Thursday, November 16, 2017

And now a word on our sponsor

Tommy's Country Ham House owner Tommy Stevenson receives a birthday
cake from Furman football seniors Logan McCarter and Dillon Woodruff.
When you want to write about someone who means so much to so many people, it can be a little intimidating. No matter how good a writer you are, you're just hopeful your words can honor them in the right way. With that said, here goes nothing.

On the road to recovery
There's a chance this site you're currently on wouldn't exist without Tommy Stevenson. Since you're reading this, you probably already know he's the owner of our sponsor Tommy's Country Ham House. Stevenson has provided a tremendous amount of support - and delicious fried chicken - to Furman and its students and coaches over the years.

I'd originally planned on writing about Stevenson after visiting him at his restaurant on his birthday in late October. As often is the case, freelance gigs, my full-time job and my really full-time job of helping raise a wild six-year old boy got in the way of all the Furman stories I wish I had the time to write here.

So I targeted the week following Furman football's bye. With no football game to recap, I thought that'd be the ideal time to write it. Unfortunately, Stevenson was written about by many other media outlets that week after a medical scare. He suffered an injury after a fainting episode and was taken to St. Francis Hospital's ICU for tests. The next day, Stevenson underwent a successful surgery to implant a pacemaker.

While the Ham House's social media guru Terry Posey kept the community updated on Stevenson's condition, prayers, thoughts and well-wishes poured in. That included a trip to Sam's Club that Posey made while Stevenson was recovering. After the cashier recognized the account as the Ham House's, she gathered other employees who held hands with Posey and prayed for Stevenson's recovery.

Stevenson was allowed to go home the day after surgery, but he wasn't allowed to participate in his 26-year Friday tradition of feeding the Furman football team dinner. He may have been away that evening, but he wasn't off the minds of the Paladins:

A full day of rest was about all Stevenson could stand. He put in a little time at the restaurant Saturday morning before heading over to Paladin Stadium. There, Stevenson posed for pictures with Furman president Dr. Elizabeth Davis and was chauffeured around campus in a purple ATV before settling in to watch his beloved Paladins stomp rival The Citadel 56-20. Talk about a get-well present.

On Wednesday, the Ham House Twitter account shared a letter from Stevenson. He wrote that he was thankful and overwhelmed by the many cards, phone calls and e-mails of encouragement and support. To the Furman football team he wrote, "you made a weakened man stronger with your kindness and a big win over The Citadel!" Stevenson also thanked the hospital staff, the media, Furman University, the Washington Center and his Ham House staff for keeping the restaurant going strong while he was absent.

Stevenson wrapped his letter stating, "It's going to take awhile to regain my strength and adjust to this pacemaker life, but with God's blessing and the thoughts and prayers of so many, I'm certain to get there sooner rather than later. Thank you!"

Now for what I've been meaning to write
For the past 26 years, the Furman football team's Friday evening meal is made up of a variety of healthy portions along a long buffet at the Ham House. While I've followed Furman football my whole life, I was somehow unaware of this tradition. That is, until I got to be a part of it.

While I was fighting cancer in 2006, Furman's Dwight Covington and then-head football coach Bobby Lamb were kind enough to offer me a "VIP" experience for the Chattanooga game that year. I was allowed field access for pregame and postgame activities. I actually got to make my way down to the sideline late in the game to see Scott Beckler's field goal that forced overtime. Then I was standing near the end zone sideline where Cedrick Gipson caught Jordan Sorrells' game-winning touchdown pass in the Paladins' 28-22 win.

Another big highlight that weekend occurred the night before as I got to participate in the fellowship of the team meal at Tommy's. In addition to stuffing myself with great food, I was presented a team-autographed football that night. Looking back, I'm so thankful that I got to shake Tommy's hand as we met for the first time.

Years later, I had the privilege of covering Furman sports for The Greenville News. This was a dream fulfilled after growing up reading Abe Hardesty and Dan Foster's terrific stories about the Paladins. Even though that dream ended in the middle of football season last fall when my name came up in another round of newspaper layoffs, I'll always be appreciative of that opportunity.

When searching for a way to continue covering Furman going into this athletic year, a friend from another media outlet suggested that my chances of doing something for them could be greater if I got a sponsor on board. I knew nothing about getting a sponsorship, but I knew the Ham House was the best place to go try. While the situation with that outlet didn't pan out, I decided to create my own website to cover the Paladins. Stevenson still agreed to be a sponsor and the Furman Sports Report was born.

Showing appreciation
I can't express how appreciative I am for Stevenson's support. It's been essential for helping me travel to cover the team. Plenty of Furman students have appreciated what Stevenson has also done and some of them showed how much on his birthday.

Furman football seniors Logan McCarter and Dillon Woodruff surprised Stevenson with a cake - purple and white, of course - on his birthday on Oct. 24.

Tommy's Country Ham House owner Tommy Stevenson was
presented with this cake on his birthday this year.
"We've had some hard times the last few years, but Tommy's always had our back," McCarter said. "He's never lost faith in us. It's always nice to have someone like that behind you."

When Clay Hendrix played for the Paladins in the mid-1980's, those teams were fed by another huge supporter of Furman, as well as a Paladin and Greenville legend in Vince Perone. Stevenson began feeding the Paladins on Fridays in 1991. Tommy's had only been open six years at that point, but it's been a hit with many a Furman football player ever since. With his typical Friday evening buffet offerings, why not?

"It's all you can eat. We usually put out rib-eye steaks, fried chicken, potatoes au gratin, green beans, slaw, fried okra, banana pudding and rolls," Stevenson said. "The offensive linemen especially like it.

"All the players become my children. I love 'em to death and they're the best. The coaches have always done a great job of bringing in good kids."

While football players game plan for a Saturday opponent all week, Woodruff said you learn quickly how to game plan on Fridays for a supper at Tommy's as well.

"You're always going to leave here stuffed, so you try not to eat as much throughout the day on Friday," Woodruff said. "It's always a good time."

On those Fridays that Furman leaves town by mid-afternoon for a lengthy road trip, other teams may get to enjoy that buffet. Sometimes, such as this week, it may even be the Paladins' bitterest of foes. Furman will likely already be in Alabama in preparation for its game the following day at Samford when The Citadel sits down to eat at Tommy's Friday evening. The Bulldogs will be in the Upstate to take on Clemson the next day.

Stevenson, who graduated from Furman in 1965, has always relished the opportunity to serve. The Ham House opened in 1985. After growing out of that location, Tommy's moved to its current Rutherford Street location 18 years ago. Over the years, plenty of customers have enjoyed Stevenson's meals. He typically makes the rounds of coming by to check and make sure each one is satisfied.

"Every Furman student, whether they play sports or not, gets a discount," Stevenson said.

That kind of service creates customers - and sometimes friends - for life. Stevenson said he enjoys seeing former Furman students that come back to the restaurant 10 or 15 years after they've graduated.

Speaking of old friends
While Stevenson has obviously loved the turnaround that Hendrix has guided Furman on in his first season as head coach, he's also glad to have his old golfing buddy back around.

"Coach Hendrix has been one of my best friends for years," Stevenson said. "We stayed in touch when he was at Air Force, but I'm glad he's back. He did a great job in selecting his staff. It's one of the best Furman has had in years."

Furman coach Clay Hendrix and Tommy Stevenson.
Photo courtesy of Terry Posey.
Stevenson and Hendrix first got to know each other when Hendrix returned to Furman as an assistant under Jimmy Satterfield in 1988. The Ham House has turned out to be a special place in more ways than one for Hendrix. It's where he and his wife, LeeAnn, ended up on what turned out to be a first date ... sort of.

"I'm attending a singles Sunday School class at Edwards Road Baptist Church that (former Furman assistant) Steve Wilson is leading and she visited," Hendrix said. "We met in class and went to lunch that same day and it was at the old Ham House. We walked in and there was (former Furman assistant) Tim Sorrells and his wife Tracy sitting there. All of us that were coaching together at the time just seemed to end up there.

"He's been a great friend and an incredible supporter of Furman. He's just one of those guys that does so much and never wants anything in return."

I couldn't put it any better than Coach did.

Thank you Tommy!

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