By Jarre Fees
Back in 1957, a Salisbury, N.C., restaurateur Pete DiMizio had the idea to honor regional sportscasters and sportswriters whom he had met at the Greensboro (N.C.) Open Golf Tournament. Following DiMizio’s untimely death in 1959, Dr. Edward McKenzie, another Salisbury resident, helped realize DiMizio’s ambition by bringing in other locals to form the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters.
The first NSSA awards program was held in Salisbury on April 12, 1960, and the five-decade affiliation between the organization and the town was off and running.
Today, the City of Salisbury has around 30,000 people, which would qualify it as a town in most other states. But in addition to hosting the NSSA Awards and Hall of Fame every year, Salisbury boasts a fair number of big-city attractions.
“Until recently, we were the smallest city in the nation with its own symphony,” said Mayor Susan Kluttz. “We also have a blues and jazz festival, and a beautiful downtown that still had to be reinvented in the 1980s when downtowns started to die.”
Salisbury is 254 years old, Kluttz said, and the community is “a leader in historic preservation. In the 1970s we started preserving our older buildings.” In fact, several Salisbury neighborhoods were included in the March issue of This Old House Magazine’s “51 Best Old House Neighborhoods.”
“There’s a core group of people here who pour their hearts and souls into honoring these sportswriters,” said NSSA executive director Dave Goren. “They picked up a torch that needed to be carried.”
Former organizer Barbara Lockert, who last year handed the reins of the NSSA awards weekend to her daughter Cassandra Barrier after “years of being chief cook and bottle-washer,” said she started volunteering for the NSSA awards weekend in 1972. “Once you start volunteering, it takes up all your time,” she said, “so finally they hired me.
“Salisbury’s not glitzy, but we’re genuine,” Lockert said. “People have wanted to take it to Vegas or Orlando or New York City. But the NSSA people who come in, they love it like it is. They don’t have to put on a tux. People come here and they know we like them. We make them feel welcomed.”
The NSSA turns 51 this year, but some of the connections between sportscasters and citizens go back even further.
Jim Nantz, NSSA’s National Sportscaster of the Year, said his grandfather ran the train depot in the nearby town of Spencer in the early 20th Century.
“Several years ago my uncle Mark came to the NSSA ceremony with me,” he said, and we spent the day retracing my grandfather’s steps.”
They found the house his grandfather had lived in, and discovered his grandfather had bought the house from a doctor who was headed to Texas to help with “a typhus epidemic in El Paso.”
“The real estate records showed my father bought the house for $1,400 somewhere around 1912,” said Mark Nantz, Jim Nantz’s uncle, who lives in Atlanta. “He paid $140 down and took a loan at 6 percent interest.
“But the amazing thing we discovered was he bought the house from a Dr. Kluttz, whose grandson is now a judge who’s married to the mayor.”
“Here you have these events that take you all over the world,” Jim Nantz said, “and then the NSSA ceremony takes place two miles from where my grandfather ran the train station.”
Dr. Kluttz died while treating patients in the Texas epidemic, and his wife returned with their children to Salisbury. “It was a fateful transaction between two families,” Jim Nantz said, “and then here I am getting an award in Salisbury and Mayor Kluttz is speaking at the opening ceremony. It’s like everything coming full circle.”