The Sky’s the Limit

Chattanooga Area Athletes Go Above and Beyond

(Above) Photo by Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints

Making it to the big leagues isn’t easy. But if you have enough willpower, strength,
and tenacity, you have a chance. Just ask these 6 athletes from the area, who put
everything they had into making it big and have everything to show for it today.

By Lucy Morris

Vonn Bell NFL New Orleans Saints football player chattanooga local

Vonn Bell

24 years old

What began as a way to earn a college scholarship, Vonn Bell’s football career has taken him further than he ever could’ve dreamed as a high schooler at Ridgeland. From All-American and National Championship winner at The Ohio State University to starting NFL safety for the New Orleans Saints, Bell’s list of accolades is miles long. But what keeps him motivated throughout his three-a-day workouts is his love for his family and his appreciation for their support along the way.

 

CS: When did it sink in that
playing professional football
was a real possibility?

VB: When I first started playing at Ohio State, it sunk in. My goal had just been to get a scholarship so my parents didn’t have to pay for my education, but I started making plays and started to see I could really take it to the next level. You’re playing against the best of the best every Saturday – I mean we had beaten all three Heisman Trophy finalists my sophomore year. That’s when I really knew I could push it even further.

 

CS: What did it feel like to get your name called during the draft?

VB: It was one of those dream moments. I had my whole family there at a house party, and ESPN was there, my high school coaches, everything. It was just like, ‘I made it.’ Being able to leave a legacy – what an incredible feeling.

 

CS: What’s the most rewarding part about playing professional football?

VB: What we get to do – build relationships with guys in the locker room, build a brotherhood – it lasts forever. You really get to see the love for the game. And to be around the fans and just see how you affect people’s lives – it’s crazy. Sometimes we aren’t even talking to them about football, just talking about life.

 

CS: What advice do you have for young athletes trying to make it to the pros?

VB: The best advice I got as a young athlete was from my dad, and he would say, ‘That’s not good enough.’ He was always pushing me and helping me to keep that fire going – never stop. You should have it in the back of your mind that you can always keep pushing forward.

 

CS: You come back to your alma mater each year to hand out the Vonn Bell Award to the best female and male athletes. Why is this so important to you?

VB: When they told me they were gonna name the award after me, I thought they were playing a joke on me. The kids look forward to it and so do I. It’s really important to me to be able to leave a legacy and pay it forward.

Keith Mitchell professional golfer from chattanooga

Keith Mitchell

27 years old

 

With his first PGA win under his belt, Keith Mitchell is heating up. A former Baylor School standout who earned his tour card in 2017 following impressive runs on the Latin American and Web.com tours, he says he’s learned more from the hard times than the celebratory ones. But given Mitchell’s level of talent, it looks like he and his caddie, fellow Chattanoogan Pete Persolja, will have a lot to celebrate this season.

 

CS: When did you start getting interested in golf?

KM: Probably age 2 or 3. I’ve never remembered not playing golf, honestly. I really started because the head pro at the golf course in Chattanooga was my best friend’s dad, so we would go out on the course all the time to play around.

 

CS: Who had the biggest influence on your game back in high school?

KM: Definitely Coach Oehmig. We called him Reverend Coach Oehmig because he was an episcopal teacher by trade and a golf coach for fun. I’ll never forget – as the varsity coach he came out to my 6th grade match at Moccasin Bend. I was a good three years from playing on the varsity team, but he was already coming out to support us anyway. He was just a great influence on young minds.

 

CS: Were there players you looked up to when you were younger?

KM: Of course Tiger Woods. I also looked up to Sergio Garcia a lot. He was the young guy on tour when I was little, and he was always fun to watch. Luke List kind of blazed the first big trail at Baylor, and then Harris English after him.
So I had a lot of superstars I looked up to, but then also some other guys whose shoes
I was just hoping to fill in high school.

 

CS: What’s the hardest thing about being on the PGA tour?

KM: Thirty to 40 weeks a year, you’re in an airport. You’re packing a suitcase every week, staying physically and mentally prepared to play your best. When you’re playing against the best guys in the entire world, you have to perform your best
every day.

 

CS: What would you consider your biggest golfing accomplishment to date?

KM: Winning the Honda Classic, for sure. I always felt like I was playing to win that day – I was never scared of losing, if that makes sense. Once I made that putt on 18, it all sunk in that it had happened. I was thinking about my shots, my course management, my preparation all day. At our level, it’s probably 50% mental and 50% physical. But when you’re trying to win a tournament coming down the stretch, it’s 100% mental.

Ryan “BlueChip” Martin

26 years old

 

With 22 wins and 12 KOs to his name, Ryan “BlueChip” Martin has made a name for himself as a worldwide professional boxing phenom. But no matter how far this Central High School graduate goes to train or fight, he never forgets his roots. Beyond winning championships, he wants to give back to his community in the meaningful ways they gave back to him as he was coming up in his sport.

 

CS: Did you always know you wanted to turn pro?

RM: Actually, when I first started boxing, I had no idea you could even go pro in this sport. When I didn’t make the 2012 Olympic team, I was so devastated that I stopped boxing for about eight months. I had started cutting grass when I get a call from a New York number, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know anyone in New York…’ It was 50 Cent saying he wanted to sign me. I hung up because I didn’t believe it. Fortunately, he called back and gave me my first deal in the professional arena.

 

CS: What does your training look like?

RM: There are different styles of training in boxing, but I like military style. I wake up at 4:30 a.m., run at 5, I’m done by 7 or 8, rest until about 1, and then head to the gym until 4. Repeat the next day. Certain days training is very intense, and some days I’m just sparring. But it’s very strict, very dedicated. I eat, drink, and breathe boxing when I’m at training camp. I train at Big Bear in California, and it’s super secluded. For six months, I don’t leave the house unless I’m headed to the gym or the store.

 

CS: Where does your nickname “BlueChip” come from?

RM: My manager gave me the nickname. A blue chip is like something you can’t miss – a prospect you can’t miss. So that’s what it means, and it’s stuck with me through my whole career.

 

CS: What is the hardest thing about professional boxing?

RM: Definitely the diet – making weight. The matches are pretty hard too [laughs]. Training is very intense. Every day you’re pounding yourself mentally and physically. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to mentally and physically train yourself to fight another person.

 

CS: What’s your ultimate career goal?

RM: My ultimate goal is to be a multi-division world champion and to influence younger kids to go after their dreams. I want to teach them to never forget where they came from. I love my city and am so thankful for all the support I’ve received.

Dakota Hudson

24 years old

Drafted right out of Sequatchie County High School, Dakota Hudson decided to turn down his first pro ball offer to attend college at Mississippi State, where he collected prestigious honors for his impressive abilities on the baseball diamond. Today, thanks to his relentless effort, he’s earned a spot as one of the five starting pitchers for the St. Louis Cardinals.

CS: Did you always have a goal of playing professional baseball?

DH: I’ve been saying it since I was 8, but I don’t think it actually sank in as a possibility until I was a junior in college and got to play for the Cape Cod Baseball League, which is a collegiate summer league. After college, I knew a team was taking me and really wanted me, and I knew I could have some success.

 

CS: What went through your head when you got called up to the Majors?

DH: I was out on the mound pitching, and they came out, told me, and took me out of the game to soak it all in. There was a lot of excitement and emotion – so much hard work coming to fruition. I wanted to call my wife as soon as possible. She’s my number one supporter.

 

CS: What does your schedule look like during the season?

DH: It’s pretty crazy. Yesterday we had a game at 6:45 p.m., so I showed up around 2. We run, do conditioning, and sometimes batting practice. Then this morning we turn around and have a noon game. So it’s a lot of moving schedules. You have to make sure you get good sleep and good food – gotta take care of your body every chance you get.

 

CS: Who had the biggest influence on your game back in high school?

DH: My older brother has always had a big influence on me because he’s the one that got me into baseball and the one that I always played with. My high school coach, Aaron Simmons, also had a huge impact on me. He had played minor league baseball, which showed me it was possible and kind of opened my eyes. He was my travel ball coach too and would drive me to practice sometimes. That opened up a lot of opportunities to learn from him.

 

CS: What advice do you have for young athletes trying to make it to the pros?

DH: There’s always something to be learned. Be relentless in that effort – not just physically but also emotionally.

precious birdsong professional softball player from chattanooga Moh-BEEL! USAPrecious Birdsong

22 years old

 

If her name doesn’t catch your attention, her softball stats certainly will. A breakout star from Baylor School, Precious Birdsong attended Middle Tennessee State University, where she set records for season batting average, triples, and stolen bases. She even led the school to its second-ever conference championship her senior season. Drafted by Moh-BEEL! USA last year, she recognizes the importance of building a team culture and dreaming big.

 

CS: Who had the biggest influence on your game back in high school?

PB: Someone who played a huge role in my mental and emotional game was Coach Kelli Smith. I don’t think there was a practice where she let me fail. Regardless of whether I was up or down emotionally, she was there to pick me up, to inspire me, to embrace me, and to push me to be the best athlete and person I could possibly be.

 

 

CS: Did you always have a goal of turning pro?

PB: It was something I began to think about after my junior year season at MTSU. I had one of the best seasons of my career that year – a record-setting season for me individually. After a successful senior season, I knew I wanted to play at the next level. I had accomplished what I set out to do as a freshman by becoming an All-American Scholar Athlete, and I wanted to see what else I could do.

 

 

precious birdsong professional softball player from chattanooga at bat

 

 

CS: What did it feel like to get your name called during the draft?

PB: Literally tears just fell from my eyes. It was such a great feeling to know that everything I had put into this sport had gotten me to the next level. I got emotional because I had just lost my grandmother a week before. But I know she was rejoicing – smiling ear to ear knowing that her granddaughter was a professional athlete!

 

 

CS: Have you had to make sacrifices to play softball at such a high level?

PB: Absolutely. When you play at a high level, it’s almost like you’re jeopardizing your body. I play with speed and aggression – I’m doing a lot of sliding and diving. There are some tweaks and injuries with being that aggressive. I’ve had shoulder surgery and back issues. These are things I’ve dealt with to compete to the best of my abilities.

 

 

CS: What advice do you have for young athletes trying to make it to the pros?

PB: If you put in the work, the effort, the game will reward you. Never give up. No dream is too big. You’re able to do whatever you set your mind to; you just have to believe in yourself.

Eli Christman

20 years old

 

When Soddy Daisy High School alum Eli Christman picked up competitive sharp shooting at 16, he recognized quickly that it could take him places. By his junior year, he had switched from sporting clays and American skeet to international skeet – a much faster and more difficult event. Today, with two Junior World Championship medals under his belt and the title of U.S. Junior National Champion, this Team USA member, who graduated to the Open category (20 and up) this year, has his eyes set on a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

 

CS: How did you get into sharp shooting?

EC: My freshman year in high school, I started competitively shooting. I had kind of been around it as a younger kid but never really took it seriously. When I realized this was a way to take it to the next level, I went at it full force. Once I started, I really enjoyed it.

 

 

CS: What’s the most difficult part of sharp shooting?

EC: The mental game is definitely the most important and difficult part. The physical game is, of course, important, but that’s something that you can learn more of a textbook way how to do it. But the mental game is harder to perfect, and so pretty much no one has perfected it.

 

 

CS: Who had the biggest influence on you back in high school?

EC: My first coach, Eric Dunn, had a huge impact on my skills. My father has also played an important role. He’s still one of my coaches today and has instilled in me the value of hard work. That’s the biggest thing – whenever you think it’s time to let up or relax, if you look ahead, there’s always something to be preparing for or something you can be doing to make yourself a better athlete.

 

 

CS: What advice do you have for high school athletes looking to follow in your footsteps?

EC: Stick with it. All the sacrifices you have to make and all the sacrifices your coaches want you to make will be worth it in the end. That’s a big thing that I tend to see in other upcoming talent – the ability to fully commit. I look back and am so glad I did it.

 

 

CS: What’s your ultimate goal for your sharp shooting career?

EC: The ultimate goal is the Olympic gold medal – that’s the pinnacle of most athletes’ careers. I also want to continue to grow the sport. I’ve met tons of great people from around the world and had nothing but great experiences, and I’d love to see other kids get to have that too. CS

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