Tennessee flag at half-mast

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

The Tennessee flag flies at half-mast today. John Ward has died.

The legendary announcer was bigger than life to a few million Tennessee sports fans. For three decades and more, he so vividly described the exploits of football and basketball Volunteers, they could be “seen” on the radio network.

“It’s football time in Tennessee” was his famous pre-game sign-on.

“Give him six” said Ward. “Touchdown Tennessee!”

“Bottom” was his favorite basketball expression.

“Did he make it?” John would say after a clutch free throw. After a pause for dramatic effect, he would add “He made it!”

All over the state and far beyond, the multitude would cheer.

Ward, 87 or 88, died on June 20 at Northshore Senior Living. He was in failing health this time last year when his wife, Barbara, died after an auto accident on the way to visit him in the hospital. He never returned to their Fox Den home except to spot-check on their beloved flower garden and to consult with his maintenance man.

Ward, in the company of his physician, David Hancock, made a final public appearance at the Tennessee-Vanderbilt football game November 25. Insiders considered that unusual punishment. The crowd brought tears to his eyes with a thunderous ovation of appreciation but the Vols fell, 42-24, their eighth Southeastern Conference loss, worst in history.

In contrast, the final football broadcast for him and Bill Anderson was on Jan. 4, 1999, the day the Vols defeated Florida State and won the national championship.

John delivered a simple retirement summation: “It’s time.”

Ward was a very private person, to the point of playing games about his age. He had a great support group, even when he didn’t feel like talking. Steve Early, general manager of the Vol Network, Ben Bates and other professional associates seemed available on a daily basis to check on him, run errands and meet any need.

The network issued a statement: “While it is a sad day for all Vol fans, we take great pride in the fact that John belonged to us. Only the Tennessee Volunteers could call John their own, and he was proud to be ‘Voice of the Vols.’ He loved his alma mater, the fans and the state of Tennessee. He remains the very heartbeat of the Vol Network.”

Athletic director Phillip Fulmer offered kind words:

“Our entire Tennessee family mourns the loss of the great John Ward. The university has lost one of its most beloved ambassadors.

“For generations of Vol fans, John’s voice brought to life many of their fondest memories of Tennessee football and basketball. His visionary thinking paved the way for the Vol Network’s rise to prominence as the standard bearer for intercollegiate athletics marketing and broadcasting.

“Despite our shared sadness, I believe it is appropriate to proudly reflect on and cherish the fact that John was ours. We will ensure that his legacy and memory are appropriately honored in the days, months and years to come.”

Bud Ford, former UT sports information director, was a close friend and regular visitor.

“John was one of the all-time greats,” said Ford. “He had the rare ability to make his audience feel a part of the game.”

Ward received a closet full of plaques and other awards. He was year after year Tennessee’s sportscaster of the year. The broadcast booth in the Neyland Stadium press box is named in his honor. He may get a statue or his name on a street. He and Barbara bequeathed a gift estimated at more than $2 million to the UT athletics department.

John Ward was born on April 22, 1930 – or 1931. His father, Herschel, was principal of Tennessee School for the Deaf.

John enrolled at South Knoxville Elementary at age 5. He was soon promoted to second grade. He played basketball in eighth grade. He graduated at 15 from Knoxville High School.

He earned a law degree at UT but chose advertising and broadcasting as a career. He is survived by a brother, Bob, of Charlotte.

As Ward requested, funeral services and burial will be private. There is talk of a later celebration of his life. There is much to celebrate.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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