Sports Illustrated's search began in the spring of '84. Somewhere, we believed, in a rural place, far from the media capitals, a superb radio announcer of high school games would be hard at work. We decided to find him and crown him the Voice of Small-Town America. We directed our correspondents to scour the land, and eventually the search led us to a rough, gruff 69-year-old teddy bear from Fergus Falls, Minn, named Odis (Oats) LeGrand. LeGrand is what the word legend is all about. As of Oct. 25, he had broadcast 3,515 schoolboy sporting events.
LeGrand, however, is not without rivals for the title. SI's search turned up 39 names, each a mighty big fish in a very small pond. For instance, there is Gene Wade, a pharmacist from Douglas, Ga., who calls Coffee High School's games. And Cato (The Cat) Butler of Helena, Mont., who has worked high school games since 1947. But Oats has done more games in more sports than either.
In the western Minnesota grain towns whose football and basketball games he covers for station KJJK, he is as much of a celebrity as Vin Scully is nationally. Seven out of every 10 people know LeGrand, and the rest recognize his voice. Towns have closed down during tournaments to either attend a game or stay home and listen to LeGrand broadcast it.
LeGrand, who describes himself as a cross between Dizzy Dean and Harry Caray ("I really murder the language and I scream louder than Caray ever did"), has a flair for keeping his listeners tuned in. There's an old story out of Swede's Grove Township about a man calling a neighbor in the fourth quarter of a LeGrand broadcast.
"Hey, Nils, did you hear what happened to Ole Olsen?" the neighbor is supposed to have asked.
"Don't talk to me," Nils replied. "I'm listening to the game."
LeGrand, who has been a teacher, coach and recreation director, started announcing during the 1951-52 school year for $2.50 a game. He now gets $40, expenses included. Although both his knees are artificial, he has no trouble clambering atop trucks to his football broadcast position. He has worked in blizzards and gales, from soda crates, diving towers and two-by-fours, and once he even broadcast from a tree. One time the Fergus Falls broadcast booth with Oats in it toppled over during a windstorm, and he was saved from a 25-foot plunge to the ground by an electrical cord. LeGrand managed to climb out, but he was off the air for the entire second quarter. By the third quarter he had managed to reestablish contact with the studio and he finished the game in style. (Football broadcasting is finished for LeGrand this year; he begins calling basketball this week.)
LeGrand likes to sound tough—he'll telephone someone and announce his presence with a gruff "LeGrand here!"—and he's forever needling both players and fans. For example, when University of Minnesota tackle Ross Ukkelberg played at Battle Lake High School, LeGrand called him Bigfoot. "His feet," LeGrand claims, "are so big he is taller when he lies flat on his back than when he stands erect." Because of his candor and his opinionated delivery, there are some parents who call him "the Howard Cosell of the North."
When I called LeGrand to arrange a visit, he thought it was a prank. "Why would you want to interview somebody like me?" he said. When I showed up he still seemed nonplussed, and one evening he silently slipped me a scrap of paper with a carefully written message. "I honestly feel this is more than the story of Oats LeGrand," it said. "It is truly a story of America's small-community sports-casters who bring sports to life on radio for their fans...."
This, then, is the legend of Oats LeGrand: missing only 10 games in 34 years, working without a spotter or an engineer ("Hello, studio!" is his usual station cue), writing his own stat sheets and lineup cards the night before, working despite colds, driving to games behind the team bus, still handling about 80 games a year. He averages an estimated 1,500 listeners per game, the majority from the teams' hometowns, places with names like Pelican Rapids, Underwood and Rothsay, and the hundreds of farms in between.
LeGrand could have climbed higher in radio, but he chose to stay put. His story is heartwarming in part because he gives something back to the towns that give him the chance to broadcast.
Trouble is, those towns whose games LeGrand calls are slowly dying. Most of them were established 80 years ago as railroad junctions where farmers could ship their grain and shop for supplies. Now people are moving away, and the farms are being bought up by corporations. The schools are what hold the towns together. And LeGrand is maintaining interest in the schools.