By Dave Ongie, News Editor
There is no question the game of football has been very good to Steve Spurrier.
It took him from the halls of Science Hill High School to the University of Florida, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966. It brought him fame and fortune during a 10-year NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It transformed him into the iconic “Head Ball Coach” during a brash and illustrious coaching career that included a national championship at Florida in 1996.
But as Spurrier gazed out over the plot of land now known as TVA Credit Union Ballpark last Friday night, it was obvious that while football has shaped the life of the 74-year-old, baseball has never lost hold of his heart. Spurrier was in town to throw out the first pitch prior to a game between the Johnson City Cardinals and the Bluefield Blue Jays on the same field where he once helped lead the Hilltoppers toward back-to-back state titles in 1962 and 1963.
“I asked Tommy Hagar if we ever lost one here our last two years, and he said, ‘Steve, we never lost here our junior or senior year,’ ” Spurrier said. “I can’t remember a loss here. That’s for sure.”
The reason baseball still has such a hold on Spurrier’s heart is probably because baseball never broke it. It gave him lifelong friendships and two memorable state title runs where everything seemed to fall into place.
“Basketball, we’d win the district and get beat in the region by Kingsport or somebody,” Spurrier recalled. “In football, we lost a couple of one-point games my senior year. But baseball? We knew how to win the close ones somehow. Don’t ask me how we knew, but it just happened.”
Spurrier certainly wasn’t as good of a pitcher as he was a quarterback. Spurrier recalled hearing that his former catcher “Choo” Tipton deflected a question about his best pitch by saying, “Steve just had a knack for getting guys out.” Spurrier agreed with that assessment and chuckled about his ability to mix a “sneaky fastball” with an assortment of junk pitches in order to get the job done.
To this day, Spurrier said he enjoys returning to Johnson City to get together with old teammates, most often over dinner at the Peerless. And when he does, talk usually turns to baseball.
This past spring, Spurrier led the Orlando Apollos to a wild 34-31 road win over the Memphis Express in the final Alliance of American Football game before the league folded. After that game, a member of the media asked Spurrier a pointed question no doubt intended to generate a soundbite about Spurrier’s triumphs over the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville.
“(He) asked, ‘Coach, is this one of your biggest wins in the state of Tennessee?’ I said the biggest win in the state of Tennessee was in baseball with Science Hill when we beat the Christian Brothers here a long time ago to win a state championship,” Spurrier said.