The SEC's golden radio generation remembered in 'More than a Voice'

John Ward was the "Voice of the Vols" for more than 30 season. Wade Payne/AP Photo

The first time I heard Tennessee football announcer John Ward exult, as only he could, "Give Him Six!" to describe a Volunteers touchdown, I looked quizzically at my dad. He just smiled.

I was probably 11, maybe 12, and was listening on a transistor radio, which is more of a relic now than even a rotary phone.

As a young kid growing up in the Carolinas, I lived for those fall Saturdays in the late 1970s and early 1980s when men like Larry Munson, Jim Fyffe, Cawood Ledford, John Ferguson, John Forney, Jack Cristil and Ward were as much a part of SEC football for me as Herschel Walker, Willie Gault, Major Ogilvie and Bo Jackson.

Heck, even Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley and John Majors.

Hard as it might be for the younger generation to believe, especially when virtually every college football game now is televised, very few college football games were on TV for those of us approaching 60 who grew up with only one TV set in the house (three network channels and no cable), no internet and -- gasp -- no cellphones.

Radio was our conduit to college football and all its pageantry, and the unmistakable voices that brought those players, games and moments to life have forever endured in our hearts.

As I drift back in time, I'm reminded I didn't see Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Marching Band open into the giant "T" and the players come racing onto the field at Neyland Stadium, but felt like I did because of Ward. I didn't see Herschel run over Bill Bates at the goal line but felt like I did because of Munson. I didn't see Bo go over the top in Bryant's last Iron Bowl, but felt like I did because of Fyffe. Sure, I saw highlights and clips, but there was nothing like listening to and imagining those magical moments live and feeling as if you were right there.

Sadly, just about all the golden-throated giants from that glorious era of radio are now gone, but we get a wonderful stroll back in time thanks to the SEC Storied documentary "More Than A Voice," which debuts Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

My eyes moistened more than once while watching an advanced screening of the piece. In our business, we're taught to be neutral, to not be a part of the story and to never cheer in the press box.

But what made the likes of Ward and Munson so great was that Tennessee fans and Georgia fans knew that they were one of them. With Ward, it was the trademark inflection in his voice, his wit and his impeccable sense of timing on what to say and when to say it that endeared him so to Tennessee fans. With Munson, it was his raw emotion, his unbridled passion and the way he made every play seem like it was life and death for the Dawgs.

These men were part of an era when radio play-by-play broadcasters became deeply woven into the culture of the entire university community and captivated generations of fans in their own unique way.

Case in point: I never saw Walker play in a live televised game during his 1980 freshman season until the eighth game against South Carolina in an ABC nationally televised contest. But I sure was listening the night of Sept. 6 that year when Walker welcomed himself to the college football world in a season-opening 16-15 win over Tennessee when Munson, in his gravelly voice, uttered those now-famous words: "Oh, you, Herschel Walker. ... My God, a freshman!"

It was a treat for me when Georgia would play at night in those days and the same for Tennessee. You see, at night, I could get WSB 750-AM in Atlanta and listen to the Dawgs and WNOX 990-AM in Knoxville and listen to the Vols, albeit with crackly signals that would fade in and out as I went from radio to radio in my Rock Hill, South Carolina, home. The day games were a bummer because those out-of-town radio signals simply didn't carry far enough during the days. That is, unless the "Pick a Dixie" broadcast on one of the local radio stations happened to be carrying a game that Saturday.

So as night fell every autumn Saturday, I started with the transistor, then went to my parents' wooden encased stereo in the living room (typically used only for Sunday dinners) and then to my dad's car radio, scrolling back and forth on the dial, as long as I promised not to run down the battery.

And the truth is that I wasn't listening to the Vols and the Dawgs as much as I was to Ward and Munson. I remember their famous calls as vividly as I do my wife's and kids' birthdays.

  • "Look at the Sugar falling out of the sky."

  • "I broke my chair. I came right through a chair, a metal steel chair with about a 5-inch cushion."

  • "Willie Gault, ladies and gentlemen, is running all the way to the State Capitol."

  • "Mike Terry intercepts the pass in the end zone on a deflection, and the crowd goes ... be-zerk."

I could go on and on with legendary calls from all the radio broadcasters of that era, because they all inspired me, and yes, entertained me, too.

My favorite memory of Munson came not long before his retirement in 2008. I was covering a Tennessee-Georgia game at Sanford Stadium, and Munson -- wearing one of his customary warm-up suits at that time -- came lumbering into a crowded men's room at halftime.

Looking at the long line to the only stall in the place, Munson huffed a few times and then proceeded to navigate his way to the front of the line and knocked on the door.

"Are you getting close in there?" Munson repeated a couple of times.

He might as well have been calling a fourth-down stand at the goal line for the Dawgs. I've often wondered what the guy in that stall thought when he heard that voice -- of all voices -- knocking on his door.

I never got a chance to tell Munson what he had meant to me before he died in 2011 at the age of 89. I did get that chance with Ward, who died in 2018 at the age of 88.

Early one morning, I visited with Ward at the senior center he was living in with an illness that would take his life. I was blessed to have gotten to know Ward personally over the years. But this time, my chin was quivering as I did my best to impress upon him how many lives he had so deeply touched -- including mine.

He smiled warmly, nodded his head slowly and said in vintage Ward fashion, "That's very kind."

I like to think that it was his kind, the iconic radio broadcasters of my childhood, who guided me, and so many others, along our career paths.

They inspired us to dream and to chase those dreams.

Thank you.