Michael Lough

The long ride with The Telegraph comes to an end after many great memories

Mercer guard Kevin Canevari (3) dances and celebrates with his teammates after the Bears beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
Mercer guard Kevin Canevari (3) dances and celebrates with his teammates after the Bears beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament in 2014. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The ride of nearly two decades ends, but memories last forever.

It’s still quite, quite funny, and a reminder that message boards, fingers, brains and reading comprehension are often in a fight. They tend to not go together.

But early on here during a run of 18 years, 10 months and 28 days, there was a thread on a Georgia message board after a column that didn’t meet Bulldogs fans approval. Dingbat said he was in The Telegraph’s office and walked by my desk and ranted that it was covered in Georgia Tech paraphernalia. ... Right.

So funny, because the level of fiction, delusion and paranoia involved was top-notch. And it was before its time, such foggy visions becoming much more prevalent in the land a decade later.

And funny, because it occasionally aggravates some friends that I really, honestly don’t have a team. I have, as I keep saying, no colors.

For one, I kind of got over putting too much in a team (blind obsession from far away is not good). And for another, you’re really not supposed to put too much in a team in this job, even if the team has nothing to do with the job.

Objectivity is objectivity. Can’t just be convenient.

That said, I do kind of like the Atlanta Falcons, mostly from a year of covering home games in 2010 and seeing that so many of the players were pretty good guys, as much as you can tell in a locker room once a week. And I’ll always like former head coach Mike Smith, who was supremely personable during his visit to the Macon Touchdown Club.

And frankly, there were never problems watching the Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets or Georgia Southern Eagles in Statesboro during those first seven years when the column gig had me negotiating those drives each Saturday.

The ride down brutal I-16 was rewarded for a few seasons by the chance to watch Georgia Southern running back Adrian Peterson. Oh my.

His ferocious run against Youngstown State in the 1999 Division I-AA (please, NCAA, bring that name back) and the weekly beating he took notwithstanding, it was how he handled dealing with the media and a major stuttering problem that stood out even more.

Many of us tend to help people finish sentences, and that’s common in this business when talking to people who aren’t necessarily used to being a focal point of questions. But man, Peterson came out after every game and battled that stuttering situation and stayed until there were no more questions, and you got to the point where you just wanted to high five and hug the young man.

Yes, those early years here were mighty good. If you could write your own job description. Alas, the decision was made a little more than two weeks ago that there wasn’t room here anymore for me, as of Friday.

What started with the first day on Aug. 10, 1998 ended some 6,907 days later. In that span were close to 5,000 game stories, columns, notebooks, features and graphics, ranging from Georgia Sports Hall of Fame ceremonies to a couple Super Bowls and, of course, Mercer beating Duke.

There was Georgia Tech in the Final Four, a trip that allowed for a visit to Nashville and a dish of Cajun-stuffed ravioli that remains lip-smacking 13 years later. That trip ended in San Antonio, a city that blew away expectations.

There was Atlanta in the Super Bowl in Miami. Back then, the hometown newspapers from the teams in the Super Bowl were flown in basically daily to the site, which was, for this goofball, about as good as covering the Super Bowl itself. Between corralling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and two Denver papers, the ink didn’t completely wash away for about a week upon returning home.

Early on, I stood at the Macon Touchdown Club and had a quality conversation with this local kid who had just started making a name with the Atlanta Braves. And then I figured after that, any visit to Turner Field would include an similarly nice chat with John Rocker.

Soon enough, that dynamic changed in fascinating fashion. That dynamic got me a trip to New York City, Yankee Stadium, a subway ride and a mention in the New York Times.

There were road trips with news wordsmith Joe Kovac and photographer Jason Vorhees to St. Petersburg, Florida, and Ceredo-Kenova, West Virginia, for Little League regionals and general lifetime memories we still talk about.

In St. Pete, in July, yours truly sat under a press box and did a webcast for two hours with literally no break.

“You talking for two hours with literally no break is not exactly something new.”

Hush.

But rustling up a monologue about 11-year-olds you don’t know —God bless Joe for phenomenal legwork — and then reading ads that weren’t pre-produced commercials for two straight hours is a bit of a task.

What we learned in West Virginia is that small towns can have phenomenal food, that we’ll always make fun of the HHR rental, and we’ll never forget the catchy tune attached to the Little League stadium up there. When we’re in our 80s and time may have captured a chunk of our minds, we shall never forget, “When you’re flyin in on them wings of steee-uhhhlll ...”

And I’ll have it on a computer forever.

Then there was the trip to Cartersville for Little League state action and talking to this pitcher, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound kid named Jake Fromm. No sir, didn’t not quite project the future there.

Ditto when watching a kid from Macon and Rutland with the big smile get done a college football game on a Saturday and return to the field to work on his game. That, of course, is why Marquette King went from a walk-on at Fort Valley State to a big-time NFL punter and one of the most notable characters in the NFL. It’s Marquette’s world, we’re just here for the ride.

Now that they’re long gone from toiling in it, some former Mercer coaches wax poetic about old Porter Gym. The best thing about that place was sitting next to an injured Wesley Duke for year and just chatting away during games, often with entertaining gossip or gossip-like speculation. And when you get Wesley, that absurd physical specimen, into a good laugh, the rest of your day or night is made.

There was no sentimentality from this sentimental soul when, after years of, “We break ground in three months” promises, Porter was done and the University Center took over.

Claude Smith Field then assumed the role as the head-shakingly bad “Division I, really?” facility on campus, but that all changed last spring in an equally big way. Hard to believe Porter and The Old Claude existed now.

But The Old Claude was home to the team that ended a streak: I never thought I’d get to Starkville, Mississippi, but the Bears’ baseball team took care of that in 2013. And, yes, that was a good thing, because Mississippi State is a mighty good place to watch college baseball.

Among the forever top-five events on that list is, of course, Mercer beating Duke, but that whole season was an absolute joy and would have been even had the Bears lost at Florida Gulf Coast in the ASUN Tournament final. Shoot, the Mercer-USC Upstate double-OT game in that season’s ASUN tourney still stands out as a monster.

But the Mercer players that year —all those seniors, different personalities from many places — forever will have a spot in this man’s brain and heart. The fingers churned out about 50,000 or so words that month, from the conference stretch run to the loss to Tennessee, and it seems there are that many mental snapshots from that season.

The duties changed yet again to a focus on high schools, and things kept rolling.

Watching sophomore Tobias Oliver lead Northside to the GHSA Class 5A state football title in 2014? Among the toughest high school kids I’ve dealt with in a while. And linebacker Kam Burnett walking around the Georgia Dome turf just crying and almost babbling? Little is better when those of the too-cool-to-really-show-they-care age are overwhelmed. Eh, same for the millionaires.

I still get goose bumps describing the video made last March by Upson-Lee South Elementary School teacher Bruce Dunaway on the day, beginning to end, of Upson-Lee’s boys basketball state championship.

He was on the bus, got the shots of hundreds of folks lining the street to send the team off, the ride to Atlanta, the game and what happened after. Absolutely phenomenal. It’ll be tough to top this March (yes, the Knights have enough back to repeat).

Throughout the years at different places, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover a lot of big events and spend time with some big names, but the vast majority of the best stuff has been on the high school field or court and in all sports.

There were some disagreements along the way, some misinterpretations and serious problems with reading comprehension and occasional serious tongue-biting. Some stories — firings, misplaced basketball goals, etc. — weren’t so much fun. All part of the gig and worthwhile experiences nonetheless.

Time and space don’t allow for mention of more teams and many people — I shudder to think of the unfortunate omissions — and I’d hope those people know who they are.

This vocation that began when I was 16 in Pennsylvania will retain its standards and goals, even as this institution itself has become devastatingly unrecognizable.

As depressing as that it is and will be, it will never overshadow thoughts of people, teams, games, conversations and relationships.

Contact Michael A. Lough at mikelough1@yahoo.com.

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