Ben Byrd, right rear, in the Knoxville Journal sports department with Haywood Harris, from left, Russ Bebb and Raymond Edmunds.
When Emmett Byrd, director of marketing and operations for Kyle Busch Motorsports, spoke at the Knoxville Downtown Sertoma Club last Wednesday, there was a special journalist in the audience.
Ben Byrd, accompanied by wife, Jo, was there for the festivities, not as a journalist, with notebook, pen, and on deadline, but as a proud father.
Byrd's career with the Knoxville Journal stamped him as a legend in Knoxville journalism. He covered the basketball Vols in his first assignment in 1947 and didn't miss very many games thereafter. His history of the Tennessee basketball program, titled "The Basketball Vols," came out in 1974.
In 1986, he coauthored "You Can Go Home Again" with Johnny Majors, a story tracing Majors earliest days in Moore County through the excitement of the 1986 Sugar Bowl.
Byrd covered many of the greatest moments in Tennessee sports history from the primitive press boxes and arenas of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, through the newer structures of later years.
His coverage of the 1956 Georgia Tech game was honored as one of the best sports stories that year. It covered 25 paragraphs without a coach or player quote to be found.
Here's how he set the stage.
"GRANT FIELD, Atlanta, November 10 - The greatest football game I have ever seen, Tennessee 6, Georgia Tech 0, has been over 15 minutes now. The slate gray horseshoe stadium is almost cleared of fans now, except for a bright orange patch across the field in the east stands, where the Tennessee band continues to blare out, piping hot in concert with the hand-clapping and foot-stomping jubilance of Volunteer fans."
You want a snappy line that fully explained what was happening on the field?
Consider that the situation was fourth-and-2 for the Yellow Jackets at the Vols 34.
"They went for it this time and made it, Ken Owen ripping to the 29. Stan Flowers followed that up with an eight-yard charge, and the Tennessee situation was not exactly peachy. But then Owen, exploding off tackle, fumbled, and Jim Smelcher was on it like a third-rate vaudeville dancer grabbing coins tossed up on the stage."
Then came the conclusion, his tribute to an epic contest, a nearly poetic ending you're not likely to see in a game story today.
"Twice the Vols came up with clutch interceptions, one by Bubba Howe at midfield, and the last by (Tommy) Bronson, retreating with his man deep into Tennessee territory. He planted Tennessee's flag there on the nine-yard line, and a vast silence fell on the Tech side of the stands. While down the line, the Tennessee crowd chanted … four … three … two … one. Hallelujah, praise the Lord."
Byrd's daily columns, titled "Byrd's Eye View," were incisive, even if they might have led to an unintended consequence on one occasion.
Byrd had a Saturday game day feature titled "Free Thought Association," purporting to pick the winners of that day's games by what litany of seemingly random comments.
When Tennessee played Rutgers on Nov. 3, 1979, on Homecoming Day, the Vols were a prohibitive favorite.
"What are rutgers?" he wrote.
"One housewife told me she bought a pound of them at the supermarket last week for 59 cents, but they must have been on sale because she normally pays 89 cents a pound.
"This one man who's been up East told me he doesn't exactly know what rutgers are, but he's pretty sure they are a lot like yonkers. Now if I just knew what yonkers were."
Rutgers got the last laugh, winning 13-7, with the column supposedly on display prominently in the Scarlet Knights dressing room.
"Incidentally," colleague Marvin West wrote, "that column was more fun on Saturday morning than Saturday night."
When Tennessee squared off against Belmont in basketball in December 2008, son Rick led the Belmont squad into battle.
At one critical juncture in the contest, the CSS camera focused on Ben, watching intently from press row at the east end of Thompson-Boling Arena near the Belmont bench.
He had to have had mixed emotions, given that he had seen a number of these down-to-the-last-minute games during his time covering the Vols. That was old hat for him.
You couldn't blame him for harboring the hope that Rick and Belmont could pull off an upset. You could only imagine what was going through his head as the final seconds ticked down.
It might have been the same feeling he had on March 6, 1967, as he watched an improbable victory at Mississippi State that gave the Vols the SEC title.
The next day, Byrd's game story dubbed the 1966-67 Ray Mears-coached SEC title team the "Fearless Five."
When someone writes the authoritative history of Tennessee sports, particularly for football and basketball, Byrd's craftsmanship in reporting and commenting on the games of his era will have to be one of the primary sources.
Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He grew up reading game stories and columns penned by Ben Byrd, Marvin West, and many others. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian." Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.