The Mebane Sports Hall of Fame will induct five new members in its 2016 class at the Mebane Arts & Community Center on Saturday, June 25 at 6:30 p.m. The guest speaker will be Mick Mixon and those inducted. Tickets are now on sale for $20 at Mebane City Hall, 106 E. Washington Street, and will be $25 dollars at the door on the day of the event. The Enterprise hopes to spotlight each inductee in the weeks leading up to the event, and this week we begin with Johnny Phelps.
Johnny Phelps was born in Mebane and grew up watching the proud Mebane High School teams compete in various sports during the 1950s and 60s.
“I remember being [in the old Mebane gym] and all the bleachers were filled,” Phelps said in a recent phone interview from his home in Georgia. “There were only seats on three sides. We would go to the basketball games, and go to the big ballfield there to watch football games. I don’t remember many details of those games, but I remember attending them.”
Phelps was an only child, and figures that was part of the reason he got to go to so many games – his parents loved going, and they didn’t have other children to negotiate with.
“I do remember this,” Phelps said. “For football games and especially during the playoffs, when teams would have to travel hours away on a Friday for a road playoff game, the town would shut down and the whole town would travel out there.”
When he was not at those Mebane High School games, or eventually, Eastern Alamance games, he was often perched in front of the family television at home.
He watched Major League Baseball’s Game of the Week on CBS – so often the New York Yankees, his favorite team as a kid. He watched college basketball, cheering on the Tar Heels. He watched any sports they would show, back before the sports media explosion began showcasing games seven days a week. Phelps saw sports on an entirely different level than the average viewer.
“I wasn’t just watching to hear what they had to say, I was watching how they do it,” Phelps said. “Certainly I was influenced by that. That’s probably as much of the reason I was able to move forward as anything.”
As Phelps grew up, he found that his interest in sports did not necessarily translate into an aptitude for playing them.
“I loved sports from a long time back,” Phelps said. “I wasn’t that great of an athlete but I sure loved going to games, and watching games, and experiencing athletics as a fan.”
As he started thinking about college and beyond, it felt like a natural next step for Phelps to combine his first two loves: television and sports. His parents were supportive of his dream, especially after he won a two-week scholarship to attend a summer camp at UNC-Chapel Hill put on by the radio and television institute at the college. The scholarship was granted by WFMY, the CBS television affiliate in Greensboro. There, Phelps got invaluable hands-on experience that only confirmed he was on the right track.
Eventually Phelps went to UNC-Chapel Hill for his undergraduate degree and majored in the department of radio, television, and motion pictures. He graduated in 1972.
“It’s morphed into something different now, I’m not even quite sure what it’s called,” Phelps said. “I was fortunate enough to start work [after graduation], six weeks out of college at what was considered by many the hometown television station of Mebane.” It was WFMY, the station that had given him a scholarship five years prior.
There, Phelps fulfilled a dream that was twofold: working for the station he grew up watching, and working with legendary sportscaster Woody Durham (who, interestingly enough, was also born in Mebane but grew up in Albemarle). Durham was something of a role model for Phelps and soon became his mentor too.
Phelps spent the next 13 years at WFMY and can quickly reel off some fascinating highlights from his career, including the second interview he ever did in his career, when Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn came to Burlington for the Carolina League All-Star Game (in 1972 the Burlington Rangers, in their only season of existence, hosted the game, which drew 915 fans and the most important suit in professional baseball).
“Good lord, I was so nervous,” Phelps said of interviewing Kuhn. “If you know anything about Bowie Kuhn he was a big, tall, intimidating man… it ended up going okay, I think because he quickly recognized that I was youthful and inexperienced and I wasn’t asking any delving questions… that [interview] was an early highlight.”
That same summer Phelps also got to interview Claire Merritt Ruth, best known as Babe Ruth’s second wife, a woman who lived from 1897-1976. Mrs. Ruth had come down for the Babe Ruth World Series for kids ages 16-18 which was being held in Monroe, NC. Phelps remembers Mrs. Ruth taking a shine to him.
“She told me, ‘you’re so young, all the sports men in New York are so much older,’” Phelps mentioned, laughing. “I think that was endearing for her.”
A few years later Johnny Phelps earned a peculiar yet impressive footnote in college basketball history at the Final Four at the Greensboro Coliseum in 1974. Woody Durham was the public address announcer for the event, which, much like today, is on a Saturday, followed by the championship game on a Monday night. Different back then, however, was that there was a third place game. Durham, whose plate was quite full over the course of the weekend, asked Phelps if he would like to be the public service address announcer for the third place game so that he could prepare for the championship game. Phelps jumped at the opportunity.
In the Final Four, UCLA, who was led by what is in some estimations the greatest college basketball player ever, Bill Walton, was upset by Notre Dame, 71-70, ending a seven-year stretch in which UCLA won the national title each year. Thus, Phelps now has the distinction of having announced Walton during Walton’s final college basketball game.
From there, Phelps enjoyed a stellar career at WFMY that came to an end in 1985. He moved on to the Sports Reports Network prior to working for CNN/Sports Illustrated’s sports television channel for its short-lived run in the 1990s.
Out of work, Phelps looked around for jobs, but found there wasn’t a great demand for broadcasters in their 50s.
“I always thought I would be a broadcasters until I retired or died,” Phelps said. “I enjoyed it so much, I really did. I spent a long time after CNN/SI trying to secure a broadcast position and it just didn’t happen. I was over 50 at the time and people don’t jump at that.”
Phelps ended up in real estate outside of Atlanta, which he still does to this day.
“To be honest with you, I’ve enjoyed it much more than I ever thought I would,” Phelps said.
Of being inducted to the Mebane Sports Hall of Fame, Phelps was ecstatic.
“This is just extraordinary. When Dean Ray called me I was almost speechless. And that’s really something for me. I’m so incredibly honored… when Mebane first began its Sports Hall of Fame in the mid-90s I was asked to be the first induction speaker at the banquet. I’m proud to say I’m from Mebane, NC, and I’m proud my hometown recognizes me in this way. It’s so, so very special.”