More recognizable than the tantalizing smell of smoke drifting from the concession-stand grill or the sound of pads popping as players collide, Jackie Russell's distinctive voice again will let fans at Copper Basin know that another high school football season is set to kick off tonight.
Like countless other mapdot towns throughout Tennessee, Friday night games in Copperhill are as much a community event as church on Sunday, and when Russell welcomes both Cougars fans and the visitors from Whitwell tonight, it will mark the beginning of his 41st season as the public address announcer.
"Growing up in the area, he's all many of us know as the voice of Cougar football," Copper Basin principal Jared Bigham said. "My earliest memories are of him calling games with that booming voice. But it isn't just his voice, it's his professionalism.
"What separates him from a lot of other announcers at other places we go is that he doesn't get overly excited for Copper Basin or root for the team when he's on the mic. He just calls the action, who carried the ball and who made the tackle and lets the players have the spotlight."
A three-sport athlete in high school, Russell played on the first consolidated team at Copper Basin in 1956. He earned a scholarship to play receiver at Furman University, and once he returned to his home community, he immediately began supporting every athletic team the school had.
Just before the second game of the 1972 season, Russell was approached by the school's principal and asked if he could fill in as the P.A. announcer. After hesitating, Russell agreed, but that first game didn't turn out very smooth since the players' jersey numbers were not listed in order.
"I remember thinking that if I just made it through that one game I would never do it again," Russell said. "But then they asked me again the next week because they didn't have anybody else, and this time they had a better roster, so I wound up agreeing to do it through the rest of the season. I was told they would get someone else to do it the next year, but I don't think they even looked, and when they asked me to do it again the next year, I just stuck with it."
Russell credits his spotter of 35 years, Don Dilbeck, for making sure he credits the right players for a big gain or tackle, thus avoiding the ire of angry mamas for calling the wrong name.
He went 17 years without missing a home or road game for the Cougars before a death in the family left him unable to attend one.
While Russell tries to remain low-key and not let his emotions come across over the speakers, the one time he does raise his voice in excitement is also to recite the one line he borrowed from a more famous announcer. At the request of Cougars coaches, Russell uses University of Tennessee P.A. man Bobby Denton's famous and enthusiastic "It's football time in Tennessee" welcome before kickoff at every home game.
"I like going to UT games, but I don't know any of their players," Russell said. "I know all these kids that I'm calling the games for. I know their parents and grandparents, so it's special to watch the kids. I don't just live in this community, I'm a part of it, so I like to see them do well, and then I'm interested in seeing how they turn out as citizens later on.
"For my job on Friday nights, I just want to be accurate and not take up a lot of time on the mic. To me, the game is always about the players. That's what makes the high school game so special for a lot of people."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...
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