We didn’t know quite what to expect from the new man who entered our football radio booth at Ouachita Baptist University eight years ago.
His name was Patrick Fleming, though he went by Patrick Thomas on the air.
The Ouachita Football Network had entered into a new arrangement with Noalmark Broadcasting of El Dorado, and I had asked my contact there, Sandy Sanford, to assign me a stadium engineer who could take our broadcasts to the next level.
I didn’t know Patrick, but Sandy assured me he was the man for the job. He was an interesting mix — a Marine veteran, a radio man, a Presbyterian minister.
Ouachita was opening the 2008 season against Fort Lewis College from Colorado, which had agreed to make the long trip to Arkadelphia if the kickoff were early enough for the team to fly back home that day. So it was a noon start, meaning I arrived at the stadium in Arkadelphia at 9:30 a.m. I had spent that entire week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. There wasn’t much time to prepare for the broadcast, and I was uneasy with a new engineer. Ouachita easily defeated Fort Lewis, 58-7, and I determined that Patrick was a pro.
Ouachita moved the kickoff of the next game up to noon in an attempt to beat the remnants of Hurricane Ike, which was entering Arkansas from Texas that day. The Tigers defeated West Georgia, 41-17, and Patrick again was at the top of his game.
The first road game of the season was a long one — Valdosta, Ga. Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I flew to the game. Patrick made the drive with the broadcast equipment and met us at the stadium.
The Tigers would finish the season 7-3 with a thrilling victory over Henderson in the Battle of the Ravine on a Thursday night. It would be the start of what’s now a streak of eight consecutive winning seasons for Ouachita, and Patrick was along for the ride.
Jeff Root and I have worked together on the Ouachita broadcasts for decades. Not only that, we grew up together. Richard Atkinson also joined us in 2008, but he’s an Arkadelphia native and a Ouachita graduate; a known commodity in other words.
Patrick had no connection to Ouachita until Sandy assigned him to us. But he came to love the school and its football program as much as we do. I would look down to my right, where Patrick always sat, during the final minutes of close games and see him nervously chewing on his knuckles.
Patrick was a perfectionist. I knew we would get on the air despite the gremlins that show up from time to time when you’re doing live radio. And I knew we would sound good. I could count on Patrick.
He was with me in Omaha, Neb. We stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville Beach, Fla. We covered a lot miles together. In fact, he never missed a game until last year when he informed me that he would skip our three games in Oklahoma so he could see his daughter play in the band at Bethel University in Jackson, Tenn. How could I argue with that? But I was a nervous wreck without him in the booth.
This year, Patrick vowed that he would be at all 11 games. We had exchanged emails throughout the summer, talking about the team. Then, on a Sunday night last month, there came a phone call that devastated me. It was Sandy Sanford, Patrick’s former boss. He was calling to tell me that Patrick had been killed in a one-vehicle accident on Interstate 40.
Patrick had taken his daughter back to Bethel for her final year of school. The last thing he posted on his Facebook page was a photo of the Welcome To Arkansas sign on the Memphis bridge.
I’m glad Patrick got to experience the first 10-0 regular season in school history two years ago. More than anything, though, I’m glad he became my friend. When you spend every weekend of the fall with the same group of people, you become almost like a family. And Patrick had indeed become a beloved, trusted member of my Saturday family along with Jeff Root, Richard Atkinson, David Sharp and Casey Motl.
We’ll carry on, but there’s a big void in our broadcast booth this season. Prior to the first game Thursday night, we dedicated the 2016 season to the memory of our colleague, our friend, Patrick Fleming.
He’s no longer with us on the broadcasts. But because he’s a believer, he has received his reward of eternal life.
To borrow a line I use from time to time on the football broadcasts, Patrick has gone to the Promised Land.