I first met Bob Polston in 1955. He was 21, but seemed much older. I was 14, and felt much younger.
Bob was coaching a Little League baseball team from the Boy’s Club that played games at the Chilhowee Park field on Magnolia. The “Midway” of the annual Tennessee Valley A & I Fair was held on the same site….which is probably why the field was rough…plenty of rocks and not much grass. The kids that played there, including me, kinda matched the field on which we played. And Bob’s Boy’s Club team was as rough as any that took that diamond.
I was working for the Knoxville City Recreation Department for Maynard Glenn and Gene Johnson, keeping score at the games, maintaining the field and umpiring… when the half blind primary umpire, Denny Leahy, retired Knoxville policeman either felt bad or let me umpire with him. In that role I observed hundreds of players and coaches in various situations of victory and defeat over eight summers. Observation of and interaction with these “characters”…. and the character they exhibited, were valuable as I patched together my own specific world view. Bob Polston was an important person in that patchwork process.
On game day the Boy’s Club team would arrive in two vehicles, one driven by Bob, the other by assistant coach Dan Grissom. The doors of each vehicle would fly open and a seemingly endless supply of wild-eyed, energetic boys would begin piling out. Among them were; “Little John” Blazer , D.D. Lewis, later an All American linebacker at Mississippi State and an All Pro with the Dallas Cowboys, and Razz Lewis, D.D.’s cousin. They were followed by a dozen or so more, all pushing each other, talking trash…1950’s style….no profanity…well maybe a little…but mostly just pre-teen jostling in which all stallion wannabees are prone to engage.
But when Bob got out and spoke a firm but kind word of reprimand they would immediately stop their jousting and fall in line. Grissom and D.D., mature beyond his years, helped, especially with Razz, but Bob was the leader, coach and respected surrogate father. Not many fathers of Bob’s players came to the games. They…..well they just didn’t. Bob had many roles to fill with these “young men to be” and he filled them well.
Even at 21, barely older than his players, Bob commanded the respect of a much more mature man. He controlled his players without harsh words. He challenged umpires with respect and recognition that their decisions were final even though their calls may have been wrong. There was never controversy about Bob’s actions in any situation. He was a consummate professional.
I graduated from U.T. and moved on to Georgia. As I was raising my own family I still kept up with Knoxville and sports in the area….and with Bob’s career. If you read anything about sports in Knoxville or all of Tennessee for that matter you couldn’t avoid hearing about Bob Polston even if you wanted to… which I didn’t. His teams won consistently, resulting in numerous and well deserved awards for their coach. He was an incredibly successful builder of athletic ability in the fortunate young men he coached….that was evident.
But as I read of Bob’s success, my mind would always be drawn back to those early days in his career when he didn’t have the high school platform and the press coverage that spread stories of his extraordinary coaching talent. I saw him coach when there were 75 people in the stands and most of them were cheering for the other team. No one rushed the field after a victory and no one cried after a loss. There were no headlines in the Journal the next morning or the Sentinel the next evening. And Bob Smith “The Sporstsmith” didn’t report it on his WROL radio show the next day.
As Bob’s success grew I always felt that it resulted more from the fact that he was a consistent architect and engineer of character and maturity than from his coaching strategy. He never changed from the time he gave a bunt sign to a 10 year-old hitter until the time he sent in a goal line play for the Tennessee State championship years later. He didn’t have to change…he did it right from the beginning. It was the realization of what Bob imparted to the core of their being that made his adherents willing to run through a wall for him.
I’m blessed to have known as a friend and learned from Bob Polston. As the heart that pumped blood to his body gave way, the heart that was always ready with a smile, a word of encouragement and a strong handshake never waned. More importantly, his heart for the God of Salvation led to his words days before his death…”I am ready.” God richly blessed you my friend….now rest with Him!