When Jay Blackman first took over communications for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic department in December 2008, one of the first people he met was local sports writer and wrestling historian B.B. Branton.
"From the moment I started here, B.B. was a huge help to me," said Blackman, now the senior associate athletic director for strategic communications. "He had an uncanny knowledge of all Chattanooga sports, but especially wrestling, football and tennis."
Branton passed away Sunday after a long, courageous battle with cancer. For a lot of us who once worked with him at the Times Free Press, as well as prep coaches throughout the region, it was an especially painful loss.
"It breaks my heart," said Soddy-Daisy principal Steve Henry, long one of the Scenic City's most successful wrestling coaches. "I loved B.B. He and Luther Killian are the biggest reasons we've got the Tennessee Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was such a researcher. He'd bring records to the surface that no one else knew existed."
This sports department's David Paschall worked with Branton after B.B. returned from a stint in California as the sports information director for Athletes in Action and a couple of World Cup soccer venues.
"From a professional standpoint, the great thing about B.B. was that no sport was too small," Paschall said. "He cared as much about a Little League baseball game as a World Series game. And he was always careful to get the names of every kid he covered, even if it was 7- or 8-year-old Dixie Youth game.
"And personally, when each of our three children were born, he'd leave a little gift for them in our mailbox. He had that amazing personal touch about him."
A personal memory: The home B.B. grew up in on Lookout Mountain had a wonderful pool in the backyard. When he moved into the home after his parents' deaths, B.B. never failed to send my two daughters a note that proclaimed, "The pool's open. Drop by anytime."
"I was running late for the induction class picture before the dinner began because I'd gone to pick up my mother," Henry said. "B.B. wouldn't let them take the picture until I got there. That's the kind of guy he was."
Another example of the kind of guy he was: For almost every year since 1977 that he lived in Chattanooga, Branton would gather together old friends from his childhood here for a lunch on the day after Christmas.
Said B.B. to this newspaper in 2017 when asked about those lunches of nearly 40 years: "I enjoy organizing, keeping up with friends and trying to find them. Who do you rely on if you don't keep up with friends from long ago?"
How much did the sport of wrestling rely on Branton over portions of five decades?
When B.B. was inducted into the Tennessee chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2019 for "lifetime service to wrestling," fellow Hall of Famer and longtime McCallie faculty member Killian said of Branton, according to an obituary in the Chattanoogan: "No one in Tennessee has written so eloquently about high school, college, and international wrestling with such depth and breadth as Mr. Branton. Because of his knowledge, 'BB' is jokingly referred to as the 'Rainman' of Tennessee wrestling. Whether he is recounting a semifinals match of a recent state tournament or a high school dual meet he watched as a fifth grader, Branton will share the event with the details, and the stories behind the details. His writing reflects the critical eye of a referee, the knowledge of a coach, the enthusiasm of a parent, and the passion of a champion."
Yet while this supreme knowledge of most local sports often encouraged him to send emails or make phone calls to those he knew had fallen short of correctly stating the facts of a particular sport or event, he never gloated over what he knew that they didn't.
"He wasn't afraid to correct you," Blackman said. "But B.B. was always very professional about it. He never did it in public. He never tried to show you up or embarrass you. He'd usually just send you an email. He just wanted to make sure you always got the facts right. And he really did know everything about Chattanooga sports. We put out something on UTC homecoming games one time. He emailed us to say he thought we'd missed a couple. He was right, of course."
As Henry was reflecting on B.B., and what his loss means to the wrestling community he knew and reported on like few others, he said, "B.B.'s one of those people who's irreplaceable."
When it comes to Branton's gift for chronicling local sports, he might be right.