For those of you who’ve been to a Southeast Bulloch softball or Portal baseball game, you know I like to dabble in being a public address announcer.
Since my college days, I’ve put my pipes to work as a side hustle. But now that I’ve taken the full-time responsibility of being a sports writer I don’t get to use my voice as often as I like. But I digress, my work as a PA announcer has opened the door to some unique experiences at my numerous stops in sports media.
One of those stops was in Hickory, N.C. — a town of about 40,000 people nestled in the crest of the Appalachian mountains. I had the privilege of being the voice of the Catawba Valley Community College Redhawks baseball team for about 25 or so games, which led me to startling discovery when I traveled to call a road game across town.
CVCC and Walters State Community College were set to play at South Caldwell High School — right around 20 minutes from the middle of Hickory (think Portal to Statesboro in terms of distance, size comparisons). As I rounded the red brick concession stand next to the football field there stood the baseball stadium — an astonishing structure for such a small high school. The field had astroturf down the foul lines and around the warning track. The outfield wall was made of the same red brick which matched the concession stand and the press box behind home plate.
The rafters were made of brand new concrete and could easily seat a thousand people if you counted the grassy berms that lined the red brick walls down both foul lines. The next thing to catch my eye was a giant banner which stretched across third base side of the press box, and in bold text on it read:
“World Series MVP, Madison Bumgarner,” with a giant superimposed photo of Bumgarner mid-windup with his numerous accolades listed across the bottom of the banner.
Indeed, the 2014 World Series MVP and three-time world champion pitcher was from Hickory.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “That’s kind of a big deal. How am I just now figuring this out in a town so obsessed with baseball?”
As I entered the press box I met one of the assistant football coaches who would be the “supervisor” for the high school to prevent any JUCO chicanery. As we struck up a casual conversation, the first thing I brought up was how nice the field was. He nodded and smirked with approval, mentioning he doubled as the groundskeeper for the field.
“It’s the pride and joy of the county,” he said.
The next thing you wonder is how a high school pays for a field like that? But before I could finish the thought it clicked in my head “surely Bumgarner had a hand in paying for this — there’s no way one tiny high school could foot the bill for a field this nice.”
“Must be nice to have someone like MadBum around to help foot the bill for a place like this,” I said.
A silence followed my harmless statement, the coach — who will remain nameless in this story — tightened his lips and crinkled his brow and turned his head to stare off into centerfield. Then on a beat, he responded:
“You know he’s never given a penny to this place.”
“Yup. Mad doesn’t come around here anymore. We paid for this field with donations and referendum money only.”
That boggled my mind, first and foremost that a school of that size could raise the funds to build a stadium so magnificent. But secondly how Bumgarner had become a stranger to his little hometown, to the point where it seemed like — from one small interaction mind you — there was some resentment built up between him and the people of Hudson.
The reason I tell this story is to remind the people of Statesboro how good they have it with somebody like Justin Houston. Just because a millionaire athlete is from your campy little community doesn’t automatically mean he or she will give back to it. There are outliers, like in the case of Bumgarner and Hudson, NC.
I was out at the Houston’s Faith Before Fame football camp Saturday morning, and let me tell you right now this was no picnic for the adult volunteers who sacrificed their time to work this event.
I’ll just say it, Statesboro is not a pleasant place to be in the summer. The heat and humidity are the equivalent of standing in a crockpot filled with sausage gravy. And the gnats, oh my Lord don’t get me started on those demonic little hellions who insist on flying up your nose and into your eyeballs while sweat drips out of every imaginable pore on your face.
Every volunteer Houston brought with him — many of them millionaires who did not have to be out there — drudged through all four plus hours of the camp for the betterment of Statesboro’s young men who wanted to be better football players. This goes the same for the Statesboro girls soccer players who were in charge of filling up the water and Gatorade cups as well as the handful of police officers who were there in case of an emergency.
There was an ornate sense of community in the air, all fostered by the folks from all corners of Statesboro pitching in — for free mind you — at Houston’s camp. Appropriately so, some people like Statesboro head football coach Jeff Kaiser were incredibly grateful for what Houston’s done over the past couple of days.
“I tell you I don’t know if it’s like this anywhere else where you get this many NFL players out at once,” Kaiser said. “When Jeremy Mincey was drafted by the Patriots I asked him if he ever got a chance to give back to the community because that would make me more proud of you than anything else.”
Kaiser would go on to say Houston had delivered on that promise like Mincey did before him when he comes to town every year. And who’s to argue with him? Where else can an aspiring middle school wide receiver learn how to release off the line from Demaryius Thomas? My guess is Womack Field once a summer and nowhere else.
Keep in mind Thomas’ base salary is 8.5 million dollars and lives in Denver. If I was making that kind of money and living in Colorado I could think of a million different things I would be doing rather than wrangling eight-year-olds for free. But Thomas does it for Houston, because Thomas knows how much it means to his good friend.
“Any single thing we can do here to change a kid’s life means the world for me,” Houston said. “The big man upstairs drives me to do this every year.”
At the beginning of the camp when kids were lining up in rows to stretch I counted eight rows of 18 kids with three stragglers around midfield. Do the math and that’s roughly 147 kids, which may sound like a lot until you figure in how many kids under 18 reside in Bulloch County.
Per the 2010 Census, Bulloch County has around 70,000 people living within its borders. 30 percent of that are kids under 18, so around 21280 kids who are still in grade school. Split that in half if we’re theoretically saying the ratio of boys to girls is even and now the number is 10640.
This means around a hundredth of one percent of all the boys in Bulloch County showed up to Houston’s camp. So either Houston isn’t promoting his football camp well enough, or people are just choosing not to come out to a free football camp hosted by NFL players.
I’m calling on the people of Bulloch County today to make Houston feel like he’s appreciated next year when he inevitably holds the fourth edition of the camp. Womack Field should have had all 20-yard lines filled with stragglers in each end zone, not barely half way.
If Justin Houston is going to show out for the Boro, the Boro should show out for him too. I’m not even a native, heck I haven’t even been here one year. But in watching the camp I couldn’t help but think “I wonder if this town knows just how good they have it with a guy like Houston?”
So heed my words Bulloch County, don’t take Houston’s good deeds for granted. You’ve burned him once before the 2011 NFL Draft, don’t burn him again.