for the score on their phone and not paying attention to a whole game,” he said. “It’s sad because to this day, when I’m leaving a game, I would love to listen to the radio voice of whatever is next in the area.”
Nessler still can rattle off all the SEC’s play-by-play giants of yesteryear by school.
“Those guys that got to be homers, they became your uncle or your grandpa,” he said. “Whatever your favorite relative is, that’s what they were.”
John Ward became that for Vols fans.
I found myself listening to olds clips this week and was immediately teleported back to my childhood. If the Vols happened to be on TV that Saturday, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that 90 percent of fans watched with the sound turned off and the radio on. We had to hear Ward’s description because nobody did it better and because, well, John Ward and Vols football were intertwined.
When a Vols player raced into the end zone, we’d scream along with Ward, “Give … Him … Six.” Even today, two decades after Ward’s final broadcast, “Give Him Six” needs no explanation among fans.
Ward made every game — regardless of opponent — feel vitally important when he bellowed “It’s Football Time in Tennessee!” That was our notice to rev up the engines. Mark it down, 100 years from now, Saturdays in the fall will begin with that same declaration.
Memories of life events fade with time, but moments driven by sports have a funny way of avoiding erosion. My dad died last year and some of my fondest memories are of us together in our basement watching a Vols game while John Ward delivered magic out of the radio.
I can still hear that voice and the happiness we felt listening to him describe a big win. It was perfect.