If things had worked out according to plan, you might have seen Tommy Hicks’ work on billboards and in magazines. After graduating from Central in 1973, Hicks went to Troy State University as an art major. But when he started taking art classes, he discovered something. There were a lot of talented — really talented — artists. And that was just at Troy State, never mind the rest of the country.
“I remember coming home and telling my dad, ‘I just don’t think this is going to work out,’ ” Hicks said.
“Well,” Elroy Hicks said. “Have you thought about sportswriting?”
“When I decided to change, it really felt natural,” Hicks said. “It wasn’t just the cool thing to do for me. It seemed like the right thing to do for me. Once I got started, it seemed like a natural fit. Now, it took me a long time to learn the ins and outs and how to go about the work and what all it entails. But once I decided I was going to get the double major instead of just the art and lean more toward that, it seemed more natural to me.”
Who knows? Maybe Hicks would have made it as an artist after all. But this much is certain: he wouldn’t have enjoyed a career filled with a treasure trove of memories many sports fans would covet. He wouldn’t have had the chance to play catch with Bob Feller on the deck of the U.S.S. Alabama. And he most definitely wouldn’t have wound up in the Alabama Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame.
But that is the case. His induction will be Sunday, when he enters an organization that represents the best of Alabama sportswriting.
Sportswriting seemed like such a perfect fit. He grew up in Phenix City playing as many sports as he could. His dad coached youth baseball for more than 30 years, including one year when he had three teams. In high school, Hicks covered some games for the Phenix Citizen and the Ledger-Enquirer.
After graduating with a double degree in art and journalism, he returned home for a while to work for the Citizen.
He moved on to Selma, then Montgomery, then Anniston before he was hired by the Mobile Press-Register as lead sports columnist. Between nearly three decades with Anniston and Mobile, Hicks covered the Masters and U.S. Open in golf, about 20 Final Fours, bowl games major and minor, the Super Bowl and the World Series.
He was on the sidelines when Van Tiffin’s 52-yard field goal as time expired gave Alabama a 25-23 win over Auburn. Actually, he was on the field when the ball sailed through the uprights.
“We all kind of peeled out onto the field to try to get a good look to see whether it would be good or not,” he said.
There are so many memories like that, so many cool moments. None stand out more than playing catch with a Hall of Famer aboard an historic battleship. Feller was a crewman on the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II. He was in Mobile for a reunion with his shipmates, and agreed to an interview with Hicks.
“I was interviewing him at a hotel, and in the middle of it he said, ‘Hey, do you want to go out to the battleship?’ And I went, ‘Sure, that’d be great,’ Hicks said. Feller said he needed to go to his room and get something, so Hicks pulled his car around front.
“He hops in and he’s got a plastic Walmart bag,” Hicks said. “We get there and he walks me up and he shows me where he was stationed on the ship and he tells me about how he would lead calisthenics each morning on the deck. So then he grabs the Walmart bag and pulls two gloves and a baseball out and says, ‘Would you like to play catch?’ I’m going, ‘Does anybody ever tell you no to that? Heck yeah!’ So I got to play catch with Bob Feller on the U.S.S. Alabama, which may be one of cooler things that ever happened.”
The cool moments are nice. But that’s not what put him in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. The fact is Hicks is really good at what he does. He’s a great storyteller and an eloquent writer. My colleague Chuck Williams, another Troy State graduate, said he was motivated in part to get into journalism after hearing Hicks talk to students.
“He was good at it, but he also made it look easy. I watched how he handled people, deflecting situations with humor or verbal jabs,” Williams said. “I learned quickly you did not want to go toe to toe with him in a battle of wits. He was too quick.“
The radical changes of the newspaper business caught up to him. He was among the third wave of reporters let go by the Press-Register a few years back. He called the trend in newspapers “disheartening.”
“I just hate to see something that’s been such an important part of my life change in the way that it has,” he said. “I think what is missed is the opportunity to work on a story, whether it’s a feature or a news story or anything, to be able to develop a story rather than getting it out pronto. I think that’s going to be lost, and when it’s gone, people are really going to miss it and understand what newspapers — and all news outlets, really — meant in the coverage and balance that’s created in their communities.”
Hicks is now editor of two weekly papers in the Mobile area, The Call News and The Washington County News. He’s also a radio sideline reporter for South Alabama home football games. Retirement isn’t in the plans.
“I still enjoy it,” he said. “I just go to work each day and try to keep going.”