Jeff Waters has spent 24 years of his life as the radio play-by-play voice of the Marshall County Marshals.
In that time, he’s described high school sports action to Marshall County in emotionally wrenching times. He was on the air after the 1997 school shooting at nearby Heath High School killed three; after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; after the 2008 death from a brain tumor of 8-year-old Gunner Gillespie, the son of then-Marshall County boys’ basketball coach Gus Gillespie.
Yet none of that was as challenging as the broadcast Waters faced Monday night.
In a county shocked and grieving after a shooting at its own high school left two 15-year-olds dead, Waters searched for words that could encapsulate what Marshall Countians were feeling while he opened the broadcast of the school’s resumption of the basketball season.
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Like everyone in Marshall County, Waters has his own story of Jan. 23. Around 8 a.m., Waters, 46, was headed out of the house for his job as sports director at Benton’s WCBL-AM and FM when his wife, Jenny, stopped him by reading a Facebook post.
“It said there had been a shooting at the (Marshall County) high school,” Waters recalled.
The Waters’ children, son Reed, 13, and daughter Anna, 10, are too young to be in high school, but their niece, Tera Colson, is a junior guard on Marshall County’s girls’ basketball team.
As social media reports of a shooting spread, Jeff and Jenny Waters tried frantically to call Colson.
“It turned out, she was running late that day,” Jeff Waters said. “As she pulled in the parking lot, she saw all the students running out (of the school). So she was able to just pull back out and left.”
After one of their classmates allegedly opened fire with a handgun, two Marshall County sophomores, Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, were killed and 14 others at the school were wounded by gunfire that Tuesday morning.
According to media reports, the alleged shooter was Gabe Parker, 15, a sophomore trombone player in the Marshall County High School band. Parker’s mother, Mary Garrison Minyard, is the editor of Marshall County Daily Online.
“I do not know the young man,” Waters said of Parker. “I do know his mother.”
In the days after the shooting, Waters said all of Marshall County was in a daze. “I tell people, you go through the first 48 hours thinking ‘This could not have happened here. There’s no way. It didn’t happen,’” Waters says. “But the reality sets in.”
Last Saturday, Waters waited in line for some five-and-a-half hours at the visitation for Holt and Cope at Marshall County’s Reed Conder Memorial Gymnasium.
“Some of the people behind me were in line for over six hours,” Waters said. “I did not know the two young people we lost. But it was very important for us as a county, I think, to show their families how much we feel their loss.”
On Sunday morning at Benton’s First Christian Church, Waters and his family were in the congregation when Tyler Brockman, a teacher at Marshall County, spoke through tears about the shooting and its aftermath.
“I’m not afraid to say, emotionally, I broke down,” Waters said. “It really hit me.”
After church, Waters and his family drove to Paducah to eat. In what was a largely silent car ride, Waters began to think about what he would say when he returned to the airwaves to broadcast Marshall County basketball. The following evening, the Marshals were resuming their basketball season with a girls/boys doubleheader against Livingston Central.
“I felt like I really needed the right words for this,” Waters said. “This was not going to be a normal game broadcast, and I wasn’t going to treat it like it was.”
By Sunday night, Waters had formed an idea of what he wanted to say. On Monday morning, he wrote it out. He showed his script to Marshall County Athletics Director Mike Johnson and Dennis Foust, a former Marshall County circuit judge, to gauge their reaction.
Having gotten the thumbs up, Waters kept going over his opening in his mind. “I did not want to be stumbling around with this,” he said.
So late Monday afternoon, as Marshall County tried to return to some semblance of normalcy and to basketball, the Marshals’ longtime radio play-by-play man opened his pregame show with words from his heart:
We are grieving, but we are not defeated.
We are sad, but we are encouraged.
We have experienced the worst and we have shown the world our best.
We know there are many, many trying days ahead, but we will remain strong — Marshall Strong.
We will never forget those whom we have lost; and we will honor their memories by always striving to be the best we can be.
We are overwhelmed by the love and support of our neighbors, and many others around the world. We are eternally grateful.
We have heroes in our school and in our community; and we are inspired by them.
We love, and we are loved.
We are together; We are family; We are MARSHALL.
“I don’t know anything to tell (people),” he says, “other than it was ‘a God thing.’”