The ‘Dale Earnhardt of Knoxville’: How a big arm, a bigger personality (and sweet mustache) are making a legend

The ‘Dale Earnhardt of Knoxville’: How a big arm, a bigger personality (and sweet mustache) are making a legend

Sports


OMAHA, Nebraska — Jesse James Pulley started his first round of chemotherapy the day the ballplayers visited. The 9-year-old had just been diagnosed with Stage III Burkitt lymphoma, and everything was new and terrifying. Upon hearing the news of her son’s cancer a week earlier, Leann Pulley blacked out.

June 4 was the day Jesse met Kirby Connell and Zander Sechrist at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, three days before the Tennessee Volunteers played in super regionals. Sechrist is a starting pitcher on the No. 1-ranked Vols; Connell is one of the most popular people in Knoxville with his big arm, big personality and handlebar mustache that he curls for baseball games. Tennessee calls on the high-leverage reliever when things get hairy, which is appropriate. Perhaps no one on the team is hairier than the long-locked Connell.

Jesse James Pulley is shy when he’s around people he doesn’t know, his mom said, but when Connell and Sechrist — along with Tennessee pitchers AJ Russell and Austin Hunley — walked into the room, he lit up.

“What are you doing, dude?” Connell asked him and shook his hand.

Jesse was playing Mario Kart, and Russell challenged him to a game. But Connell did not root for his teammate. He cheered on Jesse, giving him pep talks all the way.

“It’s his first round of chemo. He was scared,” Leann said. “To see someone come in and lift his spirits like that … I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s just like a tingling feeling to see your child happy, with someone who they look up to.”

Before they left, the pitchers signed a baseball for Jesse. Connell scribbled his name right below Sechrist’s.

Jesse can’t play little league baseball — his asthma is too bad so he has had to wait. But every time he goes to the hospital for treatment, he packs that ball, and tosses it back and forth from his bed. One time, Leann suggested her son bring a different ball so the autographs wouldn’t get smudged.

“No, mom,” he told her.

“They gave me this one.”


THE CITY OF Knoxville is gaga over their Volunteers, and no one is more beloved than Connell.

But it’s hard to write a story about Connell without Sechrist because they’re the elder statesmen who have nine combined years of the good times and bad. Most importantly, they’re always around each other. Perhaps you’ve seen them in Knoxville, eating out at Texas Roadhouse, Chipotle or Chick-Fil-A. Or at the dais holding mock news conferences, feeding off each others’ jokes, enjoying these last few days together.

They’re roommates on the road and goofballs in the bullpen and dugout, that is, until it’s time to toe the slab. Their final game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium earlier this month was a true measure of what Connell and Sechrist have meant to the team, the UT community, and to each other.

With the Vols in a 1-1 super regional series with Evansville, and a trip to the Men’s College World Series on the line, Sechrist earned the start for Game 3. He was in command throughout, scattering six hits and one run over 6⅓ innings. Two innings later, with Tennessee up 12-1, Connell came in relief in the ninth essentially to say goodbye to his adoring fans, facing one batter, striking him out and leaving to an ovation.

After the game, Sechrist said this to reporters about Connell: “We’ve been through hell together. He’ll be at my wedding, he’ll be at my funeral. He’ll always be there for me. That friendship will never die.”

But before all that sentimental business, there was a little drama. Vols assistant coach Richard Jackson said that Sechrist was supposed to exit after the sixth inning. He had thrown 100 pitches, after all.

Sechrist, riding an adrenaline high, had Connell run to the bullpen to give Jackson a message: Sechrist wasn’t coming out of the game. He said he knew he could get the next batter out, and he did, with just two pitches. Then he took a seat.

“I’ve never had somebody send a player down and say ‘Hey, don’t open that gate for anyone when we go back out there,'” Jackson said. “It took me a second to kind of process it.

“You 100% have to earn that, and he’s put together the career that he has earned the right to do that.”

As much as Connell lobbies for his friend, he is also quick to point out that Sechrist can act … unconventional on the mound.

“He just does non-baseball things,” Connell said. “Like he jumps around, spins around, draws things in the air. Like, nobody will be around him and he’ll be yelling. He chews way too much bubble gum. That’s just like a few things.”

Connell said in super regionals, when Sechrist got out of a bases-loaded jam, he stood in the dugout and yelled the words “lemon squeeze.”

Sechrist said he was amped up and blurted out whatever was on his mind. He has no idea why he said that, however.

“Maybe,” Connell said, “he was thinking about making lemonade later.”


THEY MET DURING COVID-19. Neither pitcher was a big-name recruit, but both wound up helping set the culture for a program that has made it to three Men’s College World Series in the past four years. Connell, who’s now a grad student, was a sophomore in 2021 when he met Sechrist, then a freshman. Connell’s partner ditched him one day, so he started throwing with Sechrist.

That year was also when the mustache first appeared, although in a more subdued form.

“And then it just got longer and longer,” Connell said, “and just kind of fell into the brand. You know, a lot of people knew me as the guy with the mustache. So I had to keep it and now it’s just kind of gotten a little out of hand.

“It’s really long. Sometimes it gets into my mouth.”

The waxed handlebar mustache is reminiscent of another legendary reliever, Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers. Connell said he has watched video of Fingers pitching. He has also earned the nickname “Vollie Fingers.”

“He’s like the Dale Earnhardt of Knoxville, Tennessee,” Sechrist said. “Everybody around here is going to cheer for him no matter where he’s at in life, no matter what team he’s on.

“I remember one time he told a kid at LSU that he shaves [his mustache] before every weekend, and it grows back in three days. And the kid believed him, which was hilarious. That mustache … you can’t unsee it.”

Connell has made an even bigger name for himself on the mound. He has appeared in a school-record 125 games, carrying a 3.12 ERA in his five-year career with 145 strikeouts, 27 walks and 130 hits with a 10-2 record.

His appearance in Sunday’s MCWS game against North Carolina came at a pivotal moment, in the sixth inning with two runners on and no outs with the Vols up 4-1. He escaped the inning unscathed, forcing a fielder’s choice, catching a runner stealing and striking out Gavin Gallaher.

“I’d much rather be a relief pitcher than a starter,” Connell said. “I’m not going to lie. I’m also weird. I’d much rather come in with the bases loaded and no outs than start an inning.

“There’s a lot of pressure built up. But you know, pressure makes diamonds.”


SECHRIST SAYS CONNELL will always be remembered in Tennessee because of all the charity work he has done. Patients from the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital throw out the ceremonial first pitch at UT games, and Connell volunteered to be the catcher.

He would encourage the children and put them at ease. When visiting the hospital, he made it a point to engage with as many patients as he could.

Chelsea Smith, a child life specialist at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, called Connell’s visits a “game-changer” for the children.

“They’re not going to look back at this challenging season in their lives when they were hospitalized and remember chemotherapy drips, the vomiting, IVs, the ports,” Smith said. “They’re going to remember these baseball players playing video games with them, telling jokes with them, fist-bumping them, giving them a signed baseball.

“That’s why this kind of work really matters. I’m so grateful for what Kirby did.”

Jesse James Pulley likes that Connell is a lefty like him. He loves Connell’s long hair and mustache. Jesse will lose his hair soon because of his treatments, and he wanted to dye it blue before it happened. So now he has blue hair.

He will watch the games when he can, rooting for a Tennessee team that has never won a Men’s College World Series but is just one win away from making the championship series. And he’ll look for his favorite player.

“That feeling you get, it’s like a safe feeling,” Leann Pulley said. “I know that’s really weird to describe. But it’s like he’s been doing it his whole life.

“He’s like a big best brother.”



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