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DANNY ALLER FAREWELL COLUMN: It’s been real and it’s been fun

When I sat down in former Albany Herald Publisher Mike Gebhart’s office almost seven years ago and he asked a question I knew was coming, I was ready with my answer.

“My vision for this sports section?” I repeated aloud. “My vision is to make The Albany Herald’s sports page a one-stop shop. Lots of local sports coverage and a solid mix of regional and national news. You won’t need to visit any website, or check ESPN after you pick up The Albany Herald’s sports pages. We’ll have you covered.”

Mike’s a smart man. I got the job.

Over the years, I worked tirelessly to bring you — our faithful, loyal Southwest Georgia readers — that vision each and every day since I put the title of “Sports Editor” on my business cards and moved my family from Florida to Albany, Ga., in February of 2007.

And now, after 6 years, 6 months and 14 days, I am saying goodbye.

I could never top our former high school writer Mike Phillips’ farewell column from a few months ago — the one in which he had something eloquent and perfect to say about every single person he ever met during his journey through Southwest Georgia — but after all the in-depth, 3,000-word feature stories I’ve written over the years, it wouldn’t be an “Aller Original” if it wasn’t my own definition of “short and sweet.”

The short of it is that my time in Albany has been some of the greatest years of my life — and I owe that to all the satisfied readers who continue to make The Herald their No. 1 source for their sports news, and also those who will let us know when we’ve fallen short of expectations. Because it’s those critiques that improve us, ensuring the next day’s section will be better than the day before. Gebhart told me this week as we said our goodbyes that good managers listen, learn and then apply — and that I did all three during my tenure. I hope our constantly evolving and growing sports section you read daily these last six-plus years reflected that.

As for the sweet of it? Well, there’s nothing really that sweet about leaving some place you’ve grown to love. Add in that Southwest Georgians are among the kindest, most polite, caring humans I’ve ever come across in my life, and it makes it even harder to go.

I developed a lot of special connections with folks over the years, and it would be tough to try to list everyone for fear I’d unintentionally leave someone out. And many who I built bonds with, I made sure to reach out to before loading up the U-Haul. But there were a few sports highlights — more like a few hundred — I’ll cherish forever.

Some of my favorites were:

• Being here for Deion Branch’s second run at a Super Bowl;

• Following Angelo Taylor in not one but two Olympics as he tried to bring Albany another gold;

• Covering the rising career of Albany’s next Olympian, Mimieux Land;

• Watching the boys basketball team from Terrell County and the girls team from Terrell Academy make remarkable, dramatic, made-for-TV runs in the state playoffs, all from lil’ ol’ Dawson;

• The Albany State football team’s 2010 season, one of the greatest in school history

• The Albany State baseball team’s 2010 season and improbable conference championship

• Darton golf’s 2007 season and third straight national title

• An 8-year-old pitcher named Will Plowden, who overcame a serious clubfoot birth defect to not only play baseball, but throw a perfect game — in the playoffs

• Getting to know former Albany High coach Luther Welsh before he passed

• Getting to know legendary Randolph-Clay “Coach Joe” Williams before we lost him, too

OK, so there’s a glaring omission, right? A certain two-time World Series champ and reigning National League MVP from Lee County? And the model for how every kid, in any sport, should work, play and act at every point in his or her career? Well, I figured I’d give arguably the biggest sports star Southwest Georgia has ever had his own paragraph.

I met Buster Posey in 2008 at Florida State, along with his younger brother Jack, for a story I was writing about their relationship on the field as teammates for the Seminoles. Buster was a junior, Jack a freshman. The interview didn’t go all that well, and I wasn’t sure how much or often he’d want to talk to us/me in the future. I remember thinking after I left, “Man, nice guy, but Buster seemed so serious the whole time. Hard to draw him out.” Little did I know then, I mistook “serious” for “focused, driven and determined.” He won the Golden Spikes award that season at FSU and was taken fifth overall by the Giants. Two years later, he won NL Rookie of the Year and his first ring. Two years after that, he won another — and the MVP. And there’s no telling what’s still to come. (He’s just 26). Yet, through it all — the rise from mild fame to megastar status — the Pride of Leesburg, who stills live here, never once declined to give The Albany Herald, the newspaper he grew up reading, five minutes of his time. No matter if it was me or someone else asking. Not when he started winning every award imaginable. Not when one of his teammates got caught using steroids. Not when he won his first World Series, or his second. Not when he signed the richest contract in Giants franchise history. And not even when his team is having a particularly frustrating season, like this year. You’ve gotta respect that. And from my seat as sports editor of this newspaper for the last 6 1/2 years — a tenure that has basically spanned Posey’s entire college and pro career — unwavering access to a bonafide superstar was not only rare, it was a dream come true. So, thanks, Buster. And I know all your countless fans back home in Southwest Georgia thank you, too.

As for me, I’m off to pursue a new opportunity back in my native Florida. It’s just across state lines, and don’t think for a second I won’t be keeping tabs on what’s happening here daily, or your new sports editor, John Millikan. He’s been here two years now working his tail off to keep my Day 1 vision alive and well. The sports section is in good hands, folks. Trust me.

The last thing I want to say before wrapping up my final piece for The Herald comes from one of the many special places Albany, Georgia, will always have in my heart. A couple of years ago, I lost one of my best friends in the world — my first dog, a bulldog named Lincoln. He died very unexpectedly of cancer at age 8 and far too young.

Some of you may remember, I wrote a column about the grief I felt over losing a beloved family pet, purely as a way to honor my fallen pal — not knowing how it would be received in a sports section. As it turned out, you happily gave me my chance to let some emotions out, and the resounding support I got from readers — cards, emails, phone calls, people stopping me with tears in their eyes in the grocery store — was overwhelming. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.

I re-read the column the other day. It’s still just as powerful as it was then. Link would’ve been proud. Or licked my face.

That response also told me one other thing: Newspapers are alive and well. People are still reading every single day. The Herald, alone, had been serving Southwest Georgia for 121 years.

That’s trust. That’s dedication. That’s impressive.

And when I look back years from now on my time spent here, I know I’ll feel honored to say I was once a part of it.