Who the heck was Lindsey Nelson?

Marvin Westwestwords

Resident experts, at an unofficial luncheon at Aubrey’s, grumbled about the price of gas and the high-flying cost of living.


That veered sharply into a spirited discussion of Neyland Stadium renovations, 100-year-old propaganda, improved wi-fi and, believe it or not, the party deck.

“What would The General think of that?” led to laughter.

Lindsey Nelson in his trademark jacket was a UT torchbearer.

Speaking of Tennessee sports fans’ generosity and how to spend it, next on the agenda was “Where can they hide $56 million in enhancements in Lindsey Nelson Stadium?”

Before a former shortstop could speculate, a relative youngster, 45 or maybe 50, said he’d been meaning to ask who the heck is or was Lindsey Nelson?

I almost dropped my choice bite of chocolate turtle cake.

Oh my, said I, the things we take for granted. Yes, yes, I understand generational gaps are real, but ….

Before John Majors and John Ward and Peyton and Ernie and Bernie, Lindsey Nelson was the University of Tennessee’s most famous alum. Howard Baker could have been No. 2.

But for the grace of God, Lindsey might have been a Vanderbilt man. Think about it, this super star of radio and television sports in old gold and black instead of those beautifully gaudy, high-voltage sports coats in a crazy mix of colors.

Money saved him and us.

In early 1937, at Columbia Central High, on his application for the alumni scholarship, Lindsey listed the elite Nashville institution as his intended academic destination if he received supporting funds.

God is good. Lindsey finished second in the race for free cash.

For background purposes only, I tell you that Lindsey’s father sold tombstones and drank too much, his mother took in sewing and if the garden was productive, there was enough to eat, but the 1930s were hard times and there was no surplus.

Instead of announcing that he didn’t have enough money to go to the movies, much less college, Lindsey said he might not waste time on higher education. He was in a hurry to get on with life.

He got a job at The Columbia Daily Herald, $9 a week, as circulation manager, sportswriter, copyreader and chauffeur for the publisher who owned a car but couldn’t drive.

Lindsey, already a dedicated sports fan, padded his income by umpiring softball games, $1 each, including reporting the results in the newspaper.

A young friend, Frank Thomas, was making plans to attend the University of Tennessee, over in Knoxville. Lindsey had heard of it but didn’t know exactly where it was. One old-timer said it was off to the east, in the general direction of Kingsport or Bristol. Another said, compared to Vanderbilt, the cost of going to Tennessee wasn’t all that much.

Without admitting it, Lindsey looked into the possibility. He found he could afford a little bit of college. Come September, he and one cardboard suitcase hitched a ride with Frank Thomas’ father. He camped out at the Sigma Nu house with a high school friend from the previous year. He discovered a drug store breakfast, large sweet roll and coffee for a dime.

He enrolled and just followed the flow to the Tennessee-Wake Forest football game, meaningless steps for mankind, but for Lindsey, the first leap toward the moon.

This bright, industrious, engaging young man attended the university on the cheap. He listened to everything sports on the radio and read every line in discarded newspapers. When tackle Bob Fulton played the piano at the Varsity Inn, Lindsey sometimes sang along. He was good.

Nelson invited himself to sort of hang around the football operation. This led to an informal job, passing along tidbits to a new sportswriter at the Journal, Tom Anderson. It also led to a forever friendship and room on the rug when Anderson covered games on the road.

Because the coach of the Volunteers, Robert R. Neyland, was totally paranoid about Alabama and because Anderson was from Alabama and had played for the Crimson Tide, Tom did not have easy access to inside Tennessee information.

He once suggested Lindsey call Neyland at home with an Alabama question.

Bad idea.

The next morning, everybody connected with football was looking for “that Nelson fellow” because the coach wanted to see him. The search warrant sounded like a death sentence.

“That was how I met Coach Neyland. When I walked into his office, he said ‘Nelson, I’m going to hang you by your testicles’ only he used a different word.”

Neyland eventually calmed down enough to explain the risk of leaking secrets to the enemy. Lindsey, trying to put a positive spin on the experience, went away with the tentative confidence that, if not an admirer, Neyland was at least an acquaintance.

Lindsey Nelson was a very quick study. He learned that spring practice started on January 9, early spring according to Neyland. He learned that no young Volunteer could be considered a man until he had played against Alabama. Well before his sophomore year, he learned that college men had to eat more than sweet rolls.

Lindsey got a part-time job at the News-Sentinel as library assistant, $3.20 per week at a time when beer cost 10 cents per bottle. Roscoe Parker, UT English professor, needed a student aide to read and grade freshman essays and monitor quizzes. Lindsey signed on.

That led him closer to football. Coach John Barnhill, responsible for player eligibility, was looking for a tutor, $1 per hour, to assist Bob Suffridge and others. Lindsey proposed a different arrangement, a room in the new dorm under the east side of the stadium and meals at the team training table instead of money.

All of a sudden, he was eating and sleeping Tennessee football.

Tomorrow: Never let it be said that Robert R. Neyland didn’t know a winner when he saw one.

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