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Riding Shotgun with Mike Keith

Posted May 2, 2013

"Voice of the Titans" Mike Keith attended three season ticket holder appreciation events and three Academy Sports + Outdoors Titans Caravan stops in one day.

Before the sun rises and reveals the rolling hillsides outside of Franklin, Mike Keith is out the door and on the road.

He arrives at the Williamson County Ag Expo at 5:29 a.m. The center is the starting point for an ambitious day that the “Voice of the Titans,” who is more formally known as Titans director of broadcasting or, at times, less formerly referred to as some variation of “that broadcaster guy” has on the agenda.

In addition to Monday being the start of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Titans Caravan, it’s also a day that has been designed to thank season ticket holders by giving them unprecedented access to Titans general manager Ruston Webster and coach Mike Munchak and the decision-making processes that shaped the team’s selections in the 2013 NFL Draft that concluded less than 48 hours before.

He’s going over plans for the first-time event with the members of the marketing and operations departments, the ticket office and Titans Online when his phone rings at 6:04 a.m. It’s the Xtreme Sports Monster from the Tri-Cities in northeast Tennessee and Mike’s first radio interview of the day. Although the fans haven’t arrived, Mike walks to the other end of the center as a courtesy to 104.5 The Zone’s Wake Up Zone that has just started its morning broadcast on location instead of the studio. He paces back and forth as he does the interview over his cell phone, and I don’t feel as bad for pacing when I’m on my cell phone.

As fog dissipates and sun peeks through clouds leftover from the weekend’s rains, the gigantic inflatable helmet tunnel that players run through on game days at LP Field becomes a beacon for season ticket holders who somehow resist temptation to “kick down the door” a la Keith Bulluck’s style for entering LP Field. T-Rac greets the guests with his exuberance and zaniness. He, too, is on his game early.

After wrapping up with his first radio interview, Mike makes his way to the desk of the Wake Up Zone and sits with Mark Howard, Kevin Ingram and his Titans Radio game-day color analyst Frank Wycheck. I’m not wearing a watch, but I’m within earshot when Ingram informs the show’s audience that it’s 6:34 as the program returns from the words from the sponsors. Mike assesses the moves the Titans made during the draft and provides his in-depth knowledge that he’s cultivated about the team since 1998. He wraps up at 6:57 in time to make final preparations for the event and before Ruston Webster conducts an interview with the Titans’ flagship station.

After guests have grabbed breakfast and taken a seat for the program, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson welcomes everybody and introduces Mike, who grew up in Franklin and still lives there, as “one of our own.” Mike introduces Titans executive vice president of administration and facilities Don MacLachlan for opening remarks about why it was important for the Titans to host their season ticket holders at these events and on behind-the-scenes tours of LP Field.

MacLachlan makes the handoff of the microphone to Mike for Webster’s introduction, and they immediately give guests the visual of the draft room the previous weekend. They cover topics from the selection of 10th overall pick Chance Warmack to the aggressive trade that landed Justin Hunter early in the second round.

Topics also included the desire to have cornerbacks who play more “press” man coverage of receivers at the line of scrimmage (which led to the selection of Blidi Wreh-Wilson in the third round and Khalid Wooten in the sixth), the fortune of landing the Titans’ highest-rated center (Brian Schwenke) in the fourth round, a defensive end (Lavar Edwards) they really like in the fifth and a hard-hitting safety (Daimion Stafford) in the seventh round.

The session concludes with Mike and Webster signing autographs and posing for pictures. Staff members from various departments shift to the lunch in Hendersonville and the dinner in Murfreesboro.

Mike will participate in each of those in the same capacity, hosting lunch with Munchak and revisiting similar topics with Webster at the dinner, but in between he’s got errands and final preparations for the launch of the 15th Titans Caravan. He swings by his house so he and I can carpool for more than 300 miles on the itinerary.

We reach Baptist Sports Park, delivering breakfast for the Titans staffers and quarterback Jake Locker who will hit the road promptly at 11:15 a.m. for Riverside Kroger in Bowling Green, Ky. Mike is normally on the charter bus — this year’s was used in the past election cycle by President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney at different points of the campaign — or in the advance vehicle that travels ahead of the bus with equipment and supplies, but today he’s driving his Ford Escape so Mike can attend the ticket holder events and caravan stops, and I’m riding shotgun.

We depart for Hendersonville at 10:30 a.m. with Mike’s Cherry Coke Zero — “greatest drink that’s ever been invented, but needs to be more available,” he says — in the center console. He’s already had his coffee and some water and plans to cycle through those consistently during the two-week trek across the Mid-South.

Extensive planning is required on the logistics of the Titans Caravan. The Titans receive help from Tennessee State Parks, host sites of public events like Academy Sports + Outdoors and Kroger and administrators at the schools where the educational programs are performed. That teamwork is essential. There are other factors — such as how fast the bus can travel on certain roads and coordination of food delivery to keep the wheels moving. Mike has often scouted areas that he’s traveled to for other reasons to ease future planning.

Between laughing about memorable lines from Animal House, it’s apparent that Mike wants the day to stay on schedule. He’s seen firsthand how moments when young fans meet a pro football player turn into special memories, from Steve McNair and Wycheck to Locker, who will be in three communities to sign hundreds of autographs, pose for pictures and share his excitement about the upcoming season. He also wants Locker to be able to have face-to-face time with every fan possible at each stop. If the schedule is sidetracked, it can cause a chain reaction that affects all other stops.

Many of the season ticket holders at the Hendersonville Expo Center arrive early enough to beat us there. Mike surveys the parking lot, and his experience shows when he selects a parking spot that will help us efficiently move from this event to get on the road because our time window is tight.

Mike interviews Munchak, knowing some of the most interesting topics that fans want to hear about from the Pro Football Hall of Famer who is preparing for his third season as Titans head coach. Munchak tells the crowd how sincerely the team needs and appreciates a boisterous atmosphere on game days and support throughout the year. Mike also brings in questions that have been submitted by audience members before wrapping up with more autographs and photos.    

Before the show, we received help verifying the quickest route to Interstate 65 North, and the guys were spot on, but a traffic light right before the interstate stops us almost in spite. At least it seemed to cycle quickly, but a law enforcement officer takes the on-ramp two cars in front of us. We pass the officer only after Mike announces that we’re doing the speed limit.

The Kroger that is our destination is making its first appearance on the Titans Caravan, but Mike remembers the great response that Eddie George received in Bowling Green several years and thousands of miles ago. Mike talks about how passionate Titans fans are in Southern and Western Kentucky and the valued partnership of Commonwealth Broadcasting as I do my best to steady a small camcorder while we keep moving.

Mike’s phone rings as we’re wrapping up the video, and it’s in regard to his next radio interview with 104.5 The Zone’s Midday 180. He hits the high points of the draft and answers questions from the show’s host. It’s admittedly frustrating not to be able to hear the questions (anyone ever call a radio show with their own radio turned up too loud or heard the terrible noise that can result from such?), but each response reveals the general context. He wraps with a little friendly banter with Paul Kuharsky, the kind that professionals who respect each other can share. 

Our attention alternates between looks at the clock and the navigation system’s estimated time of arrival. He’s convinced he can get us there quicker. I want to believe him. We cross the river with no sign of Riverside Kroger and no further turn indications on the navigation — if only it were as reliable as people can be. This is the first of likely several times the Titans Caravan manual, a spiral-bound guide, comes into play during Mike’s two-weeks on the road. I dial the store’s phone number, and reach a helpful employee who directs us. We can see the roofline of Kroger above other buildings and also see the bus rolling out of the parking lot at 1:58 p.m. — good for it because it’s on schedule, but bad for us because our lunch is on board.

Mike still makes the most of the opportunity by saying hello to Melissa Eads with Kroger and every other employee and shopper he walks by. He gives a ball signed by Jake Locker to Greg Bowen, a staff member of 105.3 The Point, and beats me back to the vehicle — a common theme of the day.

We take a right out of the parking lot after 14 minutes. A half-mile later looks incredibly familiar, and for good reason. We cross back over the river in the opposite direction we did the first time and head for I-65 South to eventually reach Academy Sports + Outdoors in Mt. Juliet — no navigation needed for this one.

“At least we saw (Western Kentucky’s) campus,” Mike says at some point on the way back, which shows he’s an optimist. I don’t know if he knows, but hearing him say that also gives me comfort because I feel like I let him down with my phone’s navigation. 

He also places a call to Darren Steenbergen with Commonwealth Broadcasting to say he’s sorry our arrival was delayed and looks forward to the next encounter. I can tell he means it.

There is not nearly the time crunch to reach Mt. Juliet, but it feels like we make the return so much faster, yet still stay within the speed limits. An officer who is running radar near Millersville can vouch for us.

We see the bus is still on time, and we are back on schedule, too, and in time for him to do a radio interview with the 3HL show on 104.5 The Zone from the store’s sidewalk. He paces and recaps.

Locker conducts a brief media session before going in to greet enthusiastic fans. He reciprocates that with smiles in photos and swipes of his Sharpie. Fans share their concern with his shoulder, and he lets them know how excited he is about the moves made by the Titans in free agency and the draft this offseason and lets them know how hard the team is working for the upcoming season, even though they will not be able to work on the field with coaches until next week.

The stop has enough time for Mike to interview Locker for a video on Titans Online and wrap up on schedule. Another round of food has been delivered to the bus. Spicy chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A sound great, along with “healthy” baked potato chips and a cookie that most likely would draw a penalty flag from NFL Play 60.

The next destination is the Academy Sports + Outdoors store in Smyrna. Juggling a computer, two cameras, my phone, the food and a Diet Coke and a water bottle, I conclude, the easiest thing to do is to eat the cookie first and tell him my plan with a calorie or two of guilt.

“I won’t tell,” Mike vows.

I don’t recall us conversing as we made up for missing lunch, but I think there was something along the lines of they really did nail the art of the chicken sandwich.

The way we ate piques my curiosity, so I ask Mike about what he’s seen players eat on the road. The question brings up one of his favorite stories with an unquestionable champ. Mike sets the scene almost as if it is game day and I am tuning in to his play-by-play.

This story is about Brad Hopkins, a great offensive tackle who played all 13 seasons with the Titans/Oilers franchise after he was drafted in the first round of the 1993 NFL Draft at 13th overall. Hopkins has established a second career in radio and writes guest columns for Titans Online’s Titanic Voices series. In addition to his merits as a player, Mike credits Hopkins with the “greatest eating display ever on a Titans Caravan” and rehashes the way Hopkins wowed everyone who saw him.

We beat most of the afternoon traffic to Smyrna by taking the scenic route over swollen Percy Priest Lake and have time for Mike to recharge at a Starbucks that is conveniently near our next destination. His eco-friendly recyclable cup has been in the cup holder on the bottom of his door and is thirsty.

“Pike Place roast, a little cream and one Sweet-N-Low,” he requests. Mike didn’t go for the cookie or a Chick-fil-A brownie, and he also turns down the offer for a pastry from the Starbucks employee.

We arrive ahead of the bus for a change and see it roll into the parking lot. It’s still on time, and that’s great because there’s a great turnout of Titans fans who have had time to come to the store after school or work.

The battery for the pocket-sized camcorder has grown weary so I sit in the car to charge it while typing up a few notes from the day so far on my laptop. Once I’m convinced the battery will be strong enough for the final stop, I head into the store in time to see Locker again doing more than smiling and signing. He’s enjoying real moments with fans like Mike remembered from hitting the road with McNair.

Mike checks in with Titans staff members who have been on the bus and gets a Sharpie when he’s asked by young men to sign their footballs. One is interested in a career in sports radio when he earns his degree. They chat for a few minutes about the industry before we need to leave to reach the appreciation dinner for season ticket holders at Embassy Suites in Murfreesboro. The hotel has executed a set-up that meets or even exceeds Mike’s expectations, although he’s familiar with a high level of service provided during the annual Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Awards banquets it hosts to recognize the top high school players in Tennessee.

MacLachlan welcomes the guests, many of whom have had tickets since 1999 when the franchise began play as the Tennessee Titans, or even since 1997 when the Tennessee Oilers moved from Houston and brought the NFL to the Mid-South. MacLachlan again makes a clean handoff of the mic to Mike, who introduces Webster. Each question and answer takes paint from the palette and applies it to canvas, creating another clear picture of the atmosphere in the Titans’ draft room. The plan that had been preserved in secrecy for months is unveiled to the season ticket holders.

It’s the first time most in the room have heard Webster speak in person, but Mike helps them know the long-time NFL veteran who just completed his second draft as Titans GM a little better with each question. So much of the personnel department’s work is done behind the scenes out of necessity because there are 31 other organizations that want to know what the Titans are doing.

Locker takes advantage of the proximity of Smyrna to Murfreesboro and surprises the guests, who respond with a standing ovation. He, too, has had a long day but wants fans to know he appreciates their support and how excited the locker room is three months shy of training camp.

Mike then proceeds through another series of questions that were submitted by the fans and is close enough to Webster to notice that he’s made one wardrobe change since this morning.

“Mike from your right wants to know” about the Super Bowl ring on Webster’s right hand. Webster was Tampa Bay’s director of college scouting when the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII.

“I don’t wear it very often, but I wear it every now and then in talks like this just to remind myself where we’re going and where we need to get, and I think we all need one of these,” Webster said to rousing applause from the crowd.

After autographs and photographs that Webster and Mike sign and pose for, it’s time to load up.

There couldn’t be a much more convenient store across the street that can replenish the gas tank and allow Mike another Cherry Coke Zero, this time from the fountain, for the drive back to Franklin. I decide I’ll have one, too.

The sun that fought through clouds earlier to give us great traveling weather has called it quits over Middle Tennessee as we reach Highway 840. The hills have retreated back into the darkness, but Mike handles this leg of the trip as if the vehicle is on auto pilot.

His street and driveway are welcome sights when the headlights cast on them, but not nearly as receptive as Mac, a golden retriever named in honor of McNair. Mac spent his day undergoing chemotherapy for a form of cancer they expect will be treatable. Mac shows no fatigue, and neither does Mike at 8:29 p.m.

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