By Rick Sheek
Hammerin’ Hank was the epitome of the Major Leagues 40 years ago.
When Atlanta Braves star right fielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record with 715 shots in 1974, that was a day cemented on the map of great moments in sports history. His record of 755 homers stood for more than three decades, when he was surpassed by Barry Bonds in the steroid era.
Aaron remains active in community relations. “The Hank Aaron Chasing The Dream Foundation” sponsors 44 youngsters around the country in their athletic and academic endeavors.
One of those kids is Elizabethton 10-year-old Lily Sewell, an aspiring East Side Elementary student and talented gymnast.
The young lady became educated by the Hall-of- Famer’s accomplishments when he presented her with his autobiography: “I Had A Hammer.”
“She started reading through it, and figured out who he was,” Eric Sewell, her father, said. “She really realized this guy was a player. Once she got the book, and started reading the book.”
Obviously, Ms. Sewell didn’t know who the man was who was benefitting her future.
“At first I didn’t, but then once my Dad told me about him,” Sewell said. “At first I thought he was just an ordinary guy, just meeting him, until I got the book he passed out to everybody. Then I started reading it, and found out a lot of things I didn’t know about him — so at first I didn’t really know him.”
Her father was a 30-year employee of of the Johnson City Boys & Girls Club, so the connection was established.
“He started out doing it for the Boys & Girls Club,” Eric Sewell said. “We got signed up here, and she made the 44. It is based on your grades, it’s based on your ability and how this scholarship is going to help you advance and what you’re going to do.
“No matter what it is – horseback riding, piano, guitar, singing — it doesn’t matter. He will sponsor it.”
The Sewell family traveled to New Orleans a year ago to meet Aaron. All 44 of the sponsored kids were present, including one from Japan.
“They had a blast, at the Boys & Girls Club national conference,” Eric Sewell said. “His number was 44, so he sponsors 44 kids.”
Aaron was one homer shy of tying Ruth’s record when the 1973 season ended. He commented he wasn’t sure he would live to the next spring, the thought of a black man surpassing “The Babe.”
But like the statue that now stands in front of Atlanta’s Turner Field represents, Aaron succeeded and hasn’t let that controversy affect his efforts.
“He was a class act, unbelievable,” Eric Sewell said. “He is a man above men. When you get to be that old you’d think he’d start fizzling out, but he was thicker than wood.”
Eric said another family member will hopefully be added to this program in the near future. That is with the help of Jeff Reed, a local resident and 16-year veteran of the majors.
“Hank won’t sign autographs, or anything like that, but he signed a baseball and a book for each of the participants,” Eric Sewell said. “This is her second year and next year her brother (Evan) is going to be sponsored by Hank Aaron.”
Lily placed 10th in the nationals last year in her age division of gymnasitics competition, fourth in the Southeast Region and second in the state.
“This is tremendous, absolutely tremendous,” Eric Sewell said. “An opportunity for her, she gets to go all of the competitions. The scholarship pays for her to get some extra help.
“It helps pay for the competitions she gets to enter. Whereas if it was region and she had to pay, she wouldn’t get the opportunity.”
Available for the members, all under 18, Lily is the youngest of the 44.
“It wants me to keep competing, and keep doing gymnastics until I get to the college level,” Sewell said. “Then maybe above college, to the Olympics.”
Sewell already has her sights set on Gainesville. That would be the University of Florida.
“In fact, the scholarship helped her spend a day with the Florida gymnastics team,” her father said. “She met the coaches. She got to spend the whole day at the gym.”
Sewell was pumped about the experience.
“I got to meet their coach, Rhonda Payne,” she said. “And I got to meet all of the girls so I could take my picture with them.”
Her father noticed the impression left.
“She got to watch their routines,” Eric Sewell said. “She got to watch their practice. It was motivating, for her. That’s all she talked about, how it motivated her.”
And he stresses the whole Aaron Foundation impact is huge. His daughter trains at Meadowview in Kingsport.
“It made a big difference in her, in her wanting to stay involved,” the father said. “That’s the big thing that’s motivated her enough to, when everybody else is having fun and doing all of this other stuff, she keeps focused on going to the gym. She goes to the gym four days a week, for three-and-half hours a day, so she’s giving up 14 hours a week in the gym.
“Just being inspirational, and for her to meet Hank Aaron in person, it really started sinking in. This guy is the real deal, and he is so down to earth. You never would know who he was.”