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LORAN SMITH: Remembering Larry Munson the man before and beyond his legendary status

FILE - In this file photo released by the University of Georgia Athletic Department, the football team's radio announcer, Larry Munson, is seen on Oct. 2, 2004, during a broadcast from Athens, Ga. Munson died Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. He was 89. A university statement said he died at his Athens home of complications from pneumonia, according to his son, Michael. (AP Photo/University of Georgia, File) 

FILE - In this file photo released by the University of Georgia Athletic Department, the football team's radio announcer, Larry Munson, is seen on Oct. 2, 2004, during a broadcast from Athens, Ga. Munson died Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. He was 89. A university statement said he died at his Athens home of complications from pneumonia, according to his son, Michael. (AP Photo/University of Georgia, File) 

Before Larry Munson became Georgia’s football play-by-play announcer in 1966, I knew him from his time working at Vanderbilt, where he had become a fixture in Nashville. His agenda included, in addition to announcing for the Commodores, hosting a popular television fishing show and working as the play-by-play voice of the Nashville Vols’ minor league baseball team.

What I remember most about him was his hairstyle -- a distinctive crew cut. He was a little reticent but engaged in conversation easily. He was often in the company of Dudley "Waxo" Green of the Nashville Banner and John Bibb of the Nashville Tennessean. Those were different times. Not every SEC team assigned a broadcast crew for road games, but Commodore basketball was big, which is why the two competing daily newspapers sent beat writers on the road -- which is also why you never saw Munson without Green and Bibb.

Curt Gowdy -- for years the big league announcer for the Red Sox and later a popular network sportscaster -- and Munson became friends when Munson succeeded Gowdy as the play-by-play announcer for the Wyoming Cowboys. When Gowdy left for the big leagues, he told Munson that, to get to the top, he needed to set his sights on major league baseball. And to get there he had to, like the players, move up the line in the minor leagues. That is why Munson went to Nashville. The old Nashville Vols played in the AA Southern Association. It was a step in the right direction.

When the Milwaukee Braves moved South, Munson became the second announcer, teaming with Milo Hamilton when the Braves began play in Atlanta in 1966. Working for the Braves would become Munson's link with Georgia. To join the Braves' broadcast crew, Munson had to give up his ties with Vanderbilt, a decision that also made him fortuitously available to call Georgia football games on a freelance basis. The Braves were OK with that arrangement, but for that to come about, there first had to be an opening at Georgia, where Ed Thilenius, a golden throat if there ever was one, was entrenched.

Atlanta, becoming a major league city, figured into the coming of Munson to the Bulldogs. Thilenius moved to WAGA-TV channel 5 in Atlanta as the city's first full-time sports director who would work the new Atlanta Falcons games for CBS.

When he inquired about the Georgia job, it was to Munson's advantage that Joel Eaves was the athletic director. Eaves had been the Auburn basketball coach before taking over in Athens as AD. He knew Munson. He often heard Munson calling Vandy games over WSM out of Nashville. The deal was closed with alacrity. Georgia lost Thilenius one day and gained Munson the next.

Nobody paid the decision much attention except to lament the departure of Thilenius, whom the Georgia fans revered. They saw him at coffee clubs around town; they munched on hot dogs with him at the Varsity. He was their friend as well as their announcer.

With Munson, whose family was anchored in Nashville, it was an in-and-out sojourn to Athens on the weekends. When he got to Sanford Stadium, he parked his car facing north and made a mad dash back to Nashville as soon as he signed off on the broadcast. I once noted that he met more state troopers than he did Georgia fans. Bulldog listeners had to adjust to a new-sounding voice and a new style. Believe it or not, Munson was not an instant hit, considering the esteem with which Thilenius was regarded and the lack of familiarity with his successor.

After a couple of years with the Braves, Munson returned to Nashville for a television gig on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news. But in the early '70s, he moved to Atlanta and began working with the old Georgia Network, a statewide radio network that provided news, sports, weather and farm news to local stations. Larry did it all, but with a family to support, he began spending time on the road speaking, which meant that he might drive as much as four hours to speak, getting him home well after midnight. He was back at the network studios by 5:30 a.m. The quintessential radio man, he enjoyed his life, as hectic as it was.

Three things were taking place during those early years. First, he was getting to know Georgia people as he was traveling the state speaking. Dan Magill appreciated his work and made cassette tapes of his best calls and sold them to Bulldog Club members. You could hear those tapes being played when you walked through the tailgate enclaves on game day. Perhaps the most important thing for Larry was that Vince Dooley's teams had a knack for winning close games, often claiming victory late in the fourth quarter. When the team rose to the occasion on the field, Larry rose to the occasion behind the microphone -- which memorably gave us, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" "Run, Lindsay, Run, Run!" and eventually, under Mark Richt, "Hobnailed boot."

Larry, while not a loner, pretty much kept to himself and had at least two other lives: going to movies with his movie club and fishing. We had something in common when it came to fishing and hunting. On a pheasant hunting trip to South Dakota, I had some pheasant smoked and sent home. You should have seen his eyes light up when I gave him those smoked pheasant.

When we fished a time or two at his favorite spot in Newton County, he talked in his game day vernacular. When the wind came up, he began to fret. "It's out of the north and I don't like it," he complained. "I don't like it, no sir, I don't like the looks of things. Yeah, you knew it would be this way if the north wind got up, driving down those big bass five, six, seven, eight, nine feet."

Twice divorced and living alone at the time, Munson found comforting respite on the lake. "I'm out here by myself a lot," he said and then volunteered that on the lake was where he talked to his late father, Harry. "I just tell him how much I enjoyed those days when I was growing up in Minnesota and he taught me everything I know about fishing. When my sister, Dorothy, sent me his tackle box, which he bought in 1943, it was one of the happiest days of my life. When I opened the package and took that old tackle box out, I hugged it. I felt like I could communicate with my dad again. It brought back such great memories. Him and me on a lake. The fish biting and the water lapping against the boat."

Then there was a solemn and sensitive moment when he talked about his mother's death in the mid-'90s and his divorces. After his mother died, he lamented the fact that he no longer had "any reason to send a Mother's Day card to anybody." He volunteered personal information, for example, bringing up the fact that a nephew had died of AIDS.

"When I am really down," he said, "I come here to the lake. I'll hunker down out here all by myself and talk to my dad. He understands things. A fisherman always understands. If you need advice, a fisherman will know what to tell you."

With the demands of a long week coming to an end this past weekend, I went to bed early Sunday night and put my cellphone out of hearing. Didn't learn the news until I went out about 4 a.m. Monday for the paper. There it was, a banner headline telling us that his voice had been silenced forever.

I immediately tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the North Star, which he frequently saw growing up in Minnesota. The search of the heavens made me feel good, nonetheless. My mind raced with thoughts and reflections. With a heavy heart, I returned inside to build a fire and had a talk with Larry, like he often had with his dad on the lake. It was mostly thanks for the memories and for giving me a lasting identity with the Bulldog Nation with his "Whaddaya Got" line.

As the flames gained momentum, my central thought was, "Aren't we glad, aren't we happy to rejoice, that Larry Munson came our way."Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show" for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.