Popular gospel artist makes a difference in lives at his local high school
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
MOUNT VERNON, Ky. – Bill Sowder knows he’s able to make a real difference in people’s lives. He’s not about to let those opportunities slip by.
To gospel music fans across Kentucky, he’s one of the most recognizable faces in the Commonwealth. Sowder is the owner of and sings a smooth baritone for His Heart, a very popular regional group that travels throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. Whether he’s singing or not, when Bill Sowder shows up at a gospel music event, he’s a popular fellow.
But to those near his Mt. Vernon home, he’s also known as the game day voice of the Rockcastle County Rockets basketball teams, in his 28th year serving as public address announcer. It’s a hobby that has seen the retired banker become more than just the man behind the microphone for hundreds of Rockets and Lady Rockets and their fans.
And he has no intention of leaving the school’s press table anytime soon. He’s having too much fun and, in turn, having a Christian witness in an unusual way.
“When I am announcing, I try to encourage these kids,” Sowder said before the Rockets hosted Anderson County on Jan. 11. “I try to be an encourager at what I do here at the high school. I am here a lot and, you know, I have a good rapport with kids. I feel like this is what God wanted me to do when I left the banking business.”
You see, not only does Sowder call baskets and fouls, but he’s also a familiar substitute teacher at the school. He sees kids running the hardwood and sees kids in the classroom. He’s around some teenagers so much that he’s not just the man behind the mic or the man behind a desk.
He’s a trusted friend.
“There are so many kids out there that do not have a dad,” Sowder says in deep reflection. There are so many kids that don’t have someone to look up to. I have had kids that have had hard times and will stand beside me and share their hearts. I try to be an encourager to those kids.”
Which is the role Sowder often plays with His Heart. The quartet sings songs that lift up the name of the Lord but also encourage the audience to keep serving Him.
To many young people around Rockcastle County, Sowder is the man telling who scored for the Rockets or Lady Rockets. “I try to make it as professional as possible,” Sowder says. “I try to make it clean. I try to make it concise, but I give it an individual flavor.”
He’s a pro, but listening to him call a game, it’s not hard to see who Sowder wants to win. He’s a pro, but he’s a Rockcastle County Rocket.
“Sometimes, I get a little louder. Sometimes I give a nickname,” he says with a smile. “I try to do it close to what a college announcer would do. Actually the (Kentucky High School Athletic Association) used me as an illustration for other schools.
“About five or six years ago, they put some rules on the announcers. It used to be you could carry on as much or however you wanted to help your team. Now you can’t show as much favoritism like you used to. You have to keep it toned down.
“The assigning secretary (for 12th Region officials) has told me that I am the example they used for the proper way to announce a high school basketball game. That’s a high compliment. I would have never thought about that.”
Calling out names for his hometown team is something that comes natural for Sowder. He grew up a Kentucky Wildcat fan, listening to the games being called first by Claude Sullivan and then Cawood Ledford. “When I listened to Kentucky, I would hear those (public address) announcers in the background. I listened to those announcers. When I went to the state tournament, I listened to those announcers.
“John Tong (the legendary announcer at Louisville’s Freedom Hall) could just roll that announcing out there.”
But being a local guy, Sowder says the one that stands out was announcing games at one of Rockcastle’s longtime regional foes. “One who stood out to me was Tuck Baker,” Sowder remembers. “He was at Middlesboro and was one of the announcers at the state tournament. I loved how he would announce a game. His voice was so distinct. I try to model myself after him.”
Part of that modeling is keeping his own personality in his work while keeping it professional. And there’s always the human factor involved.
“It’s so much easier to announce a good basketball game than one that is so sloppy,” Sowder says. “In 28 years, I have had some barn-burners. I have had some won on last-second shots and things like that. Throughout the years, I have had some dandies, but, boy, I have had some sad ones too.”
When the Rockets take the floor, there’s the preparation of a seasoned veteran. He shows up early to go over lineups and when a visiting player has a name Sowder does not know, he tries to find the correct pronunciation. “Sometimes, I still don’t get it right,” he laughs.
His game night duties include playing music over the P.A. system. He favors oldies, but shows some exasperation when telling about a complaint filed to the school a few years back. He had played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which the offended person claimed was racist.
What about playing His Heart’s music? “No, I don’t do that,” Sowder says, “but when the band isn’t here, I play the Gaither Vocal Band for the National Anthem.”
At the scorer’s table, Sowder has the enthusiasm of young fan. He banters with those working beside him and stays close to the game he’s loved all his life but stopped playing competitively while a student at Brodhead High School, which consolidated into Rockcastle County.
“I played basketball for a couple of years, but we had a dairy at home,” Sowder remembers. “My dad needed me so I gave up basketball and went home to work.”
It was a decision that kept him from playing in Kentucky’s Sweet 16. “I graduated from high school in 1972, the year we went to the state tournament,” Sowder says. “I did the announcing for the team then. I did the lineups. That’s all I did, the lineups. We won the 13th region. Some of my best friends played basketball and they always included me for everything.’
Brodhead fell to Warren East, 69-59, in the first round of that Sweet 16. It was the final game for the school, which was consolidated with Mt. Vernon and Livingston high schools to form Rockcastle County the next school year, but the memories are still vivid and Rockcastle honors that team with a banner hanging at one end of the court.
As announcer, Sowder has seen his Rockets advance to the Sweet 16 in 2002, when they won the 13th Region crown on their home floor, and in 2005. And as voice of the Lady Rockets, Sowder has been up close and personal with seven regional champions and the 2011 state champions when Rock defeated DuPont Manual, 62-60, in the final.
“We went to Bowling Green (for the state tournament) and we had a great time. That was so much fun,” he says. That Lady Rocket team featured Sara Hammond, Kentucky’s Miss Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American who later played at the University of Louisville. Coach Chrysti Noble led that Rockcastle team and is still on the sidelines today.
“She is a legend and I will tell you what, she is a great person. She is the same all the time and has the biggest heart. She absolutely loves those girls,” Sowder says.
And that might be a description of why Bill Sowder has become such a well-known voice around Rockcastle County. To him, the games are fun, but they are about people who can use the love of Jesus Christ in some way.
“I try to be an encourager in all I do,” Sowder says. “That’s just like gospel music. That’s our job, to be encouragers to people that may be going through a bad time.
“I try to be an example in the classroom, in the hallway at the basketball games, wherever I am. Maybe someone will say there is something different about him.”
It’s a philosophy that’s working when Bill Sowder sings about his Lord.
And it works when the Rockcastle County Rockets take the floor.