What I learned from Bob Allen

I awoke this morning to find out that Bob Allen, long-time Houston TV sports anchor, had passed away overnight at the age of 70.  Many Houstonians knew Bob as one of the three unchanging faces of local news on Channel 13, along with Ed Brandon on weather and the timeless Dave Ward on news.  My first acquaintance with Bob came when I was a young teenager, when my dad turned our rooftop antenna to the East, so that we could pick up our TV out of Houston, not San Antonio.  I appreciated Bob’s smooth delivery as he narrated the Rockets’ magical run to the NBA finals in 1985, and the Astros’ 1986 playoff season.  To me as a teenager, he was the voice of Houston sports.  I had no idea I would be working for him in a few years.

It happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, it was surreal.  I was in college, studying radio-television communications at UH.  Carrie and I had been dating for a few months when her brother-in-law Don found himself seated next to Jeff McShan, another sports reporter at Channel 13.  Don is the most outgoing person I’ve ever known; he could strike up a conversation with Vladimir Putin (in spite of the language barrier), and within ten minutes, they’d be best friends.  Don immediately recognized McShan, and eventually told him about his sister-in-law’s boyfriend, who wanted to get into the sports broadcasting business.  McShan gave Don his card, and said, “Tell the kid to call the station.  We can get him a job.”  I made that call, and met with Robert Leake, the Sports Producer at KTRK.  The “job” was actually an unpaid internship.  That’s how the TV business works…so many people want to get their face on the tube, guys like me would work for free just to have the experience.

There was nothing glamorous about that internship.  I came in the afternoons after my classes were done.  I answered the phone (Instead of “hello,” we said, “Sports!”), edited highlights for the evening’s broadcasts, and did other grunt work.  But I had a chance to learn from Bob, Jeff and Tim Melton, who were all very good at what they did.  Bob was always gracious to me…except once.

It was the early 1990s,.and the rumor was that Texas and Texas A&M were scheming to leave the Southwest Conference.  I was convinced it would never happen; surely those two tradition-rich schools would never break up an all-Texas sports league, destroying so many great rivalries (oh, to be so young and idealistic again).  In the Fall of 1991, there was a meeting of SWC coaches at Rice.  Bob wanted to get an interview with RC Slocum, the coach of the Aggies, to find out what he knew.  However, there was a problem: Slocum was only available when Bob would be on the air.  Melton and McShan were both on other assignments.  Who could they send to get this interview?  In a rare moment of boldness, I said, “I can do it.”  Bob looked at me and hesitated for a moment.  I had been with the station for quite a while now, but I was still just a college kid.  He said to Leake, “Get him a shooter (a cameraman) and a car.” And to me, “Write down a list of questions and let me see them first.”  I went to work.

Bob looked over my questions and seemed satisfied.  The shooter arrived, the car was waiting outside.  Bob walked me to the car, then stopped and looked me dead in the eye.  In a calm but direct voice, he said, “You better understand this much: I know people in every station in this country.  If you embarrass me, I’ll make sure you never work in this industry again, ever.” (That’s not an exact quote; there were some more colorful words included).  Although his tone surprised me, I knew exactly why he said what he said.  I was, after all, a 21-year old male, among the more dangerously stupid species on the planet. If I had chosen to make some kind of foolish spectacle of myself with a camera and a microphone, the coach of Texas A&M–along with all the other coaches at that meeting–would hold it against Bob and his station, and would never trust him again.  Bob knew there was a big risk in sending me out there, but he wanted the story badly enough to take that risk.  I didn’t know what else to say, so I smiled and said, “Thanks, Bob!”

God sends us out into the world to be His hands, feet and voice, even though we embarrass Him time and time again.  Think about it: Every time you or I speak before we think, lose our temper, ignore someone in need, give less than our best effort at work, treat a waitress disrespectfully, or any of a thousand other interpersonal sins, we give a people a reason not to trust the God we serve.  Everything we do and say reflects on Him.  That’s a tremendous responsibility; and it’s why God’s Word tells us in no uncertain terms that we are His ambassadors (2 Co. 5:20), priests (1 Pt. 2:9), and His workmanship (Eph. 2:10).

In the end, old RC Slocum was far too wily to let some kid with a microphone coax any juicy information out of him.  He was polite, but as he responded to my questions with carefully chosen non-answers, I could see that little gleam in his eye that said, “I know what’s going to happen, son, but I’m not sharing it with the likes of you.”  My interview never made it on the air, but it was a great learning experience…in more than just broadcasting.  God had other plans for me, I’m happy to say.  Most of all, I am happy that when I embarrass the Lord, He doesn’t summarily boot me from His Kingdom.  His grace keeps giving me another chance.

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