A few years before Phillip Fulmer became a hometown hero to the citizens of Winchester, Tenn., he was just another 15-year-old kid trying to make a little extra spending money at Christmas time.
"We ran Hudson's Bakery," said Wayne Nuckolls, who also coached Fulmer in youth baseball. "And during the Christmas season we sold coconut cakes. Phillip's job was to frost the cakes. He probably frosted over 400 of them that year. But when Christmas was over, Phillip said, 'I don't want to ever see a coconut cake again.'"
In town Wednesday to speak at the American Red Cross's annual Hometown Heroes luncheon, Fulmer confirmed Nuckolls' account of his brief career as a baker's helper.
"It's true," he chuckled. "I've never eaten one again. I can't even look at them. You know, when I was putting them together I'd frost one, then take a bite of frosting, then frost another one. By the time Christmas rolled around I never wanted to see another coconut cake the rest of my life."
But judging from the reception he got at The Chattanoogan hotel, there still are plenty of University of Tennessee football fans who want to see and hear their former coach talk about the rest of his life as a husband, father, grandfather and consultant to East Tennessee State's return to FCS football.
"When I was coaching I was always playing with other people's kids," he said of his UT players. "I made sure to have quality time with my own children, but I didn't have quantity time with them. And time is the one thing you can't get back. So now I have both quality and quantity time with both my children and grandchildren."
Yet on at least one occasion before his second knee replacement, he took a little time to go watch the current Volunteers during one of current coach Butch Jones' spring practices.
"They're really working hard to get where they want to be," Fulmer said. "I think the early-entry guys (incoming freshmen who began school in January) have brought a lot of energy to practice. They're still not where they need to be experience-wise on either side of the line, but skill-wise they look like they're pretty much there with everybody in the conference."
That doesn't mean he thinks this is necessarily the year the Vols will return to national prominence or relevance.
"They've still got to improve defensively," Fulmer said. "I honestly think it will takek one more recruiting class to be where Butch wants to be. But he's making progress."
He also believes ETSU is making progress as it prepares to return to FCS football on Sept. 3, 2015, against Kennesaw State while rejoining the Southern Conference.
"I think they're all looking forward to renewing their great rivalry with UT-Chattanooga," Fulmer said. "Everything's going great up there."
The Red Cross is there for when life quits going great, the 133-year-old organization reaching out to those in need during national disasters, wars and personal tragedies such as heart attacks or strokes.
And while Fulmer always will remain a hometown hero in Winchester and a statewide icon throughout Big Orange Country, it would be difficult to find a better example of a hometown hero for our neck of the woods than Bradley Central sophomore Jeremiah Sims, who received the organization's Youth Achievement Award for swiftly applying CPR to his grandfather last autumn following a heart attack at the dinner table.
Unfortunately, Bobby Black died less than 36 hours later, the 16-year-old Sims asking his mother Maggie (Black's daughter) the whole time, "Did I do it right? Did I do it right?"
But as Maggie told the crowd during a video presentation, "If it hadn't been for Jeremiah, I wouldn't have gotten to tell my dad how much I loved him. I wouldn't have gotten to tell him goodbye."
Said Drew German, the first-year teacher who taught young Sims CPR: "That's the first time I've ever had a student actually save a life. But after what Jeremiah went through with his grandfather, the students I have this semester have had an attitude of 'We might want to pay attention.'"
Fulmer appreciates that need to pay attention to such training better than anyone. A few months ago he was having dinner with former UTC basketball player and current ETSU athletic director Dick Sander when Sander began to choke on a piece of steak.
"I'd watched our staffers and assistant coaches learn the Heimlich Maneuver for years," Fulmer said. "I'd been someone who thought it was a good idea, but I'd never taken the class. So here I am, unprepared, caught by surprise and I've almost broken Dick's ribs because I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, there was a nurse in the restaurant who stepped in and saved his life, but it made me realize how much I needed to learn to do that myself."
The irony is that Sims didn't come to The Chattanoogan to receive his Red Cross award. A huge Tennessee fan who's also a pitcher and infielder on the Bears baseball team, Sims came to hear Fulmer. The award was a surprise.
But soon enough the video started rolling, then a few tears down more than a few faces as Jeremiah's mom began telling of her son's brave act.
"It's just unreal," said his teacher. "You hope you never have to use [CPR], but the fact that Jeremiah was able to do it correctly at such a stressful time was amazing."
It was so amazing that by the time Sims got around to the original goal of his visit, meeting Fulmer was merely icing on the cake.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com