When photographer LuAnne Jackson first suggested the idea, the remainder of the Blount Today team at the table - namely, photographer Brandon Shinn and I - thought seriously about taking her keys.
It’s midnight at Buffalo Wild Wings. Cleveland just beat Orlando on the big screen on a LaBron James shot at the buzzer.
“Guys, I want to get there early tomorrow,” Jackson says.
“‘Bout an hour before the game,” Jackson says. “I really want to capture the emotion of it. I have an idea.”
Alcoa plays Christian Academy of Knoxville for the state soccer championship the next day at noon. We’ve been in Murfreesboro for four days covering the TSSAA’s annual Spring Fling, the Olympic-style finish to the high school sports season. Getting to the match at 11 would mean a wakeup call at 9, not the best thing to propose to a sportswriter in serious wind-down mode.
Jackson’s eyes are dancing, though. We’ve seen that look before. Whatever she’s got up her sleeve, you know it’s going to be worth it.
The only people generally arriving an hour before a high school sporting event are the teams, the officials, a few concession stand workers and the parents. That last one - bingo!
That’s what Jackson wanted.
Lu, as she’s referred to around the office, is one of the best sports photographers working. Her work from the match, along with Shinn’s, really took you onto the field, really made you feel how much Alcoa’s first trip to state in soccer mattered to those kids out there.
In the stands, it’s worse.
“Those poor parents up there are stuck,” Jackson says. “They can’t do anything. They can’t pace up and down the sidelines like we can.”
As much as she could, Jackson wanted to experience what Alcoa’s parents were feeling. She wanted to meet them. She wanted to meet the students.
“I have to feel it, too,” Jackson says, “or I can’t do anything.”
Two couples in particular won Jackson’s heart.
Ben and Debbie Mitchell’s son, Andrew, is one of Alcoa’s best players. He’d converted on the decisive kick as the Tornadoes upset No. 1-ranked Chattanooga Christian, 1-1 (6-5) 1-1, in a sudden-death, penalty-kick shootout on the tournament’s opening night on Friday.
What a night! What a game! What a ride it would be for the Mitchells over the next three days.
Ben had worked for international shipping giant DHL for 15 years prior to being laid off in January. He’d never seen Andrew play more than a half of soccer in any one game. He got there for high school matches when he could, usually on his lunch break. He left after halftime.
Andrew and fellow seniors Sam Thompson, Adrian Womac, Dusty McClanahan and Matt Franklin had Alcoa in the state tournament for the first time in the program’s 20-year history. For Ben, it helped make the layoff “a blessing in disguise,” Debbie wanted Jackson to know.
Just as quickly, that blessing seemed cursed.
Late Friday, the Mitchells rushed Andrew to a Murfreesboro walk-in clinic for treatment for a viral infection. He was dangerously dehydrated. Thursday morning, the Mitchells brought Andrew home, his dream season seemingly over.
Who would replace Mitchell?
One more win Thursday night, and the Tornadoes would be playing for the championship on Saturday.
Greg and Jenny Baker had just the kid.
Of Alcoa’s five seniors, Franklin was the only one that didn’t start. He said he understood why players like junior Derrick Brodus and freshman Austin Stone were in the first 11 players, but it still stung. It stung the Bakers, too.
The night of the semifinal with Hume-Fogg, Alcoa coach Tom Gorman gave Franklin his shot. He would start for Mitchell. When the Bakers relayed the story to Jackson two days later prior to the championship match, Jackson said she was swept away.
“He had not been a starter,” she said, “and the coach saw something in him and put him in. His whole story is about perseverance, and I like that.”
Franklin scored both goals as Alcoa shut out Hume-Fogg, 2-0, to reach the title game. When Jackson reached the Richard Siegel Soccer Complex on Saturday morning, she ran into the Mitchells. Andrew was dressing for the game.
“They were so excited just to be there,” Jackson said.
Doctors in Alcoa had given Andrew the OK to return to Murfreesboro on Friday at 4:30 p.m. He was back at the team hotel by 7:30.
He wasn’t 100 percent, but he could go. Less than 10 minutes into the championship match, Andrew powered a left-footed blast by the Christian Academy goalkeeper to give the Tornadoes an early, 1-0 lead.
You know Ben and Debbie Mitchell were loving that.
The Warriors would rally, twice, once in each half, to claim the school’s sixth state title in the last seven years, but it mattered little to Jackson.
She’d worked crowd. She’d made some new friends. She’d learned some of their stories.
“They were all wonderful people,” she said.
She wanted you to meet some of them with her photos. She asked that our collaboration be titled “Sweet Emotion” because of the song she listened to on the way to the stadium that day.
Murfreesboro is famous for one thing, if nothing else, if you’re sportswriter. No, not the wings. Grantland Rice was born there, the man who gave us four football players at Notre Dame “outlined against a blue-gray October sky.”
Another of Rice’s famous lines seems more appropriate in closing: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the game.”
The answer, as Jackson’s photos remind us, is never found on a scoreboard.