During the first high school football game Russ Robinson ever attended in Mississippi — Clinton at Magee in 1973 — a player’s father hit an official over the head with a chair.
“I was like, ‘Man, these people are passionate about their sports,’ “ Robinson recalled with a laugh. “And, boy, was I right.”
He became passionate about them, too. A native of Athens, Ohio who came South to attend Mississippi College, Robinson decided to stay here.
And on Jan. 9 at Jackson Prep, on the front end of a girls-boys basketball doubleheader, Robinson called his 5,000th game as a radio announcer.
That is not a misprint — 5,000th. The first was a baseball game in 1974 between Forest Hill and Clinton. “I was scared to death,” he said.
The numbers break down like this: 2,619 games for Clinton High School, Mississippi College and Hinds Community College; 1,963 for Jackson Prep; another 400-plus involving all-star games and state championships.
Across the state, Robinson might be best known for Friday Night Under the Lights, the football scoreboard show that completed its 28th season on radio in November.
Robinson, 66, who owns and operates radio station WJMF (87.7-FM The Bridge), is writing a book about his experiences, a few of them he shared with me for this story. It reminded me that truth is much stranger than fiction.
For example: On the scoreboard show one night, a woman called in who was furious about an official’s call that, in her mind, cost her team the game.
She was also “feeling no pain whatsoever, if you get my drift,” Robinson said. “We didn’t have a delay, so I had to remind her to keep it clean.”
About that time, the official who had made the call phoned the show.
“We got them both on and I said, ‘Now let’s talk about this,’ “ Robinson said. “I asked him what he saw that made him throw a flag,. He said, ‘I saw No. 7 push a defender in the back.” The penalty nullified a touchdown.
“I then asked the woman, ‘Is that what you saw?’ About 5 seconds passed before she said, ‘Yes. I’m sorry.’
“About that time, I heard this noise……..bummmmba, bummmmba, bummmmba. I knew the officials were driving home together. I said, ‘Is everybody OK?’ The guy said, ‘Russ, we so rarely get an apology that we nearly ran off the road.’ ”
Robinson knew soon after starting the show that he “was on the pulse of something big.” Last season, in addition to airing on eight Mississippi Public Broadcasting stations, more than 4.5 million across the country streamed it live.
“He is professional in every way, and all of the coaches around Mississippi know it,” said William Griffin, who has served as color analyst on the Prep broadcasts with Robinson since 2003. “He makes them all feel like theirs is the only program of any importance.
“The Mississippi Association of Independent Schools and the Mississippi High School Activities Association owe Russ a lot for the exposure he has given then on Friday Nights Under The Lights. He loves what he does and works extremely hard to make it happen.
“He deserves all the accolades and attention that comes his way. I’m proud for him.”
Robinson grew up the son of a preacher man. His mother was a professional artist.
His career path became evident one night at the age of 14.
“My grandfather went blind when he was about 60,” Robinson said. “One Friday night, I asked him, ‘Where have you been? I haven ’t seen you all night.’ He said, ‘I’ve been to the game.’ And he was carrying a Philco radio with him. He said, ‘When I listen to that man call the game, he paints the pictures so clearly that it makes me feel like I’m really at the game.’
“That touched me. I could see how much joy that announcer brought to my grandfather. I said that night, ‘I think I want to do that.’ ”
Mississippi almost lost Robinson in the 1980s to what he calls “a dream job.”
“The Final Four was going to be my first assignment,” he said. “But while I was trying to decide whether to pursue it, I tucked my (two) daughters in one night and I thought, ‘If I take that job, I probably won’t be tucking them in a whole lot.’
“But I made the right decision. Family is everything to me.”
He and his wife, Alisa, have been married for 43 years. She is a social worker at Baptist Hospital in Jackson.
Their eldest daughter, Kara Bailey, is in remission from cancer and teaches at First Presbyterian Day School. The youngest, Krista King, is a dietician with Children’s Hospital of Mississippi.
And when Robinson was calling that 5,000th game, his four grandsons sat on the floor beside him.
“I know there were a lot of weekends when I wasn’t at home, but my wife and girls have been great about it,” he said.
He also has another family: Jackson Prep.
“They’ve been wonderful to me,” Robinson said. “Will Crosby is such a terrific athletic director. He leads by example and lets people do their jobs. He’s one of the big reasons Prep is so good in every sport year-in and year-out.
“And Ricky Black is the epitome of a football coach. He was one of the first people to call me when Kara became ill.
“But he also has a lighter side to him. He called me into his office one day and said, ‘Russ, I want to show you something.’ It was a a picture of me from 1977 when I called one of his games at Kosciusko,. I had sideburns that almost touched my mouth. I had hair down to my shoulders. I was wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a leisure suit. Coach said, ‘You ever get on my bad side, this goes viral.’ ”
Between the third and fourth quarter of the girls game last weekend, Prep held a brief ceremony to honor his accomplishment. They played a short video from Reid Vance, chair of Mississippi College’s communications department and the school’s current play-by-play announcer.
Said Vance: “They talk about how Bill Belichick, coach of the (New England) Patriots has a coaching tree. Well, you my friend, have a broadcasting tree in Mississippi. You’ve got a canopy of broadcasters who are succeeding because of your influence and your friendship. I’m one of them. I’m so grateful for how God has used you to influence so many lives.”
Robinson has seen his share of great players and memorable games: Football stars like Jimmy Johns at Brookhaven High, Fred McAfee at Mississippi College, Dontae Walker at Clinton High. He called Trinity’s “15 lateral miracle play” to beat Millsaps in 2007. He also called Meridian’s overtime upset of South Panola in the 2008 state championship game that ended the Tigers’ 89-game winning streak.
And the stories … they piled up through the years.
Robinson is still moved by a phone call on the scoreboard show one night from a Warren Central defensive tackle.
“They hadn’t lost a game in quite a while, and here’s this player calling the show, just sobbing,” he said,. “And when he did, our phone lines blew up. People were calling in to console him. They were saying, ‘The sun will come up tomorrow’ and ‘you’ve got a lot more games to play.’ It was an emotional show.”
Robinson recalls the night a gentleman walked into the visitors’ press box and said he was supposed to say the pregame prayer. He was wearing a three-piece suit and wingtip shoes on a muggy Friday night.
“The prayer is hard to hear on the radio, so we usually go to commercial during that,” Robinson said. “Well, we’re on our 13th commercial and this guy is still going. I remember he said, ‘And, Lord, please don’t let anyone get hurt tonight — unless it’s a Clinton player.’ ”
The game didn’t end well for Clinton’s opponent.
And then there was the time when Robinson was teaching broadcast journalism at Mississippi College and a student didn’t see anything wrong with reading the USA Today sports section during class.
“I can do what you do already,” the student told Robinson.
“I said, ‘Oh, really? Well, you be at the game Friday night between Clinton and Vicksburg. You’re gonna call the first part of it. And I’m going to give you three strikes. And if you get three strikes, you flunk this class.”
The student showed up, but quickly earned two strikes when he couldn’t set up the equipment and had failed to create a lineup card and a flow chart.
“Just before the game was going to start, I told the engineer that I was going to turn the student’s microphone all the way down and the crowd microphone all the way up,” Robinson said. “I told the kid, ‘Now when I tap you on the shoulder, you start talking. And there will probably be about 25,000 people listening.’
“I tap him on the shoulder, and he opens his mouth but nothing comes out. I tapped him again, same thing happened. I started seeing beads of sweat popping up on his forehead. I tapped him again, and let’s just say we saw what he had for lunch that day.”
When Robinson arrived at his office the following Monday, the student was waiting for him. The student apologized and promised to apply himself because he really wanted to be a sports broadcaster.
“That young man is calling games in Texas,” Robinson said.
How much longer will Robinson call games?
“I’ve told Prep that another two years would be 20 with them, and that sounds like a good time to step back,” Robinson said. “But I’ll keep doing the scoreboard show. I can’t give that up. It means a lot to me and lot of people in Mississippi.
“I remember we had the coach from Walnut High School on one Friday night. I didn’t even know where Wal nut (Tippah County) was. Man, he was excited. He called me a few days later and he said, ‘Russ, you’ve put little ol’ Walnut on the map. I’ve heard from people all over the place, saying they heard me on your show.’
“It’s sort of hard to walk away from something like that.”