When I arrived at UT-Martin’s football facility for the jamboree scrimmage between McKenzie and Martin-Westview, I began to reminisce about all the elite players I covered during my 45 years in sports media.
I recall one time, while watching an NBA game on TV, one of the announcers talked about what kind of performer one of the players was in high school. I looked at my dad and said, “man, I wonder what it would be like to cover a guy like that in high school?”
My dad was a high school teammate of Neil Johnston’s, who played for the Philadelphia Warriors and was a six-time NBA all-star and three-time league scoring leader. They played for the Chillitcothe, Ohio Red Devils, as they were known then. They won the state title. My dad, recalling his halcyon days, said, correctly, “you will one day.”
Boy, was he right. I could start with Doug Flutie, but that would be cheating, since we grew up together. But there was Dresden’s Popeye Jones, Martin-Westview’s Chad Clifton, Gleason’s Ashley McElhiney, Hollow Rock-Bruceton’s Patrick Willis, Huntingdon’s Chris Donald, McKenzie’s Drew Hayes, Ripley’s Raymond King, JCM’s Al Wilson, Camden’s Tanner Hudson, and a few more here and there.
I think of guys like Pearl-Cohn’s John Henderson or Treadwell’s Penny Hardaway. Bolton’s Sylvester Gray, Whites Creek’s David Vaughn, Haywood County’s Tony Delk and USJ’s Trey Teague.
I covered all of them and got to know and befriend most all of them during my time prowling the sidelines, baselines and dugouts. I’ve been blessed.
Friday night at UTM, Martin-Westview hosted McKenzie in a pre-season jamboree scrimmage. The two teams featured two of the nation’s top high school football prospects in Ty Simpson and McKenzie’s Marquez Taylor. Simpson already has verbally cast his lot with Alabama while Taylor is still mulling offers from several Power 5 schools, including Tennessee.
It occurred to me that it’s been a rare event to have two stars of that magnitude on the same field while I was covering the game. There may have been more than this, but Hayes and Donald, two eventual Mr. Football winners, faced off a couple of times on the football field. Then there was that epic state-championship battle between Hayes and Forrest’s Mikie Minor. Both guys struck out 12 batters, but McKenzie won the game and the state title 2-0. Both Hayes and Minor would eventually star at Vanderbilt before making it to the Major Leagues.
Minor is still pitching in the Bigs while Hayes is a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
My point is that, for me, it was a rare event and a real treat to see how these guys played when the bullets were live. Neither of them disappointed, either. If anyone wasn’t sold on either’s ability, all they had to do is watch the display Friday night. Simpson threw for 161 yards and three TDs. Taylor had 193 all-purpose yards, including and 85-yard kickoff return.
To see that kind of talent on one field doesn’t happen that often in these parts, so fans who were there should consider themselves fortunate.
A long season awaits and anything can happen, but these two bright stars in our local football galaxy are poised to put on a show for us this year. You won’t need a telescope to see them.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs from 4-6 p.m.CT, Monday-Thursday, on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.