No matter how well the local high school football season goes this year there will be something missing.
For the first time since 1961 the games will take place without the “Voice of Bradley County” broadcasting the action on the local radio airwaves.
“There comes a time when you have to slow down whether you want to or not,” commented Corky Whitlock, who has decided to step away from the microphone after 54 years locally, plus four more in Florida before arriving in Bradley County.
“You get to a certain point in your career where you can’t do the things you could earlier on,” the 77-year old explained. “Climbing bleachers, stairs and ladders into press boxes has become dangerous not only to me, but to those who are helping me.”
“It’s time for me to slow down some. I can’t do some of the things I used to do,” the hall of fame broadcaster stated.
Whitlock has continued to work despite having a major stroke 10 years ago, plus numerous smaller strokes a few years later.
He also had back surgery in the spring of 2008 as well as surgery on a broken arm that fall, causing him to miss just his second Bradley Central football game in the 54 years since he began broadcasting them during the Bears’ 1961 state championship season. While he has had some difficulty with his mobility, Whitlock has not had any strokes in recent years.
“I was blessed to be able to not miss a game in 37 years of consecutive Friday night football broadcasts,” he stated. Combining college, high school, elementary as well as Dixie Youth baseball, it is estimated Whitlock has done “somewhere around 12,000 remote broadcasts.”
“One of the most unusual features included broadcasting every game of a weeklong elementary basketball tournament,” Whitlock related. “Some 28 games, best I can remember. I do remember I couldn’t talk when it was over.”
Whitlock's first year here proved to be a tremendous one as Bradley Central won state championships in football, as well as boys and girls basketball, plus qualified for the state baseball tournament.
"No other school has ever done that (won three state titles in the same year). That was a great way to get introduced to the local sports scene," he commented. "That's when I first declared Bradley County to be the 'Sports Capital of Tennessee.'"
A few years later Whitlock met with Dale Hughes, who was coaching basketball at Lee College, and started broadcasting Viking games, following them to Detroit when they won the National Christian College Athletic Association's national championship in 1968.
"We also added Cleveland State games and Cleveland High after they opened," he said. "We also did some Charleston and Walker Valley, plus we’ve been able to do some Polk County and Ooltewah games as well.”
Whitlock has been involved in the coverage of between 17-20 state events, including Dixie Youth as well as high school events.
His final game broadcast in March was appropriately the Bradley Bearettes making their second straight trip to the TSSAA state basketball tournaments.
“Corky is an icon in broadcasting, especially in sports,” praised Cleveland mayor Tom Rowland. “He did a great service to bring the games to the people of our community who could not attend the games.”
“While I was involved in radio, Corky and I were on separate stations at the same time,” Rowland stated. “While we were competitors, because of our friendship, it was a friendly competition. We had a mutual respect for each other.”
Along with broadcasting local sports, Whitlock got the chance to be involved in a different way just a few months after moving to Cleveland, taking over as coach of the Phillies Dixie Youth team for 35 years.
Corky and his wife Annette worked with the local program so diligently the current Dixie Youth facilities at the Bradley County Recreation Park is named in their honor — the Whitlock Complex.
"I loved coaching and working with the younger kids," he beams. "Annette got right in there and worked right along side me. We practically raised our kids at the ball park."
Helping young people is still a big thrill for Whitlock. "I've interviewed a lot of people over the years, but I really like talking to the players. To watch them go from being nervous and not knowing what to say the first time to seeing them gain confidence and feel more comfortable with the microphone and better articulate their feelings after three or four times."
"The relationships I've developed with coaches and kids over the years are the most rewarding part of my job," stated Whitlock, who has interviewed athletes ranging from little leaguers to Major League Baseball home run king Hank Aaron.
Not just a sportscaster, but also a very well-respected radio newsman, Whitlock has interviewed people as varied as the "Goat Man," a famous regional nomad, to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (while hanging off the caboose of a train with microphone in hand).
"I interviewed the ‘Goat Man’ while I was still in Florida just after President Kennedy was elected. He used quotes from the Bible to predict Kennedy's assassination," Corky shared.
For more than 40 years, despite working well into the night to broadcast games, Whitlock would get just a few hours of sleep before getting to the radio station around 4 a.m. and go live with his "Early Show" at 5. "I really miss my 'Early Show.' I really enjoyed doing that," he said in a 2009 interview.
"Corky has done so much for Bradley County in general and Bradley High in particular that we can't measure it," praised BCHS athletic director Turner Jackson. "He's so much a part of us sometimes we take him for granted, but we really do appreciate all he's done for our community."
"People don't realize it but Corky has had several opportunities to go call 'big time' college sports and has turned them down because of his love for this community and wanting to keep his family here," longtime Whitlock announcing partner Earl Rowan stated.
"The people around here have grown up with Corky telling us what was going on in Bradley County," Rowan continued. "He had the pulse of the county. Wherever news was happening in Bradley County, Corky was there."
"He is the consummate professional and very well respected in the broadcasting community across the state," he declared. "He personifies his nickname 'Mr. Bradley County.'"
Rowan stated that over the years he has heard countless individuals thank Corky for his dedication to the community. "For years people have come to ball games with little radios so they could hear Corky's description of the game while they watched it live," Rowan added.
While Rowan has been working with Whitlock the longest, over 40 years doing football only, a number of people have worked the airwaves with him.
"When I first started I used to get some juniors or seniors from the school to come help me," Whitlock explained.
After many years with Bob Hanshaw at his side, the last 23 years have seen Whitlock team with Gary Ownbey.
"I started out just filling for Hanshaw when he couldn't be there," Ownbey quipped. "It has been a pleasure to sit and learn from 'The Master' all these years. There is no one in broadcasting around here who is more respected than Corky."
Whitlock’s love of sports and broadcasting began at an early age in his childhood home of Smithville.
"I would create games and go in detail about what was happening while I was hitting rocks with a stick," he explained. "That helped me after high school when I attended the Tennessee School of Broadcasting and Electronics. When I was at school, they asked us to make up a play-by-play of a game and so I just did what I had done as a kid in the gravel pit."
That ability not only led him to an early graduation from the school, but also thrust him right into his first radio job in 1956.
"Everett McCreary from WJSB-AM in Crestview, Fla., (just outside of Pensacola) called the school needing someone badly and the headmaster recommended me," Whitlock related. "I drove to Florida and talked to him (McCreary) and the very next day I was on the board for rock-and-roll show in the afternoon."
Whitlock's show got good ratings and the station's popularity grew, but he wasn't satisfied. "I wanted to expand our coverage and go into high school sports. He (McCleary) let me have it and in no time we were broadcasting games."
It was during that time, while searching for something new to cover, the likable young man traveled 14 miles to Baker, Fla., and saw a big crowd gathering into a gymnasium so he went in.
"I didn't know anybody there, but I wanted to see what was going on. It was a girls' basketball game," he recalled. "There was this lovely girl playing both guard and forward (in the old 6-on-6 style) and she was scrapping for the ball all over the place. I was very impressed with her and wanted to get to know her."
"What I found out was she was not only a terrific player but was her school's salutatorian and she came from a great family," he added.
Finding his greatest lifelong love, Corky dated Annette for about a year before they married. Having recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, the couple has four children — Vicky, Jackie, Kevin and Keith — and five grandchildren, who all still live locally. Annette worked as a bookkeeper at Bradley Central for 31 years.
The move from the Sunshine State to Bradley County came on Corky's birthday on Aug. 2, 1961, due to his mother's failing health. "I wanted to be closer to her (in Smithville) and I got word that WBAC was looking for someone," he related. "I had heard how much the people of Bradley County loved their sports and I thought it would be a great place to be."
With Whitlock stepping aside, Ownbey will do the play-by-play announcing for Bradley games with simulcasts on 101.3 FM The Buzz and WCLE AM 1570 this fall. Rowan will be doing the color commentating as well as his usual stat work for the broadcasts.
Longtime broadcast partners Terry Evans and Scott Carroll will continue to call Cleveland High games on Mix 104.1 FM.