NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., center, answers questions from Chattanooga Times Free Press Sports Editor Jay Greeson, left, and Assistant Sports Editor Stephen Hargis at the 2014 Best of Preps Banquet on Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Earnhardt was the guest speaker at the annual event which honors the area's best prep athletes.
Another great season of high school sports in our area officially ended Thursday night.
The Best of Preps banquet always has been a great thing. But when the Times Free Press and president Jason Taylor supersized this thing, it has become a real event that is unrivaled.
Thursday's guest speaker, NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr., is a veteran of countless events of all magnitudes, and his praise for the Best of Preps banquet was hearty.
That praise is warranted because of the nature of the event: It is a celebration of the best in high school athletics from our area, and almost everyone has some connection to that. Be it through a friend or a family member or your former exploits at the old school yard, high school sports touch almost all of us. And we can cherish it and relate to it.
And the Best of Preps celebrates the best of that at the end of each school year.
The moments and the memories, the people and the powerful stories are great every year. And the Times Free Press sports staff annually drives enough miles to circle the globe more than once covering almost 70 schools in three states.
With that in mind, here are my favorite moments of the TFP banquet since I have been a part of it starting in 2003:
• Getting a special-needs swimmer with his Special Olympics medals around his next back stage to meet Michael Phelps and the look on that kid's face. We'll never forget it.
• Knowing how much this means to the winners and those named for the awards. Want to know how much it means? LaQuisha Jackson, the former Howard sprinting star who is the namesake for outstanding achievement in girls' track and field, flew back from San Diego on her own dime Thursday night to present the award.
• Rewarding and honoring excellence, which does not happen enough in our "everyone gets a trophy" society.
• Being able to continue and grow a unique and awesome brand that is the Best of Preps. When I became the sports editor in 2003, this banquet was an excellent tradition and a modest enterprise. With the help and support of the folks atop the TFP food chain and the growth of the TFP marketing department with Lyndsi Lane -- there was a time that the sports department and Beth Blansit and Tanya Williamson did most of the lifting on this thing; now there is a marketing team that handles the dozen or so events we do -- the banquet is self-sufficient.
It was a money loser until Phelps came to town and blew the ceiling off it. And there's no telling how long this event would have continued in today's climate as a five-figure money pit. Making this thing bigger and better than ever -- and adding the Best of Preps basketball tournament and this coming year a Kickoff Classic -- has solidified its place. That's a great thing, and selfishly, I did not want to be the guy running the sports ship when the banquet ended, you know?
As for the bad, well, those are more generalized, and Nos. 1 through 413 are any delays in the arrival of the featured speaker. Earnhardt's flight Thursday was delayed because of weather, and those extra minutes of unknown are really the only nervous part.
A few years ago, Drew Brees thought Chattanooga was on Central time, so he was a full hour late. And if something happens and the speaker doesn't show, well, the go-to catch phrase is that folks have paid $50 clams for the comedy stylings of the TFP sports editor. "Knock, knock ..."
We've had our fair share of complaints about award decisions, but those mostly are understandable because we know it's out of passion for their kids and respect and desire for being a Best of Preps award winner. If people did not get emotional, then it would not mean as much as it does, and we remember that when folks call us a chowder head for picking this kid over theirs. It's all good.
That said, we wrestle each year after the banquet with the question of how can we make next year bigger and better, and that's especially true after Thursday's record-setting crowd.
So what do you think? Who would be an ideal Best of Preps speaker? Send your suggestions with reasons why to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you next year.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...