Bob Howell

I spent another couple of hours watching sports on TV this past weekend. This time it was the pre-Olympics diving competition. That goes to prove that I will watch most any program labeled sports that comes on network television.

This was special to me because of my Olympics connection going back to the summer of 1996 ... the Atlanta games. To tell the story of my connection to that edition of the Olympics, we go back to the spring of 1996 when I was called to the general manager’s office at WSFA-TV. Now, as all of you who have worked outside the home know, being called to the GM’s office is rarely a good thing. While making the slow walk from the newsroom, I silently ran through all the possibilities: ratings, job performance, a raise ... scratch that last one ... folks rarely got called to see the boss to share his benevolence.

When I arrived at the GM’s corner office, his secretary was on the phone, but silently nodded me in. After the obligatory hand shake, he wasted no time in getting down to business. He asked me if I ran for exercise or health. I figured the truth was my best answer ... especially considering who was asking. “Just when practicing baseball with the boys,” I replied. My brain was racing as to the line of questioning — especially the next question. He wanted to know if I thought I could run a half-mile, non-stop with no complications. That was really puzzling.

To make a long story short, he told me that he wanted me to represent the station in the Olympic torch run when it wound its way through Montgomery only a week or so before the games began.

“Sure,” I answered. “I can do that.”

I wasn’t going to let the TV station down ... especially when it came to something as big as the torch run.

And so my training began. I found a walking/running track that was a mile long and started my almost daily runs.  I’ll admit it was tougher than I thought it would be ... but eventually I could make the distance with few stumbles.

Then came the big day. The torch run was headed into downtown Montgomery. I was ready —wearing my official outfit — Atlanta games t-shirt and shorts.

Now, if I were completely honest, I had no idea just how much my small part would mean to me and my family. Paula and the boys went on ahead to the spot on the run where I would exchange flames from the other runner’s torch, while I joined a busload of other runners in a specially equipped bus for a little pre-run pep rally. That’s when a fellow from Selma asked me the most nerve-wracking question of the day.  He wanted to know what I had used to simulate the weight of the torch when I practiced running. 

I felt the blood leave my head when I realized I hadn’t used anything ... but I was somewhat sure that adrenaline would take over my body and I would be OK. By the time I was dropped off at the location where the flame would be passed along to me, I was completely “psyched” and ready to run.

I was assigned a partner from the local running club in case I wasn’t able to finish the route. 

Not long before I began the trot along Madison Avenue, I was told my route was only 3/8ths of a mile and mostly downhill. What fabulous news. That would more than take care of my lack of practice with a “torch substitute.”

I honestly don’t remember much about the specifics of the run aside from two things: a good sized crowd cheering me on and a big, wide grin that was plastered on my face. In fact, my face was sore the night of the run ... just from smiling so broadly.

And, oh yes, my running partner didn’t have to do anything but run along side of me. There were no complications. 

By the way, I still have the Olympic torch. It stands in a corner of my home office filled with memories of how on that day, in a very small way, I was a part of the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

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