MIKE PHILLIPS FAREWELL COLUMN: Hard to leave, even harder to say goodbye

Herald High School Writer Mike Phillips

Herald High School Writer Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips' farewell column

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is longtime Herald High School writer Mike Phillips’ farewell column written recently after Phillips moved back to Texas to be closer to his children and grandchildren. We wish Mike nothing but the best and thank him for all the amazing work he did while a member of The Herald’s sports staff.

CORSICANA, Texas --- I’m going to miss the boiled peanuts — and so much more.

No one told me when I landed in Southwest Georgia about three and half years ago that I would fall in love with the place. No one told me that once you get that Georgia red clay on you that you can’t wash it off. It gets under your fingernails and deep in your heart.

It stays with you for a lifetime.

Turns out it’s not the clay. It’s the people. There’s no one like you. I grew up in Chicago, went to school and worked in Texas, spent more than 20 years working in Miami and have traveled just about everywhere, but I have never felt more comfortable, never felt more at home or been embraced by anyone like I have here. No wonder when Ray Charles sings “Georgia On My Mind,” it touches everyone who hears him. Now I know why.

This is my last column for The Albany Herald, and it was the toughest one to write. You want to say thanks to everyone here, and there’s never enough time or room to do it the right way. The great fear is you will leave someone off and regret it forever. If you don’t see your name here, please forgive me. If you know me — if we have laughed together or if you have shed a tear after an impossible loss or shouted to the heavens after the biggest win of the year; if you have listened to one of my stories or poured your heart out to me telling yours — believe me I will never forget you.

The coaches and kids know that I don’t interview people. I talk to them. It’s not about the game. It’s about the ones who play it and coach it.

One time, Terrell County basketball coach John Davis was talking to me after a game like he had known me forever, and his new assistant coach was looking at us and Davis told him, “Me and Mike have been through the wars together.’’

That’s the way it is when you care about the people you write about, and I couldn’t have cared more.

It’s almost impossible to say goodbye to Westover Principal William Chunn, a man I call a friend — and will always call a friend. Every school in the nation should have a principal like Chunn, who works around the clock for his kids and his school. He was a great coach at Monroe and is an even better principal at rival Westover. He still is a volunteer coach at Albany State and loves the Good Life City as much as anyone. I’ve never enjoyed going to the principal’s office as much. But what I will always remember about Chunn is the sideline talks during football games and his unrelenting devotion to Westover. I’ll miss him greatly.

I’ll miss so much about Albany and SW Georgia, from Lee County’s Rob Williams, a legend on the baseball diamond who talks my favorite language — old-school baseball — to the last kids I interviewed at the girls state track meet: Dougherty’s Quannesha Gatling and Westover’s Ayanna Mitchell, who both asked me to stay.

I’ve got to go. I’m leaving for Texas to be closer to family, including a couple of guys named Noah and Jonah Phillips — grandsons who have come along recently and changed my life. I’ve got enough family in that part of the country to run for office, and everyone is pretty happy I’m coming to Texas. But it hurts to leave Georgia.

People always asked me, “How did you come to Albany from Miami?’’ and my knee-jerk answer was always, “I’m just a big Ray Charles fan.’’ But the truth is two words:

1) Danny

2) Aller

No one has ever had a better boss or a better friend. We hit it off during our first phone conversation after I sent my resume to The Herald, and I’ve had one of the greatest times of my life working with Danny and John Millikan, who is a rising star and also a friend for life.

There was nothing better than working with Matt Stewart, the world’s greatest part-time sportswriter and biggest Georgia fan, and I’ll really miss people in the newsroom such as Yankee legend Barry Levine, a man of baseball and generosity, and Laura Williams, the sweetest woman in Georgia who was always there when I needed help on the desk, to the news editor bosses Danny Carter, a man who truly loves high school sports, and Jim Hendricks, who is the epitome of Georgia wit and sarcasm.

And of course, there’s Carlton Fletcher, an icon and the face and voice of Albany and SW Georgia. It was not only a pleasure to read Carlton’s writing but an education. You always want to learn from the best, and he is simply the best.

And speaking of the best, I can’t forget the two photographers who came through with so many great, clutch shots to go along with the stories I wrote over the years: Joe Bellacomo and Larry Williams. Thanks for all the hustle and having a great knack for always getting “the shot.”

I would need to write a novel about my boss Danny Aller, a talented whirlwind who always leaves me shaking my head at the amount of work he does and the speed in which he does it. I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I’ve never seen anyone work harder or have more passion and commitment to his newspaper and the community than he. He’s a treasure. I just hope people appreciate him.

Coaches, players — it’s been fun

It’s been hard to say goodbye, but I have spoken to some of you already.

When I told Dougherty AD and basketball and track coach Donald Poole I was leaving, he hugged me when we said goodbye.

Poole is priceless. He is Dougherty. He is the walking-talking pride of the East Side, and he cares more about that school, that community and those kids than anyone will ever know. When I started here, I heard that Poole was gruff and impossible to interview. But I have laughed (and Poole laughed with me) as much with him as anyone. He keeps telling me he is thinking about retiring, and when he does he will be missed beyond measure. I already miss Poole. He is up-front, honest and bleeds for Dougherty. I hugged him back. That was priceless.

All I can say to Poole is this: “We do what we do.” When he reads this, he’ll laugh.

When Poole does retire, they should name Ty Hayes the boys basketball coach. Hayes is a Midas-coach. Everything he touches shines. Just look at the softball and baseball teams he coached (remember, he is a basketball coach but picked up those teams because he cares about the school). He’s another guy who loves Dougherty, and he throws all of himself into everything he does because he loves the kids there. Dougherty is lucky to have him.

If Poole is the face of Dougherty, then the guy they call Archie is the face of Albany High. I don’t even have to write the name Archie Chatmon. You just say "Archie” and everyone knows. Archie is bigger than life. He is one of the finest basketball coaches I know, and it breaks my heart that his team didn’t win it all last year. That loss to Vidalia in the Elite 8 when the GHSA and Vidalia forced Albany to wear its warm-ups in the game still stings. I always tell people I like Vidalia onions but have no use for the town.

Anyone who knows me knows I have an affection for Albany High, and the biggest reason is Felton Williams. I cherish our friendship, and there’s nothing I would like more than to see Felton’s football team win. The kids at Albany High touched me, too. Emanuel and Roscoe Byrd, brothers who were raised by their aunt after their mother’s death, are two of the finest young men I have ever met, and they are just the tip of the iceberg at Albany High, where I will miss giving Juwon Young a hard time. He can take it. This kid is going to play in the NFL some day — and I will still joke with him when he does.

I feel the same way about Octavia Jones and Westover. It’s amazing the way he has turned that program around. Westover football will never be the same. He’s got more talent coming, especially in Trent Thompson, a rising junior who will be one of the biggest signings in the nation when he picks a college. Octavia didn’t just teach football. He taught those kids to believe in themselves. He believes Westover will play in the Dome (I’ll try my best to make it there when it happens), and if you know Octavia, he’ll make you believe it, too.

Dean Fabrizio pulled off the same kind of magic at Lee County, where he lit up the scoreboard with his wide-open offense and made the Trojans a winner. You always spend more time with football coaches than anyone else and if my phone rang or I got a text at 7:30 a.m., I knew it was Fabrizio. I’ll miss the early morning calls and Fabrizio’s passion for his team. I’ll also never forget one of Fabrizio’s greatest, most articulate players, Thomas Wright, who has an amazing family that I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know.

And then there’s Charles Truitt. I could write a novel about Truitt and his team. There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for the Nadas and Truitt, a man who is impossible not to like and even more impossible not to cheer for in the football playoffs. It was so much fun covering kids like Wal-Mart (OK, his name is Hakeem Porter), Charles Stafford, Jawaski Randle, Cortez “Peterman” Banks, Kevin Williams and Anthony Smith, who was raised by his grandmother after his mother was shot and killed. Smith is a class act who is going to be a star linebacker in college. People touch you in a million ways. That’s what I think of when I think of the Monroe football team.

I will always cheer for Truitt and hope everyone in the Monroe community feels the same way.

My hopes for Monroe’s Marquis Davis and his boys basketball team will always be there, too. There was nothing better than the Westover vs. Monroe boys basketball rivalry. I told Westover coach Dallis Smith recently that I covered the Miami Heat one year all the way to the NBA title and didn’t enjoy it half as much as the nights I covered Westover-Monroe.

The packed gyms and hold-your-breath-with-every-basket moments those two teams produce are Albany at its best. I loved every minute of them and loved it when Smith’s team advanced to the Final Four with one of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen — an overtime win against defending state champ South Atlanta when Smith lost both his big men to fouls against a much taller Atlanta-team and had to go deep into his bench to pull out the victory. Dallis knows what I think about him, but I’ll say it one more time: He is one of the best basketball coaches I’ve ever seen — and one of the classiest, as well.

I wish I could give him the two state titles he would have won while I was here if the GHSA had the guts to stop the recruiting in northern Georgia. I don’t have to hope for a title for Monroe’s girls coach Cheryl Cheeks. I told her before saying goodbye that her girls team will win at least one state title in the next three years, and maybe two. Cheeks has taken the program from a four-win season in 2009 to being a state power, and no one dresses like the Monroe girls and the coaches. They are the fashion leaders of girls hoops in Georgia. They are going to look great the night they win it all.

I can’t mention Monroe without talking about the incomparable Mimi Land, who is simply the best athlete I covered while in Georgia. When Mimi is in the Olympics in a few years, I’ll tell the story about how I wrote about her in high school and how she simply took my breath away at the state track & field meet every year. She won nine individual titles and led Monroe to four consecutive state titles. Her parents, Dan and Theresa Land, gave their daughter talent and a work ethic to marvel at, and they also taught her humility and how to appreciate everything that came her way. But what I remember the most about Mimi is walking with her across the field at Hugh Mills a couple of years after her long day. The second day of the state meet is field events day, and Mimi always had to go from the long jump to the high jump to the triple jump. It was a grueling, demanding triangle, and it was one of the hottest days of the year. She had won titles in all three and broken the state triple jump record, and then she anchored the mile relay team prelims that night.

It was late and they were turning the lights out at Hugh Mills as we walked and talked. She was exhausted. Mimi told me she couldn’t feel her legs, and all she wanted to do was soak in a bathtub of ice the minute she got home.

Her grandmother had passed away a week earlier, and that’s what we were talking about as we walked. She wasn’t just exhausted, she was emotionally drained, and her words and passion and love for her grandmother filled the air, her voice soft and breaking.

She told me the story how before her grandmother died, she told Mimi to bring home the “jubilee.’’ Mimi said she didn’t understand what the term meant at first. It was from another time, but finally she understood. It meant bringing it all home — “bringing home the jubilee.”

When she wins in the Olympics, that’s what I will think of — it’s my deepest and fondest memory of Mimi, who is so courageous and classy, so determined and so awe-inspiring. A kid with a broken heart in mourning trying to soar for her beloved grandmother.

That’s Mimi.

She always brought home the jubilee.

I’m just getting warmed up

I can’t talk about track & field without talking about Paul Jones. He is unstoppable, a workaholic who has given his life to the youth of this area, not only as an assistant track and basketball coach at Monroe, but as the founder and heartbeat of the Albany Ruff Riders track club.

Jones must never sleep. He constantly amazes me. He helps mold young kids into becoming stars on the track and gives the youth of this area opportunities to compete nationally that wouldn’t exist without him. He’s a piece of work and a good friend. I’ll miss Jones big-time.

You can’t mention track and field without Westover AD Harley Calhoun, a salt-of-the-earth, down-home Georgia guy, as well as track coach Lewis Smith. The two make an unbeatable duo at Westover, where the boys and girls teams make a statement every spring. Of course, Smith is also a basketball guru, and his girls basketball team was so much a part of my life here. I bet I wrote more about DyTeisha Dunson and the Lady Patriots than anyone wrote about any girls basketball team in Georgia.

I still can’t believe I never wrote a GHSA girls basketball state title story. I’ve shared some tough moments and heartache with Randolph-Clay’s Jennifer Acree, who will probably get a well-deserved title in 2014.

She deserves one, and Kobi and Brianna Thornton will lead the way. By the time Kobi graduates, she will be one of the most recruited girls player from SW Georgia since Tammye Jenkins led Terrell County to a state title in the 1980s. Jenkins was a remarkable player at Terrell and UGA, as well as an All-American and WNBA center who came home and now coaches her Terrell County kids with energy and devotion. I love to watch her coach because she believes in her kids and never stops coaching, regardless of the score.

It’s the same with Dougherty’s Charlene Jackson and Pelham’s Antonio Tookes, who give everything to the game and to their teams. There are so many who do — men and women who care about what they do and the kids they coach. I don’t know anyone who cares more about the kids in Dougherty County than countywide Director of Athletics Johnny Seabrooks, who is the walking Wikipedia of track & field.

He is more than a guru — he’s the man mountain with all the answers.

But Seabrooks, who is the heart and soul of Hugh Mills Stadium and the GHSA girls state track & field meet, is the AD for the county, and he is not only unflappable but passionate about his job and the youth of Dougherty County. He has spent a lifetime in SW Georgia as a coach and mentor, and Dougherty County is lucky and blessed to have him.

A 'private' message

I don’t have enough room to write about Allen Lowe and Deerfield-Windsor. Lowe is a football wizard with a steel-trap mind who is more fun to watch on the sidelines than anyone could imagine. I’ve shared a couple of state-title runs with Lowe and his kids, but the memory that will stay with me forever came on a soft, warm afternoon when I was at a Deerfield practice on an “ice cream day.’’

Every now and then Lowe had an ice cream truck show up at DWS after practice, and his kids know the drill. They love it. They hear the truck’s chimes and line up outside the door to the school that leads to the locker room, standing in line like 6-year-olds and ordering their ice cream. Sure, it’s corny, but it’s magic, too. They sit in the shade on the steps and eat ice cream together.

No one really knows where that extra yard or that extra drive comes from in a state title game, but I like to think part of it comes from that bond the kids at DWS have, and sitting in the shade on the steps with those kids one October afternoon, joking and talking to Banks Kinslow, Davis Moore, Quinton Heard, and the unforgettable Jordan Funderburk, is one of my fondest memories.

Those kids will always stay with me. From the electric Kh’ron McClain, Patrick Forrestal, the quiet and brilliant giant, the insightful and always quotable Weston King, to the elegance and courage of Reed Hancock to the killer smiles of the Young sisters — Amber and Tarah, who were both so much fun to interview — are all part of the DWS memories.

I always tell people that it’s a joy covering Deerfield. It’s a family, from that close-knit group of coaches — Rod Murray, Craig Rhodes, and everyone out there to the legendary Gordy Gruhl, who came from Indiana and wrote a legacy with a lifetime of coaching in Southwest Georgia, and his amazing wife, Meredith, who has her own list of state titles to go along with doing a million things for the program. Not to mention the kids themselves and headmaster Dave Davies.

If Deerfield’s a joy, it’s impossible to say what Westwood is. They will forever be the Westwood Wonders, a tag I gave them in one of my early football columns. It stuck. Do you realize I have written stories about state titles at Westwood in football (back-to-back), baseball, both boys and girls track & field teams and this year’s amazing and inspirational girls basketball title?

But when I think of Westwood, I think of Azalea Vereen, the school’s biggest fan and one of the best teachers on the planet, and her kids, John and Virginia, who were both classy stars for the Wonders. I think of Miller Singleton, one of the toughest and gutsiest athletes I have ever written about and one of the most delightful young ladies I have ever met. I’ve told her parents from time to time what a great job they did raising her, and then I met her younger sister Morgan this year, and had to tell them again. They’re 2-for-2!

I think about Westwood’s Edore brothers, Jake and J.T., who always stepped up in the big games, and about Al Timmerman and his emotional baseball title run last year that came complete with a couple of good-luck turkey decoys hanging from the dugout. They were named George and Nancy (after George Jones and his wife Nancy) and came from the imaginative mind of Caleb Morrell, another one of my favorite kids. His dad, Jim Morell, who is now at Randolph-Clay, is one of those classy guys that stays with you.

I also think of Earl Ford, the miracle man who is the loudest voice on the football field, where he’s Westwood’s dynamic and energetic defensive coordinator and a miracle worker every spring when he just wins state track & field state titles year-in and year-out — all while wearing a straw hat as big as Montana and a mountain man beard to match.

And of course, I think about the Worshams, Ross and his wife, Donna, and their sons, Mason and Chason — Westwood’s First Family of Football.

Mason is one of the coolest, calmest quarterbacks I’ve ever seen, and Chason is a dazzling running back whose game-tying, high-flying somersault into the end zone in the 2012 state semifinal will be talked about for decades in Camilla.

Ross is one of those football coaches you just enjoy talking to, and you always come away knowing more and feeling more confident about his team. His kids know what I mean. He’s a football coach down to his bones, and he knows how to get the absolute most out of what he has. The Wonders won 27 games in a row and put up back-to-back state champion banners. Then they moved up in class and still made it to the state title game, winning 37 games in three years.

You know, Westwood wasn’t bigger and faster than all those teams — just better.

I often tell friends my favorite Ross Worsham quote. Worsham says, “There’s nothing like winning a state football title. It’s something you will never forget. Even if you get Alzheimer’s, you will still remember winning a state football title.’’

Yup, they’re the Westwood Wonders. The name stuck!

Southwest Georgia’s finest

Places like Sylvester, Camilla, Colquitt, Dawson, Cuthbert, Blakely, Damascus, Shellman, Pelham, Bainbridge, Donalsonville and all the towns that make up SW Georgia were just names on a map when I arrived here. Now they are an avalanche of memories.

Sylvester means baseball coach Will Smith and covering games at Worth County’s 100-year-old baseball park on priceless spring evenings, and AD Russ Beard, whose softball team that was led by the Ellis twins, Heather and Haley, is still my favorite softball team of all-time.

Bainbridge means Ed Pilcher and Rickey McCullough, as well as Larry Clark, the face and heart of track in Bainbridge. And of course, my sister (at least that what we call each other) — girls track coach Tandria Phillips.

Early County means Randy Isom, who made me fall in love with his boys basketball team. He’s all energy all the time — just like his teams, and who could forget Trey Woolf’s incredible football teams.

Cuthbert is football defined by coach Daniel McFather giving his witness to kids on both teams after every game, and Shellman is a memory of tears that fell when a sweet, little school named Randolph Southern announced it was closing its doors — a story that touched me like few I have ever written.

I smile when I think of Miller County because football coach Frank Killingsworth always makes me laugh. He’s a heck of a coach who has the kind of wit and humor I can’t get enough of.

“Moses played here,’’ he says of the ancient building at Miller’s practice field, and I love this one, too: “I went to the sporting goods store to get supplies for the upcoming season. I asked the guy where he kept the speed.’’

Part of me will always be in Seminole County, where I have so many memories. You can’t describe Alan Ingram in a handful of words. He’s simply bigger than life and growing every minute.

I never spent a moment with him that wasn’t enjoyable and memorable. He adjusts on the football field as well as anyone, and he loves his kids. He simply loves football like he loves life. He’s great at both.

There are friendships with Wes Williams, who coaches football and baseball and who took over the girls basketball team this year because he is simply a man you can count on, and Truette Johnson, the head baseball coach who has had some of the best teams I’ve seen here.

There’s Kevin Godwin, whose emotion and unabashed honesty and passion for his boys basketball team is simply overwhelming. Gaw-Lee, he gets excited about his kids! And there’s principal Brinson Register, a man who loves Seminole County and sports, and a man I admire.

And, of course, there’s Jesse McLeod, a man who touched me every time we spoke. He was so generous with me — and everyone he met. He touched countless lives and gave something to just about everyone in Seminole County before losing his battle with cancer last summer. They cried a river in Donalsonville. I cried, too.

I wrote more than 1,000 stories at The Albany Herald, but none of them was as painful as the day I wrote about the memory of Jesse McLeod.

Yes, part of me will always be in Seminole County.

'It’s sweeter than Terel Hall’s mama’s peach cobbler!'

John Davis was right when he said we had been through the wars together. Terrell County’s back-to-back runs in the state tournament were thrilling, exciting and heartbreaking.

The most exciting ending I’ve ever seen in hoops came the night the Greenwave beat Greenville and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the second round. TC was down by four with 20 seconds left, and the two teams combined to score 11 points in the final 20 seconds, including Teral Hall’s long, laser pass to Markez Dotson, who scored at the buzzer to win it. Three days later, the Dreamwave upset No. 1, unbeaten Wilkinson County in the big slingshot game to reach the Final Four.

Before the game, Davis said it was David vs. Goliath and his team would need a big slingshot. After the win, Dotson and others were shouting at the top of their lungs, “Big Slingshot! Big Slingshot!’’

When the semifinal game against Whitefield Academy was stolen from Terrell County in Macon, the kids cried their eyes out, but they were man enough to talk to me after the overtime loss. Nothing impresses me more than kids and coaches who will talk after tough losses.

They came back the next year and beat the same Whitefield Academy team in the Final Four, and they shouted and danced and laughed out loud that night in the same locker room where they had left so many tears a season earlier. Charles Brown, the most quotable kid I have ever covered, delivered the quote of the year when he told me how sweet it felt to beat Whitefield Academy.

“It’s sweeter than Terel Hall’s mama’s peach cobbler!’’

But it’s not my favorite quote. It comes from Davis, and it has never been in print. The day before the Final Four in 2010, I went to TC to write an advance and was in the room with the coaches and kids when each coach, including assistant Louis Cobb, another friend I won’t forget, gave an emotional pep talk. It moved everyone, including me.

But after the emotion and the last words, the kids got up to leave. Davis said something I still think is hysterical to this day.

“Whatever you do tonight,’’ he began, “don’t eat anything strange — and don’t go to Albany.’’

It was great advice, but I didn’t take it.

I went to Albany and it changed my life …

I’ll miss the boiled peanuts — and so much more.