Sportscaster Jim Nantz: The Verizon Heritage is more than just a golf tournament

April 20, 2008 

When Jim Nantz climbs into the CBS Sports booth above the 18th green of Harbour Town Golf Links this afternoon, his familiar "hello friends" greeting will blare down the hallway of a private-care facility in Houston.

It will come from his father's room, where the television volume will be set precisely at 75. Tops would be 100. But his father won't understand the final round of the Verizon Heritage tournament. He won't see the blimp shots of boats rocking gently in Calibogue Sound. If his father opens his eyes at all, he'll stare at ceiling tiles.

The lead announcer's father has Alzheimer's.

"My dad was the personification of hope, confidence and success," Nantz writes in his book due out in May, "Always By My Side: A Father's Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other." Nantz tells how his hero and inspiration "continues clinging to life, yet is completely oblivious to it."

He tells how surrogate fathers with matching "moral DNA" -- led by former President George H.W. Bush and including the likes of longtime broadcasting partners Ken Venturi and Billy Packer -- can modulate the drama that plays out in life off camera.

Nantz' sports journey is best known for its 23 stops at the Masters, and of course the Final Four. He's also called the Super Bowl, even doing all three within a stretch of 63 days last year.

The journey has turned Nantz into a piece of American culture. But more than 20 of the 400 professional golf tournaments he's called have been right here, during what he calls "Hilton Head week." For Jim and Lorrie Nantz, and daughter Caroline, who is two weeks from turning 14, it's a week they look forward to and cherish. It's a time for biking, jogging, Frisbee on the beach, and being invited for dinner with their dear friends, Gregg and Lindy Russell.

"I've always appreciated the vibe that's here at Hilton Head," Nantz said over breakfast outside the caddies' mobile diner Thursday morning. "It's so giving. There's an altruistic attitude here. There's an outreach here. People seem to understand the sense of community. They take pride in the island, and give back."

Like many others, Nantz has chipped in himself, even as a visitor. He and Lorrie are honorary board members and contributors to Hilton Head Heroes, founded in 1998 by the Russells to bring very ill children and their families to the island for a free week of vacation. Nantz introduced two bands -- Hootie and the Blowfish and the Beach Boys -- when Russell brought them to the island. He was part of the premier of Russell's movie about the island, "Come Away Home."

Nantz made an appearance at the Christian Heritage Breakfast at 7 a.m. Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza. Afterward he was swamped like a rock star. He posed for pictures with children from the Hilton Head Island Boys & Girls Club and many others.

The day before, during a Harbour Town bike ride with Caroline, a car pulled up and stopped. Touring pro Tom Pernice Jr. rolled down the window and said his daughter, Brooke, would be singing at the breakfast the next morning. Nantz accepted his invitation to go.

Nantz sees his job not so much as describing action as telling stories, and he's known Pernice's story since they were both collegiate golfers.

And he knows the story of Brooke Pernice, a girl about Caroline's age. A record Christian Heritage Breakfast crowd of more than 700learned that Brooke has the gift of singing, and a new CD, "Help From Above." They also learned that Brooke can barely see shadows because she was born with an extremely rare genetic eye disease, Leber's congenital amaurosis.

Nantz knew the story so well that he shared on the air the most stunning moment in golf you've never heard when Pernice won The International at Castle Pines in 2001.

He tells it in Chapter 14 of his book:

"When the ball rolled into the cup, Kristen (another Pernice daughter), age 7, held 6-year-old Brooke's hand as they raced onto the green and into her father's arms. Brooke ... began running her fingers over her father's face; she was trying to determine how happy he was at that

moment by feeling how big his smile was."

Here in the Lowcountry, we've always hoped the world can feel our smile through Nantz' voice.

Today, we also can hope that somehow, some way, his father feels a story more important than a ball rolling into a cup. Maybe the man back in Houston knows what his son was forced to discover. The right father will always be by his child's side.

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