COVERING GAMES, WITH A HITCH

March 05, 1990

When Marion Wilhoite, the sports editor at The Daily Herald in Columbia, Tenn., begins his daily two-mile commute to the office, he steps out his front door and starts hoofing it down Winding Way. Usually within moments a motorist pulls over, making an unscheduled stop to let the 48-year-old Wilhoite climb aboard. Picking up pedestrians isn't a common practice in south-central Tennessee, but Columbians make an exception when they see Wilhoite ambling along. For one thing, everybody in town knows that the Herald's only full-time sports journalist refuses to drive a car. For another, old habits are hard to break.

Since 1962 friends, sports fans, coaches, readers and other obliging locals have given Wilhoite a ride to every one of the thousands of games, both home and away, that he has covered. In Columbia (pop. 30,000), where folks still take the time to chat while running errands at the courthouse square, giving a neighbor a lift doesn't seem the slightest bit out of the norm. "I never have problems getting to where I need to go," says Wilhoite. "My problem is choosing who I'm going to go with."

Rather than dismiss Wilhoite as a mere moocher, drivers gladly pick him up because they know that local sporting events wouldn't be the same—and might not even take place—without him. "I don't know why, but people always seem to call on Marion when they need help with something related to sports," says Charles Troope, an engineer and part-time Herald sportswriter. "Officials have asked him to keep score. He's furnished basketballs for games. He's even had to help coach."

After arriving one night to cover a high school basketball game, Wilhoite found himself calling the plays after one team's coach—who was more comfortable in his role as the school's football coach—became ill. Recalls Wilhoite, "He said, 'You know more about this than I do. Why don't you take over for me?' " Wilhoite joined him on the bench and helped out for the next few games.

That hands-on participation has kept Wilhoite in Columbia throughout his career. "In 1966 I turned down an opportunity to work at the Banner in Nashville because I knew I'd be more directly involved in sports here," he says. Wilhoite started the area's first adult slo-pitch Softball league, in 1962, and has coached in Babe Ruth baseball, Pop Warner football, youth softball and for independent basketball teams.

"I even got a call the other day from a motel chain wanting me to book the Columbia State College's teams into their rooms when they traveled on road trips," he says, adding that he occasionally serves as State's sports information director.

Born and raised in Columbia, where his father taught for 43 years at a local military school, Wilhoite was drawn to sports by a love of statistics, which is evidenced by the records he keeps on games and athletes. "When Marion covers a game, he doesn't just write down the facts," says Troope. "He writes down the number of running plays, penalties, yards rushing, yards passing, everything."

His records go back about 14 years for local basketball teams and 25 for football teams. He gives his stats to the media, coaches and universities as a public service. He also answers several calls a day from readers who may want to know, for example, the outcome of a game between Alabama and Tennessee in 1958, or whether he agreed with an official's call on a play during the previous day's local football game.

Wilhoite, who was named Tennessee Prep Sportswriter of the Year in 1984, has left the driving to others because of his ineptitude with machinery and gadgets. Not until he was 21 did he sit in the driver's seat of a car for the first—and last—time. The Herald had recently hired him, and some relatives decided a car might come in handy for the young reporter, so they gave him one. Without a driver's license or auto insurance, Wilhoite drove off an embankment while out on a date, totaling the vehicle. "I pressed down on the gas when I should've hit the brake," he says. He emerged from the crash with only a nicked finger, and his date suffered only a headache. After that Wilhoite swore off driving.

What Wilhoite lacks in road worthiness, he has made up for in resourcefulness. During much of the 1960s, before he had regular rides to most sporting events, he often hitchhiked to them. "If I wanted to watch a rural game and didn't know anyone who was going," he says, "I'd just walk out to the main road and stick out my thumb."

Before long, thanks in part to the 5'6", 240-pound Wilhoite's unmistakable physique, which one friend describes affectionately as "short and stumpy," approaching drivers had no trouble recognizing him. "People see him and think, We've got to pick up Marion because he's the sports man covering the team," says Troope.

Wilhoite sometimes gets calls from coaches who offer to take him along during scouting trips. "If I need a ride, I'll say, 'Yeah, I'd be glad to go with you,' " he says. "I get to know coaches that way." And whenever a local high school or junior college team plays in a tournament in a distant place, he often hooks a ride on the team bus.

His sports beat, which stretches some 50 miles in all directions, poses some serious logistical challenges. During the fall and winter he catches a ride to about 20 out-of-town games a month. In January, for instance, he usually attends eighth- and ninth-grade basketball games on Mondays, high school games on Tuesdays, Vanderbilt home games in Nashville on Wednesdays, junior high, high school or junior college games on Thursdays and high school games again on Fridays. He works in his office at the Herald on Saturdays.

The trick for Wilhoite is to cadge a ride for himself and his wife, Dorothy, who often comes along to help him record game statistics. She hasn't logged much time behind the wheel, either. "I think she can drive a car, but she's never had a license," he says.

On the other hand, Glenn Wilhoite, his 18-year-old son from a previous marriage, has been driving since he was old enough to get a license. "The things I'm not good at, he's very good at," says Wilhoite, who gave Glenn a car on the boy's 16th birthday. Marion's younger brother, Andy, who also lives in Columbia, drives the local fire truck.

Since 1986 the Wilhoites have lived two miles from the Herald. Before then they lived a few blocks from downtown—a short stroll from the grocery, the paper and the courthouse square. These days, if he has to run errands he calls on friends who aren't busy. In return, he pays the cost of their gas and does favors for them, like helping one pal with his office paperwork.

Wilhoite has a simple explanation for how he copes with arranging family outings, weekend drives in the country, vacations and other jaunts that people with driver's licenses take for granted: He usually avoids them. "I don't know anything but sports," he says, adding that he typically spends the day and early afternoon at the paper, heads home for lunch and fills up his afternoon and evening by attending games. When he finally returns home, it's usually too late to do much more than eat dinner and watch sporting events or an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives that he has taped during the day.

A year ago, after nearly 30 years of riding in just about every car in Columbia, Wilhoite was told by his doctor to begin a two-mile-a-day walking regimen to improve his health. He now tries to walk home from the office each afternoon, but when the locals see him tramping along, they have other ideas. "I have to fight off people who come along and want to give me a ride," says Wilhoite. "I tell them, 'No, I can't go. I've got to walk.' "

PHOTOSANDY FELSENTHALNeighbors and sports fans have been offering Wilhoite a lift since 1962. PHOTOSANDY FELSENTHALWilhoite's stat-keeping is nearly as famous as his mooching. PHOTOSANDY FELSENTHALDorothy, who hasn't driven in quite a while herself, often joins her husband on the job.

David Sharp is a free-lance writer who lives in Norris, Tenn.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)