More than 56 seasons and 400 games later, the Bobcats’ greatest fan suffered a fatal heart attack in the same press box where it all began. He missed only two games in all those years.
Sportsman was in good spirits and stopped by the field house prior to Friday night’s game for a word of encouragement to the team. He arrived early at the stadium for what was to be his final climb up the steep steps and into the press box.
Louise, his wife of 56 years, took her usual seat in the top row directly under the box. Sportsman made it up the ladder, then collapsed.
Stunned football fans waited under the stands as Sportsman was carried out of the stadium and rushed to Refugio Memorial Hospital where a HALO-Flight helicopter was dispatched. But he never made the flight.
“It’s ironic that he passed away in the very setting that he so loved – Bobcat Stadium – doing the very thing that he so loved – being the Voice of the Bobcats,” said Carl Barnhart who sat beside him in the press box for many years.
“He was my best friend,” Barnhart said. “I haven’t cried like this since my first wife, Crystal, died.”
In 2003, the Bobcats donned caps that said “Jackie’s Boys” for the Booster Club’s celebration of Sportsman’s 50th anniversary as announcer. Once again, the Bobcats will show their admiration by dedicating the remainder of the season to their mentor and friend. The Bobcats will wear orange, black and white stickers emblazoned with his initials on their helmets.
“We’re going to try to win a state championship for Jack Sportsman,” said Jason Herring, Bobcat head coach and athletic director. “We’re committed more than anything else in the world to win for Jack. There’s no question, he’ll be with us every step of the way.”
Jack was on the committee that hired Herring as athletic director and they bonded quickly. Jack was a friend to all the former coaches, including former athletic director George Harris and Coach David McKinney, who now head up the Gregory-Portland Wildcats athletic program. Both coaches attended the memorial service Tuesday morning in the RHS auditorium.
“He was always there for me and he was always there for the Bobcats,” Harris said. “We came to depend on him a lot and he was very well respected.”
“Like everybody says, he was an institution,” McKinney said. “He was a great fan and a great member of the community. You can’t replace a man like that.”
Hundreds of friends filled the auditorium to celebrate his life. The Lady Cats and Bobcats sat together on the front rows on opposite sides of the auditorium.
“You know what Jack’s doing in heaven; he’s trying to take the microphone,” said longtime friend Johnny Murphy.
Former engineering colleague Ron Scott said Jack wasn’t just well-known in Refugio.
“Anywhere I went, people always asked about Jack,” Scott said. “He helped young engineers work out problems, and became their friend. I’m a better person because of Jack and Louise Sportsman.”
Jack acquired a legacy, not only as an announcer and fan, but as an athlete as well. As a Bobcat running back, he made all-district, all-state and was named Ironman.
In college, he played for Texas Christian University for two years before transferring to Texas A&I to play for the Javelinas. He was captain of the team and was inducted into the Texas A&I Hall of Fame. Jack was also named to the Dallas Morning News Little All-American Offensive and Defensive Team.
Former fullback and A&I teammate Reggie West sat on the front row. Once Sportsman made a friend, he was a friend for life, Scott said.
Gerald Morgan, fellow Lion and Ex-Student Association member, summed up Jack’s lifelong commitment to his beloved Refugio.
“He always asked what else he could do for his community and he’s been here for many generations of children. He loved you guys,” Morgan told the Bobcats sitting together in the front rows.
His cousin Chuck Sportsman said he was the glue that kept the family together.
“He worked hard to get family members coming to the family reunion,” Chuck said. “He loved Refugio, sports and his family.”
Jack’s daughter Tana Sportsman Loveday’s heart-wrenching message and Marcia Raymond’s vocal rendition of Jack’s favorite song, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You,” summed up his favorite things.
“Daddy thought there was no other place in the world like Refugio,” she said. “He absolutely loved his family and Bobcat football. He loved fried chicken and Bobcat football, Cajun food, gospel music and Bobcat football, Texas A&I University and Bobcat football. He could tell you any score of any game from any year and the names and numbers of the players on the field.”
A former drum major for the Refugio Mighty Bobcat Marching Band, Tana said one of her fondest memories was looking up from the field to the press box and seeing her father raise his arms to the band in praise.
There were no amount of words to let people know how the team and the community feel about Jack Sportsman, Herring said.
“There’s no doubt he loved us. Somebody will fill in for him but nobody will ever replace him,” Herring said.