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Hot Corner with ATMC TV sports broadcaster Jay Combs

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This week's Hot Corner features a conversation between Beacon sports editor Sam Hickman and ATMC TV sports broadcaster Jay Combs

By Sam Hickman

 Editor’s Note: Hot Corner will be published weekly. It’s a conversation revolving around sports between Beacon sports editor Sam Hickman and a Brunswick County resident. If you are interested in chatting on the Hot Corner, email shickman@brunswickbeacon.com. This week’s guest is Winding River resident and ATMC TV sports analyst Jay Combs, who spent more than 20 years as a sports broadcaster in the Baltimore area.

 

Q: Thanks for joining me this week, Jay. I feel like I know you you pretty well. Perhaps our readers don’t know much about the legend of Jay Combs. Tell us a little about yourself.

A: I moved to Brunswick County in Dec. 2004. I have a job, which is as a sales representative for Oracle. I have three children and five grandchildren. Actually, people listening to me on television would be hard pressed to believe this, but I have a masters’ degree from Johns Hopkins University. I’m not a doctor. It’s the same school, though, believe it or not. I’m afraid I’m going to get a thing in the mail from Hopkins and they’re going to notify me it was a computer error. It’s usually a letter asking for money and I pay them to keep the ruse going. I’m in sales and I taught principals of management and introduction to business. My degree from Hopkins is kind of a Hopkins version of an MBA. That’s what I taught for 15 years. I dearly loved it and probably would’ve continued except I had to make a choice between teaching and broadcasting. I’ve been blessed. The first year I started doing the (television) stuff was 1989 and I started teaching in 1986. About 2001, the (television) stuff, I had so many commitments, I couldn’t continue to teach at the community college. One of these days, maybe there will be another boomerang just like ATMC has been for broadcasting. Maybe Brunswick Community College will give me an opportunity. My wife, Derrice, and I attend Camp United Methodist Church in Shallotte. She’s what Maggie is to you. I’m lucky to have what I’ve got. I read your columns and what you say about your family and you hit the nail on the head. We don’t get to do these things without our spouses, without a loving and supportive spouse. When I was at my peak, as far as the broadcasting, I was gone way more than I should’ve been. Here’s how the conversation went. “They want you to go to games?” Yes. “They want you to talk about the games?” Yes. “And they want to pay you?” Yes. “That’s a no-brainer. The truth of the matter is, you’re going to go to the games, you’re going to talk about the games, so you might as well get paid for it.” With that blessing from Derrice, I embarked on my broadcasting career.

Q: Thanks for joining me on this week’s Hot Corner, Jay. Let me start off with an easy one. How’d you get into sports?

A: Probably not different than you, Sam. I played ball of some sort since the time I can remember. It was traditionally baseball, football or basketball. I played a little bit of soccer the backyard. If there was a ball or bat, or it could’ve been thrown or kicked, chances are I had some exposure to it from a very young age. Loved to listen to games on the radio, watched it on television.

Q: And they did have television when you were growing up?

A: They did. They were much different than they are now. Certainly didn’t have the same amount of channels to watch. Sports were covered a lot different. Even in your life, Samuel, before ESPN everything was done differently when it comes to covering sports.

Q: How did you get started in this endeavor? What’s the backstory behind the broadcasting?  

A: My experience and opportunity in broadcasting occurred well before the opportunity at ATMC. It’s a little bit of a funny story in that my son’s first-grade teacher was married to a gentleman by the name of George Jones, not the country singer. Through the relationship between my wife and my son’s teacher, I met George. We happened to be at a high school basketball game and George wasn’t sitting next to me, but maybe a row behind me and kind of adjacent. I get excited watching games and it doesn’t matter who’s playing. That evening, I got particular excited about what was going on. I got a tap on the shoulder and it was George. He asked me if I’d ever thought of doing this professionally? I said, “Professionally! Doing sports? Geez, no.” (Jones was) involved in a local cable company in Frederick, Maryland. He told me I’d be a natural for it. He asked me if I’d be interested. My heart near jumped out of my chest. I started with a high school football game for a quasi-edition that fall. They had a couple of guys who alternated doing play-by-play, so it was as an analyst for me. (They) had me back week after week and it lasted for nearly 20 years. It grew from just doing games to doing sports talk shows, so I was blessed and so lucky over the years to host a number of interview-type shows. We even did a live television call-in show, where people would see myself, George Jones and Brian Hissey. You got to understand the dynamics of this. We didn’t have the 6-second or 9-second delay. It was real time. It was dangerous. Emotions ran high and folks could’ve said things that shouldn’t be said on live broadcasting. I did tons of interview shows, tons of different kinds of opportunities to talk to kids, to coaches, to managers. Sam, I was so blessed. I did some work with the Orioles Single-A affiliate, the Frederick Keys. I handled some between-inning interviews and on occasion, some color analyst work. Worked on pre-game shows for the Keys and worked some pre-game shows. Had the opportunity to sit in Camden Yards on the top step of the dugout with a guy who has since left us, Elrod Hendricks, a longtime Major League Baseball veteran. To sit on the top of the bench in the Orioles dugout looking over at the Jumbotron at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, considered one of the finest baseball stadiums ever. I’m just a guy, a nobody, but to have that opportunity to interview some Orioles players who had made their way from Single A Frederick up to the Major Leagues, that was kind of the story. For a guy from the other side of the tracks to be afforded that kind of opportunity, I pinch myself thinking back on it. I did all that for 20-some years in Maryland and my wife and I decided to relocate to Bolivia or Supply in Brunswick County, North Carolina and I was never thinking I’d have the opportunity to continue this little part-time thing. As it happened, I made friends with a gentleman by the name of Roger Cox. Folks in this area and those who are familiar with ATMC probably knew Roger. He became the CEO of ATMC and sadly contracted cancer not long after we met. He passed away, but in talking with Roger one day, he knew my interests in sports and in particular high school sports and college sports. I was familiar at that time with the football and basketball games going on locally. Roger says to me, you ought to get involved with us. I said hey I’d love to. I got the opportunity to work initially high school basketball games. That, then, grew into the chance to meet a guy named Sam Hickman, who became my partner and friend, to do not only basketball games, but it morphed into high school football games, as well. Much like I did those 20-odd years in Maryland, there are lots of parallels with what I did there and ATMC. We’re trying to put together a product that’s entertaining and informative. These games and activities and events aren’t about Jay Combs. It’s really about the players and in our case, it’s about the kids. That’s the beauty of a local newspaper like The Brunswick Beacon and a cable provider like ATMC. People are interested in their community. They’re interested in their children, their friends’ children, their grandchildren. They are connected to their community and the Beacon and ATMC provide those connections. That’s something you don’t get on the dish, so to speak. I’ve just been one lucky guy who was sort of able to live out a dream. I wrote for a few years for the Big East and Big 10 basketball magazines and an ACC magazine. As a matter of fact, in 2007 I was inducted into the Baltimore Touchdown Club as the media personality of the year. It’s a federation, if you will, for high school football, principally in the Baltimore area. A coach nominated me for one of the federation’s awards. They were kind enough to give me that award. For a guy who has no business doing this thing, to be honored in that way was special for me.

Q: What is it that you love so much about it? What’s a guy from Baltimore doing calling high school basketball and football games in Shallotte?

A: It’s a series of answers. I have this kind of insatiable love of sports, of games. I don’t get enough of them. Much to my poor wife’s chagrin, I watch them too much and listen to them too much, but that’s what I’ve done all my life. High school sports are where the kids really care, they play really hard and they try awfully hard, but they’re not jaded. When you’re a 14-year-old kid or 17-year-old kid and you’re gaining 2,000 yards like Anthony “Bubba” McCray and scoring all these touchdowns or you’re Gray Cheers, a former all-star basketball player at West, that can go to your head pretty quick. My sense is that in high school, things are handled differently. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy girls’ sports just as much as boys. The core of it is sportsmanship and goodwill in high school sports. I’ve gravitated to high school sports. I love watching Little League baseball and youth basketball. The professionals are great because they’re the best, but there’s kind of a purity at the high school level and below that begins to dwindle away when people start getting paid for it. Through all the years doing this, I had a family and full-time job and I was an adjunct faculty member at the local community college in Maryland. What we do is out of a genuine, unabashed, tough-to-figure-out love of sports. I think what we do is a forum. We’re blessed to have a teeny, tiny part of, but it’s a forum for our kids, for our youth. We get to watch them from the ninth through the 12th grade grow as athletes and as people. We watch them grow and hope and pray they turn into great individuals. When I did a game in Maryland, when I was producing my own stuff on the Internet, I did a game between a couple of high schools in Frederick, the quarterback of one of the teams was a kid whose father I covered in high school 18 or 19 years before. When you start to cover the children of the children you covered early in your career, maybe it’s time to give that microphone to somebody else. It’s going to happen one day. I hope it doesn’t happen soon. When it does happen, it’s been nothing but a good ride for this guy. For now, the minute it stops being about those kids, you need to assess why you’re doing this. They’re kids. I’ve done Division I college basketball games. I’ve done games from the old Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland. The further up the ladder you go, the more critical you can become. At no point, unless these guys are getting paid to pay, should you be harsh or mean or nasty. I’m not even sure you should ever be those things regardless of the level you’re at. It’s just been a lot of fun and a lot of craziness along the way. People would ask me why I never tried to move up the ladder. It’s better being a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond. We’re blessed. We’re fish of some size in a not-so-big pond. As your career with the Beacon continues and more people get to know you, you’ll go places with your wife and family and you’ll notice people looking at you, people you don’t necessarily know. Chances are they’re looking at you thinking, “Where do I know this guy?” They’ll recognize you. It’s probably happened already. It got to place with me in the city of Frederick, and I don’t mean this in an egotistical way at all, but people would come up to you in the restaurants, in the convenience store, at the movies, they’ll say, “I saw you on TV last week. That was a great game, wasn’t it?” It’s crazy.

Q: Jay, thanks for chatting with me on this week’s Hot Corner. I’ll see you soon, partner.

A: When we get called up the bigs and we’re at ESPN or Fox or the ACC Network, we’ll look at it differently. It’s the purity and gentleness of the high school level that makes it pretty hard to beat.