After spending nearly a decade on the sidelines taking photographs, conducting interviews and writing stories about Tullahoma City Schools sports, Zach Birdsong is changing his jersey from The Tullahoma News Sports Editor to the Communications Specialist for Tullahoma City Schools.
Earlier this month, Director of Schools Dr. Catherine Stephens announced Birdsong as the first-ever communications specialist for the school district and said he was the perfect fit for the position.
“Communication is a vital component of our work,” Stephens said in the announcement. “I look forward to working with Zach and strengthening the communication channels with our students, parents, teachers, staff, board and community members.”
“I’m excited about the new opportunity,” Birdsong said. “I’ve felt welcomed since I’ve been here, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I stayed here is that hometown community feel.”
The Houston native first joined The News Jan. 28, 2013, after trying to cut his teeth in the journalism field. Birdsong applied to numerous places in Texas and was told he didn’t have enough experience for the position.
“That became a little frustrating and disheartening for me, because how am I supposed to get experience if you won’t allow me to showcase what I can do and give me the opportunity to start?” Birdsong said.
He soon began looking at other states’ press associations to find a job and saw a position for sports writer at the Manchester Times. He reached out via email and inquired about the position but was told the paper had already the position filled, but was directed to The News. He then emailed then-Editor Susan Campbell about needing a sports writer. She told him to submit his résumé and some of his work. Soon afterwards, he was packing his things and was ready to come to his new home in Tullahoma.
“At that point I was eager and ready to go,” Birdsong said. “I saw where Tullahoma was on a map and said, ‘You know what? Let’s go. This seems like a good location and a good opportunity.’”
For Birdsong, one of the biggest challenges he first faced, other than learning a new community, was learning a new skill: photography.
“Whenever I first started here there wasn’t a staff photographer, so I was handed a camera and was told ‘good luck,’” Birdsong said.
One of the most valuable lessons he learned in journalism school was whenever somebody picks up a newspaper the first thing their eye is going to go to is the photos. He knew he had to get better at photography, as that was going to sell papers, but acknowledged that it was not so easy to pick up and be instantly good.
“I invested a lot of time and money in my own photography equipment and I’ve just continued to get better over the years and continued to go and practice,” Birdsong said. “I think it’s paid off over the years.”
During his time at The News Birdsong has won 13 awards from the Tennessee Press Association, including Best News Photo and Best Sports Photo.
“I think that speaks to the credit of how much I have improved over the years and how much I’m willing to continue in that aspect,” he said.
When looking back over the countless sports seasons he covered, Birdsong said he’s been in the position of seeing Tullahoma sports at their best and worst. He recalled watching the Tullahoma High School baseball team in 2013 qualifying to the state tournament and punching their seat in the tournament. While the team was eventually eliminated from the tournament, Birdsong said the team was one of the best teams he was able to cover in his career, particularly since two of the players, Jordan and Justus Sheffield, went on to play in the major leagues.
Birdsong added covering Justus receiving the National Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year in 2014 was another cool experience.
“Getting to be on hand whenever he was presented that award and giving a speech is really cool experience and something I’ll always remember,” Birdsong said.
For him, the best part about seeing the good and bad of Tullahoma sports throughout the years is seeing the resurgence in the sport. He reflected on the 2015 and 2016 seasons for THS football where the team went winless and had a 21-game losing streak at one point. Then the next season, the team went 5-5 and led off the season with a victory at Shelbyville to end the losing streak.
“That was one of the coolest moments I remember, seeing Tullahoma break that skid—just how happy the coaches and players were to get that monkey off their back,” he said.
He added it was tremendous seeing the team making it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs in 2018, and this past season where the team went 12-1, going 10-0 in the regular season and making it back to the quarterfinals again.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to see some great things in my years and covered some great teams and events,” Birdsong said.
As he switches roles, Birdsong stated that while he will continue to work the coaches and athletes, he’s going to miss the connection of being hands-on with the teams and covering all of them daily.
“I’m going to experience some withdrawal on my end,” he said. “That’s going to be the biggest thing I’ll miss, is the connection I made with the players and coaches over the years.”
When it comes to whoever takes the reigns of sports writer, Birdsong said the most important thing is for the writer to make themselves known in the community by showing up to the games, as that’s how he was able to get to know the coaches and players and create those connections and relationships.
“I’m from out of town and I had no affiliation in Tullahoma and Tennessee before I moved here, but because I was willing to go out and travel to these games and events, that made me known in the community,” Birdsong said.
As Birdsong puts down his editor’s cap, he said he’s going to miss everyone he has worked with at his time with The News over the years and thanked Campbell for taking the chance on him all those years ago. He also wanted to thank the Tullahoma community, specifically the coaches and athletes he’s been able to cover over the years, for the opportunity to report on them.
“I cannot thank the Tullahoma community enough for embracing an outsider like me and for trusting me to cover sports and allowing me to do what I love,” Birdsong said.