Gone

Bill Burrus, left, interviews Pillow Academy head coach Tripp McCarty, who is accompanied by his wife, May, and son, Stock.

Well, that’s a wrap.

Twenty-eight years of sports journalism ended Friday night with Pillow Academy’s 27-16 win over Indianola Academy at Bill Davis Field. It was nice to go out with a win, and thanks for the game ball, Mustangs.

I may have hung on longer than I should have, but it’s hard to walk away from something you love. And that for me is writing and telling the stories and accomplishments of local high school athletes.

I won’t miss certain aspects of the newspaper business, but I will miss Friday nights on the sidelines.

I guess it was only fitting for it all to end with a Pillow Academy football game since my very first thing to cover back in 1992 was a jamboree at Washington School that Pillow was playing in.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Termie Land’s team was poised for a huge season with a talented young man from Morgan City at the helm, quarterback Stewart Patridge. But the star signal caller suffered two broken ribs during the scrimmage.

Land didn’t take well to me asking how you get a star like Patridge hurt in a glorified scrimmage. Maybe I came on a little strong, but we went on to have a great working relationship.  

One of the things that sticks out most from my early years on the job was watching Land turn the PA program around so quickly. He laid the foundation for those coaches who won state championships after he moved into administration.

The last 12 months have been a great run for our area high schools. The 2019 football season saw the most wins and success across the board in my tenure here, followed by a basketball season that saw the Greenwood High School boys seemingly came out of nowhere to claim the school’s first-ever state championship. The Pillow Academy girls won the MAIS Overall crown.  

But it wasn’t all happy news during that time. The death of former Pillow Academy athlete Cole Whitfield rocked our community last fall. I was honored to deliver his eulogy, one of the toughest things I have ever done — much harder than doing my father’s. Cole meant so much to so many people and will forever be missed.

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This column has never been about me, always about the story, the game and the athletes, but this one is. And that makes me a little bit uncomfortable because I am so use to writing about others.

Some people have known for a month I was leaving, but once I made the announcement Monday on Twitter, the reaction, support and kind words were overwhelming and humbling.

The thing that stood out about the more than 104 Twitter responses was the ones from the kids and the parents of those players I covered.

There are highs and lows in any job, but those words from former players, some I covered in high school, college and at the professional level, makes me think I made somewhat of a difference in their lives. And that’s what made me walk out of the newsroom with my head held high and a full heart.

I am not going to lie. Former Pillow football player Drew Hull, the son of the late, great Kent Hull, tore at my heartstrings on Monday when he posted the obituary I wrote about his father’s death in 2011. (Geez, it’s hard to believe it’s been nearly nine years since that tragic day on Oct. 18).

His son tweeted to me about that story: “Best article that was written about Pops after he passed! You are class and professionalism epitomized! Wish you all the best going forward!”

Man, that makes an old man feel pretty darn good.

This one from former Pillow and Delta State star athlete Norwood Taylor: “Good gracious I hate to see you go. I feel like you were a HUGE part of a lot of us athletes in the Delta. Thank you for the great job of covering sports in the Delta as I always enjoyed speaking with you. You will be missed my friend!”

I could go and on, but I am running out of space.

Man, that message from Drew really hit home because Kent was not just a four-time AFC East champion and a former Pro Bowl center with the Buffalo Bills — he was a good friend, one I played golf with and shared a lot of good times with.   

I will never forget where I was when I got that dreaded call on Tuesday afternoon. My initial reaction was shock, disbelief and sadness, but I quickly turned that pain into a plan to make sure the former Mississippi State star was sent out the right way.

I guess when I read those words from his son, it’s obvious I got that one right. When you love and admire a man like Kent, it makes a gut-wrenching story much easier to tell.

There have been so many highlights and relationships forged, many with people I would have never known if not for being the sports editor at the Greenwood Commonwealth.

One of those relationships is with Greenwood High School head coach Clinton Gatewood. His first in-person meeting with me left this sports writer thinking one of two things: This guy is crazy or really good. Well, it didn’t take long to figure out he was pretty darn good.

The man has built a Class 4A powerhouse in little ol’ Greenwood.  

Maybe it was because I played football at GHS during better times in the program (the mid-to-late 1980s), but we quickly hit it off when I saw how hard he was working to return the Bulldogs to those glory days.

I was there on the sidelines all four times his Bulldogs fell just agonizingly short of state. Again, that’s where you have to put your personal allegiances aside and just tell the story.

Greenwood is not playing football this season out of concerns for the COVID-19 pandemic. But when Gatewood and GHS finally kick that door in, Coach, I promise I will be in the stands.

There is no way to pack in all the names and stories from a 28-year career in one column, but I would like to thank everyone at the paper who helped me along the way and especially all the coaches, parents and players who made an impact on my life.

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Friday’s game, my last, was special in so many ways. I hated to say goodbye to a great working relationship with Tripp McCarty. Our families have become close through the years, and he made an impact on the life of my son, Thomas — just not in the way I had first hoped.

During the summer before his fifth-grade year, Thomas suffered a head injury from an accident that landed him in the hospital in Jackson. He sat out that season of peewee football and was cleared to play the next year. So obviously, he was fired up to get back out there. I was excited to see him fall in love with the only sport I was ever good at.

But God had other plans. Thomas got what was likely a mild concussion in the first game of seventh-grade football. I let him return to action, maybe a little too soon, and he then suffered a serious concussion in a game at Jackson Academy. And that was the end of a short football career.

I never said this out loud to anyone, but I feel responsible for something that changed his life forever. That’s something I have to live with every day.

McCarty, to his credit, never one time put pressure on our son to give football another try once he got to high school, even after that skinny seventh-grader turned into a full grown man a couple of years later. But McCarty did make him a part of the team in the only way possible — as a manager, so he could still be with his friends on the football field.

I guess it’s time to wrap this up, but before, I am going to highlight just a couple more of my fondest memories:

nCovering Kent Hull’s induction into the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in 2003 in Orchard Park, New York. What an honor it was to go on the field with him for the halftime ceremony during a game against the Oakland Raiders, the same team that featured one of the best, if not the best, football players the state of Mississippi has ever produced — Mississippi Valley State product Jerry Rice. The former Delta Devil made sure, on his way into the locker room at the break, to stop and congratulate ol’ Kent on an incredible career and honor.

nTraveling to Pocatello, Idaho, to cover Mississippi’s Delta Community College’s national championship victory at Idaho State in 1993. That team had a lot of local flavor on the roster, making it one memorable trip for sure.

There are just too many people, events and coaches from a 28-year career at the Commonwealth to mention all.

But one guy that has to get a shout-out is Calvin Stevens, my right-hand man for the last 26 years and the one who tried his best to keep me level-headed at times when I might let my emotions get the best of me. With his help, and a ton of it, we exponentially increased local sports content. That’s something I will always be proud of, and I know Calvin and his next boss will keep that trend up.

It’s time for some new blood at this same desk and computer where I have sat for all of my 28 years. Man, a lot has changed in the newspaper business since I came on board. But I wish my former co-workers nothing but the best. And I feel like my replacement will be a good fit at the paper.  

Thanks to the Man Upstairs for opening new doors and for the great support from my family. This job takes you away from your wife and son on a lot of weekends and nights. Karyn, my wife of 21 years, didn’t like that part of the job at all, but she always had my back — even when Mississippi State fans were clamoring for my head because of my “obvious” bias toward Ole Miss.

While I always laughed off the silly attacks in public or from those who hid cowardly behind the paper’s My Two Cents segment on the editorial page, Karyn was always quick to set them straight. So on the way out the door, let’s get this on the record for those haters: I am a proud graduate of Mississippi State, and I always took it as a compliment when folks had it twisted because that meant I remained objective.

For the guy who used to ring my desk on a weekly basis complaining and calling me “Rebel Burrus” you couldn’t have been more wrong, buddy. I made mistakes along the way, but objectivity was never one.

Now, it’s time to return the favor to Karyn and support her as she gets set to announce some really exciting news about a new business.

The final deadline is met, and it’s time for a cold one.

(2) comments

Hank Lamb

A wonderful article. Thank you Bill for all you’ve done for the kids of Greenwood. Your words will live on in their scrapbooks for years to come. A job well done. Thank you!!!

outspoken

Bill I hate to see you go. I moved away to Atlanta 33 years ago but always looked forward to ready your coverage of local sports. Never knew you were an MSU alum, I'm a big Bulldog fan. Keep working to make my hometown better. Best wishes to you and much success in your wife's new business.

Enjoy Life!

RMcGhee

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