It’s possible no one ever enjoyed writing a story about high school sports more than Tim Stevens.
And not just writing it. Being a storyteller. Making it informative, giving it feeling and perspective. Choosing the right words. Being honest, being fair.
For almost 50 years, Tim Stevens has written those stories, first for the Raleigh Times, then The News & Observer. Not all were about high school sports but most of them were, and they helped win him awards and inductions in high school halls of fame but also the respect of his peers and admiration from those he covered for so long.
Stevens, 62, will retire from the newspaper in June, saying simply of his decision, “It feels like a good time.” The News & Observer’s high school editor the past 25 years, his absence will be felt by many.
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“Tim has done such a great job for so long that he has become identified with that beat in a way that is highly unusual,” N&O executive editor John Drescher said. “His roots in this community are so deep. He’s so good at what he does. It’s obvious he cares deeply about high school sports, the players, the coaches, and it all comes through in his work.
“Our readers trust Tim Stevens. They know he really cares about what he does. He’s an amazing guy and what an amazing career. Tim really represents the best of what we do.”
‘Terrific from the start’
Stevens is a modest man, proud of his Garner roots, proud of his family. His mother, the late Evelyn Stevens, was editor of the Garner News and gave Tim the encouragement to write. An older brother, Jimmy, once was a high-school correspondent for the Raleigh Times and gave him the opportunity to first write for a newspaper.
“When Jimmy graduated from Garner High I asked him who we could hire to replace him,” said former N&O sports columnist Caulton Tudor, then the Times’ assistant sports editor. “He said, ‘Well, my brother would be good.’ He was more than good. He was terrific from the start.”
Stevens has written between 10,000 and 12,000 stories, at first in long-hand, then on typewriters and computers. He can quickly recall the first game he covered for the Times, Raleigh’s afternoon newspaper until it merged with The N&O in the late-1980s.
“It was a basketball game at Northern Vance and I still remember the headline: ‘Revenge is sweet.’ I was 15,” Stevens said. “The first football game I covered was a Clayton game. I remember Andy Pleasant was the tailback for Clayton, and then Andy went on to college, graduated, coached for 30 years and has retired. I’m still with the high schools.”
Ask him about the best athletes he’s covered and Stevens mentions the pitching brilliance of the late Steve Streater, the former Sylva-Webster High star. He thinks of Genia Beasley, who starred in basketball at South Johnston, and such football stars as Chester McGlockton of Whiteville and Mario Williams of Richlands.
“I’ve seen Brien Taylor throw a baseball and Josh Hamilton hit a baseball,” Stevens said. “And Anthony Barbour was on another level.”
Stevens took pride in seeing his old high school win the 1987 state football championship. The Garner Trojans, with Barbour at tailback, were coached by Hal Stewart and the championship was a big moment both for the school and the Garner community.
“One thing you respect about Tim is the dedication, love and passion he brought to his job,” Stewart said. “He touched so many people in a positive way. I know there were times he might leave someone off an all-star team and people’s feelings might be hurt, but if Tim left you off, you forgave him.”
Not always, Stevens said, laughing. He said several parents have blamed him for their child not getting a college scholarship, for not giving them enough exposure and attention.
“Once, I happened to be standing nearby as Tim was dealing with a certain disgruntled mother who didn’t think the article and accompanying photo relating to her son’s performance on the gridiron the previous night did him justice,” said A.C. Snow, former editor of the Raleigh Times. “’Furthermore,’ the mother said, ‘He looks absolutely awful. In fact, he looks downright ugly.’
“Patience at the breaking point, Tim sighed politely, ‘Well, I’m sorry, ma’am, but that’s not my fault.”
Stevens has tackled many, more weighty issues. He has witnessed and written about the integration and consolidation of the public schools and its effects on high school athletics. He has seen and written about the proliferation of girls sports, marveled at how recruiting became a national obsession.
Stevens has written about the effects of concussions on athletes, about overuse injuries, obesity among football players and the need for full-time trainers at each high school. In some cases, meaningful changes were made.
“He really is a legend,” said Charlie Adams, former executive director of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA). “We’re fortunate to have had him in this area and fortunate to have had him in North Carolina. I’ve bragged on him to anyone who will listen about the way he promotes and covers high school sports. Always positive, always upbeat and good. I really believe he’s one of the best ever.”
Stevens was instrumental in writing the NCHSAA Record Book, the first full compilation of the state’s high school sports records and milestones. The NCHSAA annually presents the “Tim Stevens Award” to its media person of the year.
Stevens helped start and later directed what would be called the Holiday Invitational basketball tournament, bringing in some of the nation’s best prep teams and players during the Christmas holidays.
Focused on football
Adams said one person impressed by Stevens’ work was Bob Kanaby, the former executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. Stevens was inducted into the NFSHSA National Hall of Fame in 2007 and was then just the fourth newspaper journalist to be honored by the national federation.
“Bob said he wished there was a Tim Stevens in every state,” Adams said.
As a teenager, Stevens was more focused on football, said Eddie Gray, the longtime Garner High boys basketball coach and a former classmate at the school. A knee injury when Stevens was 15 – “I didn’t even get hit,” he said – ended his football hopes and landed him a job in the office of an assistant principal, Charlie Adams.
“He hobbled in on those crutches one day in 1966 and the Tim Stevens-Charlie Adams relationship has lasted ever since,” said Adams, who served as NCHSAA executive director from 1984 to 2009.
Stevens has been able to maintain such friendships and good working relationships while dealing with some unexpected “pressure” through the years.
An arts enthusiast
Tim and the former Donna Wade have been married 39 years but were newlyweds when he covered his brother-on-law, Bobby Wade, who played basketball at Garner High. He later covered his son, Jake Stevens, who played football and basketball at Garner and a daughter, Susanna, who played basketball and volleyball and ran track. His youngest, Elizabeth, was much more interested in the world outside of sports.
“But Tim does not play favorites, nor does he discriminate against anyone,” Leesville Road High soccer coach Paul Dinkenor said. “He never leaves a sporting stone unturned. He writes about track, softball, winter, spring, boys and girls, everything.
“He loves to write stories about kids who may not have had the advantages, financial and otherwise, others had who went on to become successful. He also has written some great human-interest stories.”
When not writing for The N&O, Stevens is a playwright. He has authored 20 plays and his latest – “War at Your Door” – was staged last week at the Garner Performing Arts Center. The historical musical drama told the story of Garner residents in the Civil War and commemorates the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Raleigh.
Gray, whose Trojans won the state championship this year, has been in several of Stevens’ plays, joking that Stevens cast him as Roman soldier who whipped Jesus in one play and as Judas in another. Stevens and Gray both are active at Garner’s Aversboro Road Baptist Church and Stevens’ plays have been staged at the church and at churches in other states.
“At his core he’s an arts enthusiast,” said Debbie Dunn, Garner’s cultural arts and events manager. “He’s found a way to fund plays, cast them, find directors. He’s won arts awards. He’s done a lot for our town.”
Stories that resonate
Last year, Stevens received the 2014 James R. Stevens Service to Garner Award for his longtime contributions to the community. The award is named for his late father.
“The thing I'm most thankful for is that I never lost my love for high school athletics,” Stevens said. “I always believed that I worked for the boys and girls and got paid by the N&O. I always tried to think of what I'd want written about my child. I was not always successful and I strayed from that sometimes, but not intentionally.
“I probably am most proud that I was willing to try to do things that I thought would make the experience better -- start a basketball tournament, write a record book, emphasize the value of character-based education, try to make coaches, players and parents understand that few people remember the scores in 30 years, but they remember the experience.”
In more wistfully reflecting on retirement from newspaper work, he added, “Nobody is going to care what I say anymore. For 48 years I could put something in the paper and people would care.”
But Stevens leaves behind a body of work that that many care deeply about, that resonates. In addition to the national federation hall of game, he also has been inducted into the NCHSAA Hall of Fame, Garner High Hall of Fame and the Broughton Sports Hall of Fame.
“For decades, Tim Stevens has been the patron saint of prep sports coverage in Eastern North Carolina and beyond,” Snow said. “He brought to his job a number of sterling qualities: a relaxed, readable writing style, rich in detail, capturing the color and excitement of the games. Aside from that, Tim was a missionary of sorts, ever stressing the importance of high school athletics in setting values and building character in aspiring youths.”
What they’re saying about Tim Stevens
“Tim has done as much to help educate parents, coaches and young athletes about sport-related concussion as the researchers and team physicians who manage these injuries daily. His reporting over the past decade on this very timely topic has been a game-changer for improving safety in sports, especially at the high school and youth levels of play.”
UNC professor and co-director of UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.
“Tim puts his heart and soul into everything he does. His columns were right on target when it came to writing about such things as high school sports being an extension of the classroom and providing life lessons.”
Garner High boys basketball coach and a former classmate of Stevens at Garner High.
“Tim has a special ability to spot a story. It seems simple, but it isn’t.”
News & Observer sports editor
“At a point in his career when he could have done his job on autopilot, Tim Stevens undertook a series of time-consuming projects designed to make it better, from reassessing our high-school coverage based on changes to our circulation to creating an entire online stat-keeping system. And he did this while being heavily involved in his church and his musical productions away from work. It’s an important lesson for anyone: Be committed to constant and continual improvement.”
N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock
“I’ve read high school stories from about 40 states and there’s not another Tim Stevens, not with the coverage he did on a regular basis and the way he did it. He’s one of the best ever.”
Former N.C. High School Athletic Association executive director
“One thing I admired about Tim is his sense of what should be written about interscholastic sports and his ability to write those stories.”
Former Wake County Schools athletic director
“All of us who pursue a career in journalism start out with the hope that we can make a difference in our community, and in the lives of readers and people we've covered. What a difference Tim Stevens has made during his hall of fame career.”
N&O sports writer
“We can all be replaced, I guess, but some are harder to replace than others. I think of that coach who had to follow John Wooden at UCLA. You don’t want to follow a legend and Tim is a legend in his profession.”
Former Garner High football coach