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Olympian takes over local business

Aric Long recently purchased the Maple Grove restaurant. Long brings a successful athletic career with him to Unicoi County, including being an Olympian and a successful career for the University of Tennessee.(Contributed photos)

By Trey Williams

Wheaties aren’t on the menu at the Maple Grove, but an Olympian decathlete owns it now.

Aric Long, a decathlete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1991 NCAA national champion while competing for the Tennessee Volunteers, purchased the restaurant in March. His mother-in-law, Diane Powers, is his partner.

It’s been a rocky start, to say the least, but only because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We bought it on March 3 and two weeks after that the corona hit and we had to shut down,” Long said with a bemused chuckle.

In hindsight, the period of carry-out orders and even now, when he’s chosen to only use 50 percent dining capacity, has provided an invaluable acclimation period – almost like a dry run.

“In the long run it’ll help us serve our community better,” Long said, “because we understand what they need. Our food is scratch-made every morning. About 5 a.m. or 5:15 our prep people come in. …

“We’ve got a recipe book that was passed down from Jerry Vance. He was not the original owner but he held it for the longest time. They were pen and paper – some old crinkled up paper. … We tweaked, I would say, 25 percent of them. But the original recipes work and we wouldn’t wanna change that. The recipes are written. They’ll be for sale when I sell this thing in 20 years.”

Long grew up in a football family along the Ohio River in East Liverpool, Ohio. His father Larry was on the Cleveland Browns practice squad in the early to mid-1960s. His brother Larry Jr. played football at Navy and his younger brother Shawn was on two of Jim Tressel’s national championship teams at Youngstown State.

Aric was a 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker with 4.7 speed. A coach at Wisconsin said running track would improve his speed. And after running track, when he spoke with the Wisconsin coach again on a home visit, Long realized he didn’t want to continue playing football, which had already led to shoulder and knee surgeries.

“I kind of broke down and said, ‘Man, I really don’t wanna play football,’” Long said. “He said, ‘Seven-foot high jumpers are a dime a dozen. You really need to be a decathlete.’ But the Big Ten didn’t have the decathlon at that point. So he contacted the University of Tennessee. He knew coach Bill Webb, a premier decathlon coach who’s coached I don’t know how many Olympians. Me being one of I think five or six.”

Long visited Tennessee the following week.

“When I flew into Knoxville I just knew it was home,” Long said. “The Tennessee River, I grew up on the Ohio River in the country. We farmed. We bailed hay. We hung tobacco. All those kinds of things growing up. It just looked pretty and I think I gave verbal commitment the day I left to come to the University of Tennessee.”

After enrolling at UT, Long won a national juniors title at Ohio State, earning a spot in the Pan American Juniors Championships in Argentina. He finished first there as well.

At Tennessee he finished sixth in the nationals as a sophomore in Raleigh, North Carolina, and immediately decided to dedicate himself on and off the track.

“My sophomore year I took sixth in the NCAAs and I knew I wasn’t a sixth-place athlete,” Long said. “I had to be No. 1. So there were a lot of lifestyle changes. My junior year, I guess, was the tipping point of where I became a world class athlete.”

Long won the NCAA title the following year in Eugene, Oregon.

“From sixth to first in one year is pretty good,” Long said. “And I scored probably 700-800 more points than I’d scored ever, which is probably 75 points per event.”

The Olympics in Barcelona the following year were as forgettable as they were unforgettable. Long partially tore an Achilles while competing and was unable to finish. But the pageantry was surreal, and it was the first year of the “Dream Team” men’s basketball team.

“The Dream Team was awesome,” Long said. “Everybody showed up except Michael Jordan to Opening Ceremonies. And I just got chills, because the Opening Ceremonies – you see it on TV, but behind the scenes where they’re stacking everybody up at the Olympic Stadium and every country in the world is trying to get to the U.S. It was amazing. We’ve got guards all around us.

“Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and The Admiral, David Robinson – they were all in the mix with us. And we’ve got tons of pictures with those guys. You know, Michael Jordan was maybe too famous and didn’t need the Olympic experience, but a lot of those guys did. Chris Mullin. They were all down on the field with us.”

A new tradition was started that year, rolling the flag over all the athletes at the Opening Ceremonies.

As for the injury-shortened performance, Long is philosophical.

“It led me to where I am today,” Long said. “God has a plan for everything that you do. And me partially tearing my Achilles the first day’s second event – there was a plan. I wish it was a different plan, but that’s not my decision.”

Long competed abroad for a while in places such as Japan and Germany.

He also began in the restaurant business nearly 30 years ago. He met his wife, the former Christy Powers, a Unicoi County alumnus, some nine years ago.

Not long after Christy had his heart, so did Northeast Tennessee.

“I’d come up here and hunt and fish,” he said. “I fell in love with this area. I ate at the Maple Grove and the old Clarence’s when it was there all the time. I was like, ‘I need to buy one of these restaurants.’ I’d been in the restaurant business for 30 years and I thought, ‘I’d like to buy one of these eventually and get my wife close to home.’”

Long is optimistic about the Maple Grove, where country cooking and friendly folks have made it an area fixture.

However, Long isn’t crazy about mentioning his track and field career when discussing restaurant ownership.

“It’s my hangup, not anyone else’s,” he said. “I want it to succeed because I run a good, clean restaurant. And secondary would be that I happen to be an Olympian. But I guess being an Olympian would hopefully let them know that I’m not gonna fail. I’m 100 percent dedicated. …

“I could shake your hand once, but if I give you bad service or cold food or old food, it’s never gonna work. I just want them to know I’m dedicated to providing them quality food.”