Jeff Pardue and Todd Whittemore first crossed paths back in 1988. Pardue, one the best basketball players ever at Johnson County High School met Whittemore, an incoming transfer from Southern Connecticut University, during their playing days together at King College. Almost 25 years later, the duo remains teammates.

As a transfer, Whittemore wasn’t yet eligible to play while Pardue was out rehabbing a knee injury. “We were the only two guys that could practice but couldn’t play,” remembered Whittemore. “I think that was the start of our friendship - non-playing teammates.”

Pardue and Whittemore eventually played out their eligibility and both entered the same profession following their days with the Tornado, but coaching life took each on much different paths. Pardue spent 15 years in the collegiate ranks serving the likes of Coastal Carolina, LaGrange [Georgia], Lees-McRae and eventually for two years as head women’s coach at Maryville College. Whittemore is in his 17th year of coaching and served ten years as the boys’ coach at Volunteer High School. Whittemore loves it, but Pardue didn’t.

“I loved basketball as a player, but I could never love it as much as a coach as I did a player,” Pardue said. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences with both winning teams and losing teams and I’ve learned a lot from both, but I don’t want to coach anymore. It’s a thankless job, the only thing worse I can think of is being a pastor. Those guys have the toughest job there is in my opinion.”

So Pardue called it quits and returned to his hometown looking for a different challenge in 2008. Eighteen months later, Whittemore’s career took an unusual twist as well, one that brought him to Mountain City as coach of the Johnson County Lady Longhorns.

“I can’t stop coaching…I don’t know what I would do. That’s my calling,” smiled Whittemore. “So I show up last year and we are brought together here – I’m from New York, he’s from here. We met in January of 1988 when I bought a one-way ticket to Tri-Cities Airport and met up with him at King College. And now 25 years later, we end up in Mountain City together.”

Some call that a coincidence, Pardue calls it a plan.

“We are so thankful and feel like God has given us this opportunity – the way it happened, the way it fell into place,” added Pardue.

The opportunity was a chance to build a business together. Harkening back to his days as a youngster working in a New York pizzeria in his hometown of Glen Falls, New York, Whittemore convinced Pardue of a similar concept in Mountain City.

The business partners spent much time planning every detail of the venture – even agonizing night after night on the name of the new restaurant.

Finally, Pardue, drawing upon some comments from his basketball-playing sister who mused about being the best teammate she could be for her team, Pardue came up with Teammates Pizza.

“Jeff came over.. again…one night and said he had an idea,” recalls Whittemore. “Within about ten seconds, I knew that was it and we were done. That was it right there.”

For Pardue, Teammates Pizza is much more than just a name of a restaurant.

“Teammates Pizza indicates mine and Todd’s history together,” Pardue explained. “It proves what teammates can be. Todd and I have known each other for a long time but we’re very different in personality and we’re from a very different geographic location. But we have been able to build a lasting relationship and we’re good teammates and we always have been.

“Teammates is a philosophy and concept that in our society we need to grasp. It has great meaning in my opinion. For us, we want to offer our community a quality and pleasant dining option and we want to add value to our community through our restaurant as teammates for 25 years.”

The restaurant recently opened at 301 West Main Street in Mountain City to capacity crowds and very satisfied customers. A recent Sunday trip to Teammates Pizza found the new restaurant packed with the after-church crowd.

Still yet, our large party was quickly seated and treated to outstanding service, a bountiful, fresh salad bar and some of the most delicious pizza one will ever devour.

Teammates Pizza features a 59-item fresh salad bar that includes three different types of lettuce and eight options of dressing. The pizzas are New York style and brick-oven baked with a specialty blend of cheeses. Also on the menu are fries, subs and an expanding desert menu that now features made from scratch cheese cakes. Daily lunch specials are also available.

“We are adding menu items almost every day and there are still some items that we’d like to add to the salad bar,” notes Pardue while taking a break as the Sunday lunch crowd thinned.

The restaurant is already becoming a favorite of the local youth thanks to the three 46” flat screen TV’s and team room complete with a free-play Wii system.

“We want this to be a place where parents can be comfortable when their kids come here,”  Whittemore said. “Where else around here can you go and watch three different things without a full bar? We think that’s a plus.”

The Wii room also serves as a team room complete with a DVD player where Whittemore brings his Lady Longhorns in to review game film.

While teammates certainly conjures up sports connotations, Pardue says Teammates Pizza isn’t a sports-only themed restaurant.

“We are all teammates,” explained Pardue. “The guys at the Exxon are a team. The teachers at school are team, the tellers at the bank are a team. We want to broaden the concept of teammates to all walks of life.

“A teammate is unselfish and doesn’t think of themselves. They think of the team as being something bigger than themselves.”

“The word teammates means a lot,” added Whittemore. “Look at me and Jeff. We started as teammates at King College and we are still teammates in this business venture all these years later.

“We have been so blessed.”

• Teammates Pizza is open six days a week [closed Tuesdays] from 11:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Takeout orders are available at 423-727-1022. Teammates Pizza is also easily accessible via any of the Tri-Cities by way of a short drive up to Abingdon, over to the quaint town of Damascus and then South through the National Forest to Mountain City or through Elizabethton, Hampton and around the beautiful Watauga Lake and into Mountain City. With snow now capping the surrounding mountains, either drive over is spectacular.