The answer to his statement is unequivocally — you have for thousands.
Always smiling. Always friendly. Always willing to help, Bill “Chief” Robertson is one of the most recognized faces and voices in Bradley County. A gentle bear of a man who came out of the Smoky Mountains and found a home amongst us in the late 1960s.
“Everybody knows him. Not just in Bradley County,” commented Bradley Central High School athletic director Turner Jackson. “We can go into a Cracker Barrel in Bristol, Murfreesboro or Memphis and there are people who know him.”
“The Big Guy’s” statewide popularity began in the mountains outside Sevierville 68 years ago, but the early years were extremely tough on the part Cherokee Indian young man.
“I came from a very poor mountain family,” he explained. “I was one of six children. My mother had to give me up to an aunt when I was four, but my aunt’s family just barely got by as well.”
“I dropped out of school in the second grade because I had a mean teacher. But after I got out, I realized how much I needed school. I went back the next year and wouldn’t you know they put me right back with the same teacher? I only missed one day of school the rest of the way.”
“I came to understand it’s not race, color or creed that separates people — education does,” the 44-year educator proclaimed. “Education is available to everyone, but not everyone understands the value of it.”
Never traveling outside of Sevier County until he was in the eighth grade, “Chief” was the first in his family to graduate from elementary school.
Robertson went on to Sevier County High School where classmates included the Parton sisters of country music fame.
The biggest difference in his high school days didn’t come from dating Dolly Parton; rather, it was his ability on the football field. However, his athletic career almost ended before it began.
“I started to quit football before my freshman year because I found out you had to pay $20 to play on the team,” he explained. “I was on the free-lunch program and that was the only meal I got most days. Twenty dollars back then was a lot of money. I knew we couldn’t afford for me to play.”
In stepped the man who would have such a positive influence on his life. When Coach Terry Sweeney found out why “Chief” wasn’t going to play, he paid the money out of his own pocket to keep him on the team.
“He was like a father to me. What he did gave me the opportunity that eventually provided me a college education,” expressed a grateful man.
Robertson rewarded his coach’s confidence by becoming one of the best football players in the state. “I also played basketball and averaged 13 points a season,” laughed “Chief” while eating beans and cornbread at the Rebel recently.
After earning All-State honors in 1962, the 210-pound power fullback and linebacker had his choice of several opportunities to play at the collegiate level — Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Syracuse, Oklahoma, to name a few.
His choice was made easy when Sweeney was hired as an assistant coach at Middle Tennessee State University. “He had done so much for me, I wanted to continue playing for him,” related Robertson.
“At Middle Tennessee they converted him to a defensive end and man he was something to watch. He was a heck of a player. He has been a great man and coach for a long time,” echoed legendary Polk County coaches Larry Davis and John Dixon, who were classmates of Robertson in Murfreesboro.
After being a four-year starter for the Raiders, Robertson took his first coaching job at McFadden Elementary School in Murfreesboro.
“My wife had another year before she graduated so I took a job there, but the school didn’t have a football program,” he explained.
Robertson went around to the area high schools and got some old equipment and started the school’s first football team.
The next year, Robertson accepted a similar challenge at Gordonsville High School in rural Smith County.
“The first day of practice we had five players. Afterwards I took them across the street to the store and bought them all a Coke and some ice cream. The next day we had 10 show up and I did the same thing,” he explained.
Eventually, he had 40 players from a school that only had 20 students (nine boys) in its senior class.
“These were farm boys that hadn’t played football before. I also coached the junior high team as well as basketball,” he related. “One of the captains on that football team went on to be admiral in the Navy. He was second in command during Desert Storm.”
The following year, Robertson got a call from Coach Sweeney who had been hired as the head coach at Bradley Central. He invited his former player to join his staff as the freshman team coach.
“Gordonsville didn’t have no Shoney’s, no movie theater. You had to drive 20 miles to do anything. I came down here and they had two golf courses, a Shoney’s and people to talk to. I thought I was in heaven, so we moved,” he said with another big laugh.
Robertson helped coach the Bears from 1969 until 1974 when he got the opportunity to return to Murfreesboro to coach with a friend at Riverdale High School. “I was the assistant football coach and head wrestling coach although I knew very little about wrestling.”
After two-and-a-half years, Robertson returned to southeast Tennessee to work with the John Mullinax and John Fortety at McMinn County High School.
A couple of years later, Robertson was hired as the head coach at Manchester High School, but stopped in Cleveland to play some golf and spend the night before he went.
“At dinner that night I ran into a friend who told me the Bradley Junior job had just come open and asked me if I’d be interested in it. I didn’t know anybody in Manchester and I did here so I decided to stay here,” he related.
“Chief” has been in Bradley County coaching junior high, freshman and varsity football as well as other sports ever since. He became the head coach of the Bears from 1983-1990.
“They had hired a guy out of Alabama and he resigned after just a few weeks so I put in for the job and got it,” he related.
Robertson was the head coach for eight seasons compiling a 47-24 mark the first seven before the bottom fell out in 1990. The Bears went 8-2 in his second season at the helm and 9-2 in 1987 including a win over “Chief’s” alma mater in the Smoky Bowl.
“We went 6-4 the first year and everything went well until we went 0-10 so they let me go,” he explained.
Not bitter about the situation, “Chief” stayed with the school, coaching golf and helping out with the wrestling and football teams.
“He was my assistant for 13 years with the wrestling team,” Jackson related. “He has a great disposition. He’s always in a good mood. I’ve never seen him get mad.”
Jackson did admit, like some others have confirmed, that Robertson does have one fault.
“We were at a wrestling tournament at Father Ryan (Nashville) and my 112-pounder broke his femur. I went to the hospital with him and left ‘Chief’ in charge of the team,” Jackson explained.
“I had a strict rule about not being out of your hotel room after lights out, but when I got back at 5 in the morning, my student manager was laying out in the hallway,” he continued. “When I asked him why he just opened the door to the room and pointed. ‘Chief’ was snoring so loud you could hear it down the hallway. We videotaped it and showed it at the banquet that year.”
His love of food and snoring ability are surpassed only by his love for the students and his desire to see them succeed.
“‘Chief’ is Bear football. He really cares about the players and has built a ‘family atmosphere’ here,” commented current Bradley head coach Damon Floyd who played when Robertson was an assistant in the mid-1990s and has had him on his staff since returning to BCHS five years ago.
“He treats every kid like he’s his own. To him everyone is important whether it’s the staring quarterback or the team manager,” Floyd added. “There’s no way to count how many lives he’s touched not only through the football team, but his work with the youth golf program, the alternative school and so many other things he’s involved with.”
For the past 17 years, Robertson has headed up an eight-week summer program that provides children with free golf lessons each Monday in June and July.
“We started at Rolling Hills and then moved it to Waterville,” explained “Chief,” who would secure a grant to fund the program each year. “We came to the Fairview Driving Range a few years back and Waterville lets the kids from the program play for free on Thursdays.”
More than 100 youngsters participate each summer, several of which have gone on to play golf in college.
Robertson took on a new educational challenge in 1990. The county school system began an alternative school and chose him to head it up, a position he held until he gave it up at the end of the 2008-09 school year.
A dozen years ago, Robertson saw another local need and decided to throw his hat into the political ring.
“I had heard my city commissioner, Mitchell Lyle, was retiring, so I went and talked with him to find out for sure. If he wasn’t retiring, I wouldn’t have run. He said he was and luckily I knew a lot of people in District 5 so I got elected,” “Chief” explained.
When asked about his future plans, Robertson is quick to point out he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away from coaching in an “official” capacity.
“I’m keeping my other duties. I’m just not going to be on the coaching staff after this season. I can’t retire. That might mess up my marriage,” he said with a big laugh. “I finally figured out the way to have a great marriage — we only see each other three days a week.”
Robertson married one of his high school classmates about five years ago and she lives in Pigeon Forge where she is the manager of the Willowbrook Lodge. “We see each other on the weekends and sometimes she’ll come down here for a big game or something.”
“I saw Betty at our 35-year class reunion and we began talking. We had worked together at Gold Rush Junction when I was in college and for about 10 years afterward during the summers,” “Chief” recalled.
Robertson worked with actors such as Fess Parker (from the “Davy Crockett” and “Daniel Boone” TV shows) and Peter Brown (from the western series “Lawman” 1958-62).
“Several actors would come perform (at Gold Rush Junction) during the summers,” “Chief” stated. “I was first cast as an Indian in the shows, but I fell down a few times so they made me a ‘downtown character’ and I got to interact with the people and I was pretty good at it.”
With his flamboyant “AEEEEE” and “atta baby” yells, he has touched many throughout the years and will no doubt be part of a celebration “roast” planned in his honor Thursday night at the BCHS cafeteria.
From among the thousands who could speak endlessly of his shenanigans, a dozen have been chosen to “bring honor where honor is due.”
All former players, students, fellow coaches and teachers, as well as anyone else “Chief” has touched during his decades of dedicated service, are invited to come enjoy the evening of fun and fellowship.
There is no admission charge (no food will be provided) for the event. The cafeteria will be set up to accommodate between 800 to 900 people for the event.
Many fun surprises are planned for the walk down memory lane so get there early to get a good seat.