When East Tennessee State golfer Jack Rhea was named an honorable mention All-America selection last week, he was following in his father’s footsteps.
Jack’s dad, A.R. Rhea, earned an All-America distinction 30 years ago while pitching for Milligan.
“That’s pretty neat,” A.R. Rhea said. “It seems like a very long time ago for me.”
A left-handed pitcher for the Buffaloes, A.R. Rhea still holds many of the school’s pitching records. He was inducted into Milligan Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001 following a career that culminated with his first-team NAIA All-America selection in 1990.
“We just loved playing ball so much,” said A.R., also a star at Science Hill. “It was just a great group of guys. Honestly, I don’t think we thought about anything except playing baseball.”
They obviously thought a little bit about more than just baseball. He was an Academic All-American, an honor Jack is expected to achieve for this year.
A.R. was drafted in the 17th round by the Toronto Blue Jays and spent a year at St. Catharines, where he did well enough, posting a 3.22 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 44 innings.
His career ended during his second spring training when he found out he was not being promoted to Myrtle Beach and asked for his release. Other teams were interested, but when the Blue Jays would not release him, he requested a plane ticket home.
He wanted to continue school to become a physical therapist.
“I was trying to get into PT school while trying to play baseball,” he said. “I was kind of like ‘Let’s see what happens. If I get in, I need to go unless I really set the world on fire.’ While I did OK, I wasn’t setting the world on fire.
“At spring training, I was like, ‘This is the time to get out,’ because I saw so many guys that have three, four, five years in and they’re getting released. They’re 25, 26 years old and they’re trying to figure out what to do. I thought, ‘Now is my time.’ ”
Rhea went back to school, this time at Tennessee in Memphis and earned an advanced degree in physical therapy.
“I gave it my best,” he said. “I thought I was good. I just kind of thought it was going to be a long road with minimal chance to make it. I needed to make a smart decision. I honestly really never regretted it.”
These days the 51-year- old A.R. enjoys watching Jack on the golf course. The younger Rhea just finished — or didn’t finish — his senior year at ETSU, where he led the team with a 72.29 stroke average.
Jack won the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate at Blackthorn Club, his home course. His second-round 63 equaled the lowest round in the 22-year history of an event that has featured numerous players who have gone on to win professional majors.
It all added up to an All-America season.
“That has been one of my goals since I started college, but really at the beginning of this year,” Jack Rhea said. “I was really happy.”
When the NCAA canceled the spring sports seasons because of the novel coronavirus, Rhea and his teammates were denied a chance to fulfill their potential. The Bucs were ranked 26th nationally — Rhea was 36th individually — when the season was halted.
“As a team we were pretty good,” he said. “This spring we were starting to play some really nice team golf and we were looking forward to the postseason.
“It definitely stinks the way it ended, not only for me, but for the rest of the guys, too.”
Rhea said he’s not sure if he’ll take the NCAA up on its offer of an extra year of eligibility for spring sports athletes. Turning professional is on his mind, but the national-level amateur tournaments are all up in the air right now.
“I’d like to at least try to play professional golf and see how it goes,” he said.
When Jack Rhea began playing junior golf and then for Science Hill, A.R. — a former club champion himself at Blackthorn Club — could see the potential.
“Honestly, I guess it was early on that I recognized that he was very talented in golf,” A.R. Rhea said. “He loved baseball and basketball, too, but I could see early on that he could have a chance at a really high level in golf. From a very early age, he just hit the ball so solidly — a lot.”
Dad caddied for son at times throughout the years. He was on the bag in Chicago when Jack qualified to play in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. They also teamed up to win the East Tennessee Amateur in 2016.
Along the way, Jack said he learned some valuable lessons from his dad.
“Just to be competitive and be an athlete,” he said. “It wasn’t anything really technical. What he instilled in me was to be a competitor. And we are very competitive with each other.”
And now they’re both All-Americans.