The Savior Inside The Silver Comets
Seventy-six-year-old Jim Rhodes has built a career out of his way with words. But his actions have spoken louder. When the man nearly as synonymous with South Gwinnett sports as the school's silver comet logo makes his way into the football press box this August, Rhodes will kick off season number thirty-eight as the PA announcer. Nearly four decades in any one position is nothing short of impressive. But that’s not even the coolest part…. He’s never missed a game. ….never missed a football game…baseball game....basketball game…or softball game. In fact, for five years, Jim was the man behind the mic for all four of those sports at once! South Gwinnett’s honorary All-Star, if you will, reflects on his humble beginnings. "We started in ’76. My son played baseball here at South. The coach and AD, John Sawyer, said they were having some problems with the announcer at both baseball games and football. I said ‘Hey, I can do that.' So I started baseball first and then that fall of ’76, he said well why don’t you just do football?” A work-induced transfer to Greenville in 1987 moved a great deal of Jim’s focus from the Peach state to South Carolina. Complicating life further was Jim's divorce. But his son wanted to finish school with his childhood friends…and South wanted Jim’s voice behind their games. Jim’s loyalty to the Comets never wavered, making sure both of those requests were granted. His son stayed in Snellville with his mom and Jim became fast friends with the road. "I told Coach Sawyer that I would continue to do football on Friday nights…I’d drive the 130 miles and do football and so I did. I kept the continuous streak alive of not missing a home game during that period.” A year later, Jim’s dedication to the routine hadn’t changed. But a winter night ride home threw a life-altering curve ball on how he went about it. "I remember I came home to Georgia for the final home game of 1988. The next night, I was driving home from work and a truck ran me off the road…it was one of those old pickup trucks with the big tires and raised up in the air." "I went off the side of the road and the car flipped over. I was swung out of the car and the car hit a tree. It came back on top of me and that’s when I was injured. The car broke my back and punctured my lungs, broke my ribs and shoulder and I stayed in intensive care about three weeks. I lived in the hospital about three and a half months.” Living in a hospital bed eventually came to an end but living in the comforts of his own home would never be the same. In addition to cracked ribs and punctured lungs, Jim sustained a T4-T5 spinal cord injury, breaking his back and completely severing his spinal cord. The injuries called for a lifetime bound to a wheelchair…a reality that took a while to sink in. But the South Gwinnett darling has always felt thankful for the independence he’s worked to maintain. "I have use of my arms and I do quite well. I live by myself and am independent. I drive myself, bathe myself and do all those things so that’s the fortunate part of it…that my injury wasn’t higher where I had to have a caregiver with me all the time. So I stay active…I go deer hunting and fishing and I go to the Georgia Bulldog games and Atlanta Braves games." Jim has made the best out of the cards he’s been dealt. And that attitude and can-do mentality have been at play since he left hospital care. After doctors OK’d his release in January of 1989, he moved back to be near his son on a full-time basis. His return was met with excitement from South Gwinnett sports staff. Their enthusiasm...demonstrated through the weekly actions they refused to overlook. With no elevators around, logistics could’ve been a deterrent to Jim’s future there. But that was far from the case. Coaches, parents, and fans showed they were willing to do what it took to keep Jim in the game. Every single time the Comets hit the diamond or met on the line of scrimmage, loving hearts and enveloping arms surrounded the humbled Jim Rhodes in his wheelchair. Time and time again, they carried him up sets upon sets of concrete stadium steps. In fact, it wasn’t too long before basketball joined the wave, wanting someone like Jim calling their plays; someone they could rely on. And that’s exactly what they got. The tripling up on sports presented a new challenge for Jim. But in addition to the pressure of a heftier schedule was learning to announce for a sport with which he had little experience. But he agreed to take on the challenge! His introduction was met with success. Jim's skills and the squads’ solid play on the court combined for a quick turnaround in the way South experienced basketball. “That first season of mine in ’91...that’s when I came up with a slogan right before we started each basketball game. After we did the national anthem, I would say and 'Now, it’s showtime!" “That sort of became the slogan for basketball and we started having even more success. A couple years later, the girls won the state championship and they dedicated to me that they were ‘Showtime." A handful of stellar seasons would follow the 1991 breakout on the court. But as Jim’s track record demonstrates, his success only led to greater demand. In 1995, his plate expanded with softball added to the docket. Five years jammed with a four-sport schedule left little time for rest but groomed a well-exercised voice behind the mic. As the years passed, Jim decided he had to let one sport go. He felt his lung capacity beginning to weaken with age and, while elevators had since been installed in the football stadium and basketball arena, trips up to the softball press box were still a trek…one that Jim worried put others at risk. He’s also quick to admit that the pace of play in sports today makes it all the harder to stay laser sharp. "The speed has changed so much from even back in the days when I was coaching. Football has changed; the type of football. It’s fast-moving…the pro offenses are used in high school now and it’s much, much faster. Probably since 2005, I’ve noticed that. It may be a little bit because I’m getting older but it has changed. Even when I’m at Georgia watching those games, it’s much faster. Except of course when you have a TV timeout,” Jim said laughing. Jim later spoke about fall and spring days in the 90’s, calling the name of former UGA great and NFL quarterback David Greene, as he competed for the Comets in both football and baseball. He then endearingly mimicked the way he’d announce Lou Williams’ name after sharp-shooting a swish. Williams closed out this year's NBA regular season as the league's Sixth Man of the Year. Another joy for Rhodes has been watching former Comets return to lead. “You think, 'I never thought I’d see him come back and coach and be successful.’ I can think of a couple right now. Of course, Mickey Conn over at Grayson High School, Andy Dyer up at Archer….he’s also a South product and also spent time at Brookwood. Josh Lovelace…he played with my son here at South Gwinnett. He’s the assistant head coach at Mill Creek. But that’s gratifying thing to think about…not that you necessarily had anything to do with it but you announced their name, you saw them, you were able to glorify them and that’s pretty special.” Jim is hoping for two more years to make it forty with the Comets. When asked if he can imagine his life void of sports and South Gwinnett, the emotional reflection brought a quiver to his voice. "I do wonder about it. I’ll just be honest with you...after my accident and after my son graduated and moved on, I don’t know what I would’ve done without being so involved with the sports at South Gwinnett. I’m almost a little bit nervous about saying that.” “After my accident, every time I would get eye-to-eye with someone, I would put my head down so I didn’t have to look at them. I didn’t want them to stop and stare at me because I was self-conscious. But the ones that got me out of that and being comfortable that I was gonna be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life were kids. Kids would come to me in the mall and say, “Why are you in that wheelchair?” And they weren’t bashful at all…they’d just ask." "And I think being around sports; the announcing and being so involved. I go around the county and everyone knows I’m from South Gwinnett…I don’t even have to wear their colors. So many people recognize me and it’s helped get me through these past twenty-five years or so since my accident. Like I said, I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been as involved in the sports programs." Jim clearly knows what he’s thankful for every day he wakes up and watches the sun rise. And after all these years involved in football, Jim hasn’t lost one ounce of love for the pigskin game. "I’m already excited about football. I start getting excited once school ends…South is football heaven. If it was August 15th, I’d be tickled to death that this Friday night we’d be kicking off." In what will feel like the snap of a finger, we’ll all be back under those Friday night lights.