Sunday, December 15, 2019

Remembering Radio

A sweet portrait of Radio and Coach Harold Jones
Photo credit: Ken Ruinard, Independent-Mail
I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but my tenth-grade year at T.L. Hanna High School was a historic time. That was the year that the Anderson schools were integrated, and an amazing athlete that the world knows as Jim Rice (we called him Ed) was gerrymandered from Westside to Hanna. As the scorekeeper for the Hanna baseball team in the spring of 1971, I had the opportunity to behold our own version of Jackie Robinson, a future Hall of Famer breaking the local color line. 
That same spring was when I met a 35-year-old fellow known as Radio who never missed Hanna baseball games at dinky old Nardin Field. There were no grandstands, so the fans and scouts sat on the field behind the chicken-wire backstop or milled around behind our bench. I didn't know Radio well, but over the years I came to appreciate him and his story.
In fact, the greatest regrets of my sportswriting career were that I never wrote the stories of Jim Rice and Radio. An Anderson sportswriter named Josh Peter told their stories instead, and did them justice.  Josh's story about Radio inspired Gary Smith to write the story for Sports Illustrated, which prompted the 2003 movie, Radio.
Radio's shoebox gift in Sudan
I've kept up with Radio over the years, and in 2003 he and Coach Harold Jones packed shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Child. In my travels with Samaritan's Purse, I had the opportunity to deliver one of Radio's gift boxes to a little girl in Sudan. Of course, his box included a minature yellow T.L. Hanna football (which unfortunately was turned the wrong way for the photograph).
My years at Hanna were before Radio started attending class and became a perpetual 11th-grader. He was a fixture on the sidelines at hundreds of football games spanning more than 50 years. The last time I saw him was a rainy playoff game in 2018. This year, as his health declined, he was able to attend only one football game. This past weekend, he was admitted to the same hospice facility where my father died three years ago. On Dec. 15, 2019, a Sunday morning, Radio finally graduated from this life at age 73. (On June 5, 2020, he graduated posthumously from Hanna). Anderson won't be the same without him.
I've collected some tributes from those who knew him well. Jacky Newton was a classmate of mine who is now a pastor in Kentucky. Last week, when Radio was gravely ill, Jacky wrote this devotional:
 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matthew 25:23)
If I asked you to pray for James Robert Kennedy, would you have any idea who I was referring too? Probably not. But if I called this man by his more common name, just about everybody in America would know who I was talking about. Yes, Mr. Kennedy is none other than RADIO!
I first met, or shall I say noticed, Radio when I was sitting in my 9th grade English class. You couldn’t mistake that laugh and the sound of his transistor radio as he would push and then ride his grocery cart down the hill beside McCants Junior High. He was there again after school chasing down the foul balls during batting practice; running and hiding from the baseball team. When football practice began on those hot July days, here was this shy, young black man watching us practice at Narden Field. If a football would find its way off the practice field, Radio would run like lightening to retrieve it and hesitantly pitch it back to one of the players.
It wasn’t long before Coaches Harold Jones and Dennis Patterson were able to gain Radio’s friendship and he became part of the Yellow Jacket “B Team” back in 1970. He drank from the same Gatorade bucket as we did, and pretended to do calisthenics. I’ll never forget the day down in that old field-house in the end zone of McCants Stadium when the coaches yelled down at a few of us in the shower, “Y’all put Radio in there with you and give him a bath!” LOL
Talk about trying to corral a wildcat! Radio wasn’t sure about us big boys, soap and water. But after a few minutes he liked standing under that hot water. My Senior year I couldn’t play football because of knee surgery so I helped tape ankles, make Gatorade, etc. But my main job during practice and on Friday nights was to watch after Radio. It was then I got to know him best. I could tell you a million Radio stories; like when he would stir the 5-gallon Gatorade bucket with his dirty hands and arm. Then there was the time that before the team could board the bus for the ride back home after an away game, Radio had already been on the bus and taken a bite out of each of their sandwiches.
I could go on and on but I’ll stop because everyone who has ever met Radio has a “Radio Story.” Even my mom called last month, she had met Radio and Coach Jones in rehab and of course she had a “Radio Story.” It’s amazing that a man with everything in the world against him has become a household name all across America and one of the most beloved persons to ever live.
This man who has never shot, thrown or caught a ball, or never competed in one single athletic event in high school, is in the TL Hanna High Athletic Hall of Fame. Yes, and he deserves to be there and will be remembered when most others are forgotten. A young black man who grew up in poverty, who could neither read, write or barely talk became a Hollywood Star. He roamed the halls of TL Hanna for 50 years but refused to be “promoted “ from the 11th grade. Why? Because if he ever became a Senior it would mean graduating and having to leave Hanna! lol
Yes, for almost 50 years, James Robert Kennedy, has led the Yellow Jackets onto the football field. He was present for every sporting event possible, men’s & women’s, as long as his health would allow.
 I got a call a few days ago to let me know that it seems that Radio could be approaching that final end zone. My heart is heavy, tears flow from my eyes. My ol’ buddy, an institution, may soon cross over that goal line of life. I also cry tears of joy because I know Radio is going to a far better place. A place where he can have a new body, a new mind; where he can run, dance and be like everyone else. Where he can be with his mother again. I’m sure Jesus is waiting to say, “Welcome home Radio!” And I’m sure one day, no doubt about it, I’ll hear Radio say, “Glad to see you Jacky. Wait til you taste the Gatorade up here!”
Don Miller is a retired coach in Greenville. His story references a couple of other local characters. (Read Gary Smith's SI story if you are wondering who they are.) Here is Don's tribute:
 A local icon has passed. I think everyone is familiar with the Radio story, at least if you are from the South. A book and movie chronicled the story of a mentally challenged young man who was befriended by a coach, school and community. Radio went on to be what I call the “Bell Ringer” for his school.
 If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth the rental with Cuba Gooding playing James “Radio” Kennedy and Ed Harris playing Coach Harold Jones. I was lucky enough to have met both Radio and Coach Jones as we squared off against each other on many fields of athletic endeavor. It was always a joy, win or lose, to meet up with Radio.
 Many small towns, even some larger ones, have bell ringers like Radio. I call them bell ringers because of one special man who rang the victory bell at a local high school’s football field. Some were flag bearers as they led their football team onto the field, through the goal post and hopefully on to victory. One, after growing old in age but not spirit, was buried in the local Legion baseball uniform. Undying loyalty even in death.
 Young men who grew old but never quite grew up. For some reason, God chose them to be both challenged and special. They were folks who in addition to being challenged, were special to their schools and were their school’s number one fan and “Bell Ringer.” They all possessed the wide-eyed wonderment and innocence associated with the young every time their teams took the field.
 Radio passed last night at seventy-three. He had been in bad health, in and out of the hospital will complications due to diabetes and kidney function. His hugs and smiles will be missed by the school and community.
 Last year the CBN network and 700 Club aired an interview and article on Radio’s and Coach Jones’s fifty-year friendship. I cannot improve upon it so I will simply share it. You should take the time to watch the interview or read the article. It not Coach Jones’s final quote is “People with special needs, you know, they give us more love than we can actually return.”
 Radio certainly provided a lot of love.
Longtime Hanna principal Sheila Hilton shared her memories:
 Life is full of ironies. One would think that most high schools have at least one famous student who has brought great recognition to the institution. Maybe it is a student who graduated from Harvard, maybe one who won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, maybe a famous professional football player. T. L. Hanna has had all of these, but none can come close to their most famous “student.” James “Radio” Kennedy, a 73-year-old, mentally challenged man, showed up on football field in the mid-1960s and has been an integral part of the school ever since. At that time, he was a teenager, with a transistor radio seemingly attached to his ear, who could barely speak and had never learned to read or write. He was nicknamed “Radio” by the coaches and players. He became a fixture at football practices, standing passively and watching, until one day when he began to mimic the coaches’ signals and tried his hand at yelling out commands. At that point, he could have been labeled a distraction and sent away. But he was not. The coaches embraced him, and as coaches came and went, someone would always take over in caring for him. Eventually, Harold Jones took the job and has been his “daddy” ever since.
 Generations of Hanna students and faculty had an opportunity to know Radio. Everyone has a story to tell, some of them priceless — his eating a cooler full of sandwiches that had been made for the team and stored safely on the bus; his pass-kick-and-throw half-time shows; his permanent status as a junior, with no threat of graduation; and his astounding ability to name the mascot of any team in the state. The stories could fill the pages of a lengthy book, each showing the child-like innocence and loving heart that existed within him.
 It would be easy to talk about all the school did for Radio, but the miraculous thing about this story is what Radio did for the school. It is perhaps a lesson of which all of us need to be reminded. Because he was embraced by caring people, he was stimulated to learn. Because he was loved, he found his place in the world. Because people looked past his disabilities and imperfections, he found a way to make his own unique contribution to the world. What a lesson there is to be learned here. How many lost souls could be saved with a little care and attention? The thousands of students who have made their way through the halls of T. L. Hanna over the years have seen the results of the love and caring given to Radio. He had a permanent smile on his face. He was never without his ability to shake hands and hug necks. He returned exponentially whatever love was given to him. And here the irony rests. He gave back much more than he received.
 In our small town of Anderson, SC, Sports Illustrated, Readers’ Digest, ESPN, CBS News, and even Hollywood have told his story, one about a disabled child in a grocery cart riding the hills behind the old McCants, arguably the most famous person to come out of Anderson.
 It was destiny that he arrived on that football field some fifty years ago. He was without a Harvard degree or Pulitzer Prize or professional football contract, but his fame surpassed all of these accolades. And the story is simple: love and compassion can change lives. It has changed his, and, in return, he has changed ours, and we are better people for having known him.
Mark Hamrick is a former Furman University athlete who was a high school basketball referee when he met Radio.  
I was saddened to learn of the death of James "Radio" Kennedy. He was a kind and pleasant man who shared happiness with many during his lifetime. I first met "Radio" back in the late 1980's while officiating basketball at T.L.Hanna High School in Anderson,S.C. That was a few years before Hollywood discovered him.
During my first assignment there, "Radio" met me with a big smile and the key to the dressing room. He asked me what else I would need and he seemed disappointed when I answered, nothing. So I told him that some water would be great. During my years as a basketball official I never asked for anything extra at a high school or small college assignment because I appreciated that most of them had tight budgets that certainly did not include funds for basketball official extras.
However, on that night I soon realized that we were operating by "Radio" rules, so after a brief discussion we decided, or more accurately "Radio" decided, that I would get a Snickers candy bar with my water. After that night I never again spoke of a candy bar to "Radio".
Over the next few basketball seasons I worked several T.L. Hanna games. On many of those nights "Radio" met me with a big smile, the key to the dressing room and a promise to return with MY water and MY Snickers. As the years passed and I moved on from high school officiating I left probably owing T.L.Hanna for more than a dozen candy bars thanks to the persistent generosity of "Radio". I should write them a reimbursement check in memory of "Radio" but instead this one last time I will play by "Radio" rules and just remember the times that I shared with those candy bars and "Radio".
His laugh, his kindness and his happy approach to life serve as a memory of one of the good guys. James "Radio" Kennedy will be missed.

Anderson honored Radio with a statue in 2006

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