Regardless of how many times we change jobs or even entire professions, there’s a time early on in that person’s tenure that tells us things will be different.

No matter how well we think we know how to do things, all it takes is one event, maybe even a harmless statement, to break the ice and let us know we’re glad to have you, but please, get with the program.

For me, that moment came in December of 2002 when I went to my first Ashland basketball game. It was the season opener against Sheldon Clark and I’d been on the job at The Independent for barely a month.

Following the game, Ashland radio announcers David Payne and Dicky Martin introduced me to coach Mike Flynn, a thoughtful synopsis that let the coach know of my background, what paper I came from (Maysville) and how long I had been in the area.

Flynn took in the spectacle around him, studied it with a professor-like concentration that only he could, then grinned, shook my hand and responded, “Well, welcome to the big leagues.”

At first, I was taken aback by the statement, having been an editor at my previous stop for two years and proud of my work. But, it was a point well taken. Everything I had produced to that point in my career meant nothing to my new audience, the people who would read and scrutinize every word I wrote.

Being merely good wasn’t good enough. Mark Maynard, Rocky Stanley, Mike Reliford and those that came before them set the bar so high, being accepted by the readers meant reaching their level because they certainly had no reason to come down to mine.

From that day forward, whenever I sat down to write anything that would have my name on it for this newspaper, Flynn’s words rang in my ears. The motivation to produce something not only I, but the entire community, could be proud of was my primary focus.

Perhaps it is irony, perhaps fate but news of Flynn’s departure last week hit with sweet melancholy. It was that same man who gave me those words of advice, the man who decided his work here was finished and it was time to tackle a new challenge.

Now we have something else in common.

After nearly four years on the job, I am leaving The Independent to join The Middletown (Ohio) Journal later this month. Though I’m a 16th Region boy by birth (Lewis County), over the past four years not only Ashland, but every city that dots the regional landscape, has become home to me.

From the passionate fans of Morgan County who stormed Rupp Arena in 2004, to Lewis County’s Blue Crew to Russell’s march to the state football championship for beloved coach Ivan McGlone, there’s a million stories contained in every town in the area. My job was simple — to convey those stories to the world with the same enthusiasm as those telling it to me. It’s easy to do a job when it doesn’t feel like work — something I’ve been blessed to experience here.

The best part is I’ve even been lucky to learn something along the way. Hager Easterling and Stan McGlone taught me Carter County isn’t the evil empire; instead, it became one of my favorite places. Better yet, my family away from home, the Go Radio crew of Tim Carper, Tom Gemeinhart and “K.J.” Nash, were always quick with the newspaperman’s lifeline — a seat, a stat and a smile.

The hours and lifestyle of a sports writer tend to put us in closer contact with co-workers than other professions. While the games were fun, the moments I will cherish are those that the public never got to see in the paper. The 3 a.m. brainstorming sessions with Maynard in an empty office while working on the annual football preview, the pep talks with Stanley and Chris Morris about honing our craft, the enthusiasm of new sports editor Rick Greene and frathouse-like hijinks with Kirk Page, Jeremy Bryant and Grant Traylor that broke the monotony of many Saturday nights in the office are moments that will stay with me, regardless of where I may end up.

As I wrap up my time at The Independent, I can’t help but think once more about Flynn’s words. If I am fortunate to see him again, my first words would no doubt be the same as those he delivered to me with such aplomb so long ago.

Well, welcome to the big leagues.

ELDEN MAY can be reached at ekmay@adelphia.net

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