Wiedmer: Bleil and McCarthy make Hall of Fame special

Wiedmer: Bleil and McCarthy make Hall of Fame special

March 3rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Tracy Bleil doesn't remember exactly when she was told that she would be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame tonight at the Convention Center.

She does remember that it was on a Monday evening, and she was bowling at Brainerd.

"I started crying," said the 45-year-old wife and mother who's bowled a remarkable nine 300 games in her life. "It means the world to me. It's such and honor and privilege to be honored for your sport."

She deserves to be honored for simply toughing out life the last three years. A rare bladder issue has forced Bleil to undergo 12 surgeries over that time. She has to use a catheter 24 hours a day.

"It's been pretty tough," she said. "I've only been able to bowl three or four times a year lately. I'm still carrying a 200 average, but I really haven't been able to practice at all since the surgeries started."

In addition to such special award winners as LA Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, tennis great Wes Cash and UTC women's basketball player Ashlen Dewart, the Hall of Fame will welcome 19 new members this evening, everyone from athletes to coaches to media.

There's even a rumor that one ink-stained wretch whose name sounds eerily similar to my own is getting in. Then again, every class needs someone to bring up the rear.

And some of the names are certainly well-known, if not downright famous to most Tennessee Valley sports fans.

There's former Rhea County High School and University of Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly, who later made a pretty nice living for more than a decade as the QB of the Arena League's Nashville Kats.

There are current UT softball coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly, who once ran the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga program, taking the Lady Mocs from nowhere to the NCAA Tournament while simultaneously promoting our city until it became a national softball brand.

There's also Mack McCarthy, the only UTC men's basketball coach to guide the Mocs to the Sweet 16.

He physically left the Scenic City the summer after that historic 1997 run to become the head-coach-in-waiting under Sonny Smith at Virginia Commonwealth, but a good portion of his heart has never ventured far from the UTC program.

"What I'm most proud of is the consistency we showed over my 12 seasons here," said McCarthy. "I think we bought nine or 10 championship rings during that run."

It figures to be nine, since a few of his regular-season and Southern Conference tourney titles overlapped. All told, his Mocs won six regular-season crowns and five tourney titles, which resulted in five NCAA tourney berths, a remarkable record for a coach working in a one-bid league.

"Two things stand out," said McCarthy on Sunday as he and wife, Jean, made a long weekend of his return for a long-overdue induction. "One is the friendships that have lasted. We've been gone 17 years now, yet whenever we come back for a visit it often seems like it was yesterday.

"The second is that you didn't realize how hard it was, doing what we were doing, sustaining that success, because we were having such a good time doing it."

That could probably be said for every inductee this evening. Whatever your sport or occupation, if it felt like work you might never have delivered performances worthy of anyone's Hall of Fame.

But while McCarthy, Kelly and the Weeklys have often experienced such acclaim, athletes such as Bleil have spent most of their lives outside the limelight, their stunning accomplishments appreciated by a far more narrow audience, even if that audience doesn't necessarily lack for passion.

"I remember my first 300 game was at Brainerd," she said. "The whole house stopped bowling by the 10th frame. When it was over, I dropped to my knees and people started yelling, 'Get away from the foul line, you're going to foul.'"

But she didn't foul. Instead she flourished. For several years her 255.6 average over nine games in the city tournament was a record for both the women and the men. She turned pro for a time, one year earning the Professional Women's Bowling Association sportsmanship award from her peers.

"I was always very proud of that," Bleil said. "I kept my card for five years. I probably broke even financially. A friend used to call me the best runner-up in the Southeast because I finished second so often."

But tonight she's first. Unfortunately, work will keep husband, Jeff, away, but her 19-year-old daughter Kayla will be there, along with her father, Walt Everhart, "who first took me bowling at the old Brunswick Center in Hixson when I was six years old."

As one might expect, Everhart broke into tears when Bleil told him she'd been elected to the Hall.

"He was so proud," she said, "so excited."

What he won't be tonight inside the Convention Center is alone regarding those emotions for this year's induction class.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com