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The Voice Of Leesburg
Town Barber And Local Fixture Jack Wilson Has Been Broadcasting Yellow Jackets Football Games
For 40 Years.
September 25, 2003|By Rick Maese, Sentinel Staff Writer
"Welcome back to Mount Dora High School's Hurricane Stadium. We're about to start this football
game. And what a football game it could be.
"We're not going to have time to go over the starting lineups because Lenny was yacking so much."
"Shame on me," the color commentator says.
"I love it. I hope you yack more than I do, Lenny. Back deep is No. 10 for Mount Dora. Here comes the
ball . . . "
Every Friday night, every fall, every year.
If you're in the stands at Leesburg High, you might have turned around and noticed Jack Wilson's face
on the other side of the press-box glass. Or maybe you've scanned the AM dial on a Friday evening,
shortly after sunset, and heard that voice, once low and smooth like an alto sax. It's still deep and low
but sometimes struggles to be heard above the din of the crowd.
Wilson is a product of routine. This is what he has left: early morning breakfast every day at Wolfy's
restaurant and Friday night high school football games. He's 73 years old, but still comes out here, still
"does it for the kids."
This is the 40th year that Wilson has done the play-by-play broadcasts of Leesburg High's football
games. Nothing has kept him off the air. He battled through the stroke. The aneurysm. That triple
bypass? Ha! Wilson has broadcast overtime basketball games that took more out of him.
But for years, he's wondered -- most of Leesburg has wondered -- how much longer can Jack Wilson
keep doing this?
It's still a secret to most. Wilson, though, is beginning to understand.
"Five forty-nine remains in the first half of this ballgame. Mount Dora has dominated so far."
[15 seconds of silence, as Leesburg's offense approaches the line of scrimmage.]
"Gunn takes it up the middle."
Fans scream as Yellow Jackets quarterback Brett Pitchford fakes to fullback Shon Gunn and races
around the end for a 25-yard touchdown.
"He's going all the way in for a touchdown. Trent McKibbon scores a touchdown. He faked everybody
out . . ."
You watch the touchdown run on the field below but don't realize how tiring it is until you spin around
and spot Wilson. He tries to keep up with the play, let's the words come out as quickly as possible.
Despite the energy he feels inside, his face hangs off of his cheekbones and the words slowly crawl
out. He's breathing as hard as the kids on the field.
It didn't used to be this way.
Many, many games ago, Wilson was a star tailback at Webster. When he was 20, he moved to
Leesburg for a taste of the big city and the hope of a job.
He became a town barber and was a fixture on the local fields as a football official. A radio station
general manager approached Wilson in 1964 and invited him to broadcast Leesburg's games.
"He said, `Why don't you broadcast for me?' " Wilson says. "I said, `I don't know anything about
broadcasting.' He told me I got the voice for it, and that I certainly know the game. I agreed to give it a
stab. He tells me, `I'll go up there and help you.'
"Well, I started broadcasting that first game and about the middle of the second quarter he was gone.
He went home."
Wilson has been the voice of the Leesburg Yellow Jackets ever since. While radio ebbed and flowed,
and Leesburg remained one of the few chunks of Central Florida that refused to change, Wilson has
watched the Jackets chase football district crowns, baseball state championships, basketball regional
He's watched it, and he's told his listeners what he saw.
Opponents are usually referred to by their numbers. An incomplete pass for the enemy is
near-interception for the Jackets. Today's broadcasters might be handcuffed by objectivity -- Wilson's
world is viewed within the context of Leesburg, the small city that once voted him mayor.
On game days, he sits high above the field on his press-box throne, letting his voice boom across
Central Florida on the 5,000 watts of power from WLBE 790 AM. A headset is placed over his baseball
cap, connected to a cell phone that rests in an empty popcorn bucket. The equipment isn't as complex
as it used to be.
"I love it out here," he says. "I don't know what else I would do."
"Mount Dora has the ball.
"I guess they're going to let the clock run down. [Pause] If these people could get out of the way, I could
see the scoreboard."
The buzzer sounds and the half ends.
"That's the end of the first half, with the score Mount Dora 8, Leesburg 6. We'll be back in 60 seconds . .
It might have been from those days in the Army. Or maybe it's from 40 years as a slave to commercial
breaks. Somewhere along the line, Wilson fell in love with routine.
He wakes up every morning and heads outside to his Chevy Lumina at exactly 5:58 a.m. He turns on
his radio and listens to the CBS radio news update. Usually, the news is ending as he parks his car at
Wolfy's. Inside, he'll wait for his friends to show up, then for his Egg Beaters.
He'll be home taking a nap by 8 o'clock.
"Things usually have to be done at a certain time with him," says Randy Wilson, his nephew and the
athletics director at Leesburg.
Randy Wilson used to coach the school's baseball team, and his uncle would be there every
afternoon, in the press box named in his honor.
"He'd expect the lineup card at a certain time," the nephew says. "I can still hear him yelling down:
`Randy, I need that lineup card!' "
This is probably why it hurt so much when his life was spun around like a top seven years ago. It was
the first week of football season, and Wilson was struck with something that stung worse than any sort
It was a stroke, and the longtime town barber was trapped in a hospital room as his beloved Yellow
Jackets took to the field without him. He underwent a series of surgeries, including a triple bypass.
He slowly recovered, but the season -- the first Wilson had ever missed -- was slipping away. For the
final game of the year, he made it out to the field and sat in the very first row. His friends and
co-workers at WLBE strung wire down the stadium steps, helping Wilson return briefly to the air.
"That might have been the very best therapy he could have had," says Lenny Dickerson, who has sat
next to Wilson and provided color commentary for the past decade.
Wilson hasn't missed a game since, but it's different. His voice isn't as strong, and he isn't as quick.
He sometimes refers to players by their father's names, or sometimes, their grandfather's. There are
also long periods of dead air on the game broadcasts and times when plays are happening but
Wilson is watching in silence.
"He used to hate any kind of dead airtime. Now he doesn't even realize that we have it," says
Dickerson, 56. "There was a time, though, when I'd say he was as good a play-by-play man as any of
As the game wears on, the periods of silence become more frequent. Leesburg appears to be on its
way to its first loss of the season.
"There's a timeout down on the field, with the score Mount Dora 20, Leesburg 6. We'll be back in 30
seconds . . . "
How the game ended doesn't really matter. Besides, it'd be nice to hang onto those last words; it'd be
nice to think that Wilson will always be back in 30 seconds.
You can picture him in the press box, concentrating on the time, not wanting to be a single second late.
After 40 years, those long trips up the bleachers have become too tiring. This season, Wilson says,
will be his last.
"I wish he could do it forever," says Joe McNair, WLBE's general manager. "I really do."
But Wilson is deteriorating too much. He fell down last weekend, hurt a couple of ribs. School officials
expect him to be OK for Friday's contest, though. He'd better be. His nephew is going to meet him at
halftime in the press box, help him down those bleachers and onto the field, where Wilson is being
honored during halftime.
While friends and family don't want Wilson to exert himself too much broadcasting football games, they
can't help but wonder what he'll do without the sport.
Dickerson says Wilson began pestering him back in July about the upcoming football season. And like
always on game day -- be it routine or excitement -- Wilson has to be at the stadium an hour early. And
if he's late, Dickerson gets a lecture.
"I'd imagine it'd just about kill him," Dickerson says. "It's what he loves to do, what he lives for."
And unfortunately for Wilson and unfortunately for Leesburg, it's what he'll soon have to learn to live