Mike Cobb

Mike Cobb

From state championships to Super Bowls, broken hearts to breakthrough years, he’s witnessed just about everything possible on a Polk County sports field.

Mike Cobb sums up his nearly 50 year career as a sports journalist for the Ledger simply.

“I think I’ve written something about everyone who has ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “It has always amazed me the amount of athletic talent that comes from Polk County. It made my job easy – there has never been a shortage of people or events to write about.”

Born in Indianapolis, sports – and sports writing – have almost always been a part of his life.

“I wrote sports for the junior high school paper, and was the sports editor in high school. By my senior year in high school, I knew I wanted to be a sports writer,” he said. “At the same time, I led the high school baseball team in hitting and pitching.”

Courted by both scouts and other schools, a Christmas time trip to Florida – and the campus of Florida Southern – sealed his future.

“I’d been writing with Coach Hall Smeltzly, since a friend of mind was here,” he said. “I visited and met with the coach. He offered me some scholarship money on the spot. I didn’t realize when I came to the school in 1970 I’d really spend the rest of my life in Lakeland, and writing about Coach Smeltzly and Chuck Anderson. It was an honor covering both of them – they were great coaches who really influenced me.”

And while he played on those back-to-back national championship teams in 1971 and 1972, it wasn’t easy.

“I like to say I was the seventh pitcher on a three man staff,” he said. “We had two All-Americans, and Jay Smith held the strikeout record. Greg Pryor played 10 years in the Majors. I got a little bit of action in tournaments, but my main contribution was throwing batting practice.”

Shoulder issues his sophomore year may have cut his baseball career short, but didn’t hamper his time covering sports at all.

“I was majoring in journalism at Florida Southern, and now I had some time,” he said. “My junior year, March of 1973, I started working as a stringer (freelance writer) for the Ledger.”

By the Fall of 1974, Cobb was a full-time Ledger sports writer, thanks to local sports legend Pat Zier. Also about that time, a certain someone came into his life.

“Marnee and I knew each other in college, but never dated,” he said. “She was teaching at Bartow junior high, and it was late August. Her first check wasn’t until the end of September. So I would buy food, and she’d cook it. That led to going out on dates. A year later, we married – coming up on our 49th anniversary in July.”

Starting off covering high school sports, his first game was at Winter Haven.

“Rick Dantzler was the quarterback,” he said. “Of course, he’d go on to run for governor.”

An illustration of Cobb’s career can be seen through Lakeland’s Wayne Peace. Cobb not only covered him while he was a quarterback at the University of Florida during his time as a beat writer for the Gators, but also when he played for the Tampa Bay Bandits, coached by former Florida quarterback Steve Spurrier. Later, he’d be on the field covering a Lakeland Christian School football game during Peace’s 50th birthday.

“I told Wayne I first wrote about him when he was 14 playing basketball at Crystal Lake Junior High,” said Cobb. “He replied, ‘Man, you are old.’”

Another great Cobb watched early on is a current Major League Baseball star.

“I was coaching my son’s AAU fall baseball team,” he said. “We had a practice, and my friend Jimmy Rutledge told me I had to see this kid play. So I can say I followed Andrew McCutchen since he was 10.”

“Steve Pearce, Chris Sale – it is interesting to write about local athletes, then watch them excel in the college and off into the pros,” he said.

In 2008, Cobb may have left the field, but never left sports. Working behind the scenes, Cobb is considered an innovator in digital media, having created Polk Preps – along with Brant Merrit and Barry Friedman.

“It was one of the more enjoyable things I’d done at the Ledger,” he said. “Readers online can get information about sports anywhere. But we were the website for Polk County sports, and that’s a real special connection to the community.”

Retiring shy of 60, Cobb quickly found a new love – senior softball.

“Until a recent injury, I played in Lakeland’s senior softball, a little bit in Winter Haven, semi-regularly in Brandon and on a tournament team for the past 11 years, the Florida Mustangs,” he said. “We finished second in the national Tournament of Champions a couple of times, and won Winter Nationals in Fort Myers.”

As for writing, Mike slowed down about a year and a half ago.

“Over 50 years, I wrote 15,000 stories. Average story is about 300 words…so more than 5 million words in total,” he said. “I think I’ve finally ran out of words.”

He’s never run out of accolades from his peers, having taken home 30 different writing awards, from national Associated Press awards, several Florida Press awards, and, in 2003, the Florida Sports Writers Association’s Shelby Strother Award.

Mike and Marnee have a daughter, Cara and son-in-law Eric, as well as a son, David, and daughter in law Liz. Together they have four grandchildren, three girls and a boy.