Recently, I finally got around to reading the late Pat Conroy’s excellent book “My Losing Season,” how his senior year of playing basketball at The Citadel gave him the foundation for greater things, even though they lost more games than they won.
Sports can provide wonderful life lessons, no matter whether you win or lose. Or even if you never played the game.
My alma mater University of Georgia will soon play Notre Dame in football for only the second time in the school’s history. The first time? Ah, the first time. That wonderful first time. That was the exclamation point to a winning season all right, especially for a junior Grady College student who had a front row seat to UGA history, in charge of the most important morning sports section his hometown would ever see. A front row seat, as it also turned out, for the fading glory days of newspapers.
I’ve wanted to be a reporter since my father began passing me the Athens Banner-Herald each day after he got home from work and I got off the school bus. It would arrive in our mailbox around 4 PM, filled with AP stories about the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate, plus local stories covering student protests and the civil rights movement. Newspaper reporters got to see important things before anyone else, I realized. They truly were writers of the first draft of history.
The summer before my sophomore year at UGA, my childhood friend Roger Whiddon helped me get my first paid job in journalism. My beat: covering Little League baseball for both Athens newspapers.
Don’t laugh. With the college students gone in the summer, Little League was the only sport around. So I made those 12-year-olds into print legends. Lead stories and sidebars every day. Big headlines and photos. I even picked my own all-star team. Some of my superstars included Robbie Kamerschen, now a successful Atlanta attorney, and David Perno, the future coach of UGA’s baseball team.
I would eventually parlay the prestigious job of Little League Editor into a year-round part-time sports writing job, mainly covering high school and college sports.
The material wasn’t that important. The key was learning how to write under deadline, day after day, double-checking facts, writing with color and active verbs. Writing fast. The Athens Daily News was the morning paper. The Athens Banner-Herald came out in the afternoons. (The afternoon paper had already generated national attention when Pope John Paul II was chosen right before deadline, a rare non-Italian pope. The caption for the main photo read “Election of a non-Catholic cardinal to the papacy was signaled Monday.” Now THAT would be a miracle.)
UGA has always had a first-rate journalism school. Looking back, though, my most influential journalism teachers in those college years were sports editors Billy Harper and Blake Giles, managers like Hank Johnson and Rick Parham. My favorite journalism class would wind up being that smoke-filled upstairs newsroom late at night pushing deadline, the AP printers clacking away their reports in a not-so-soundproof room while the printing presses roared to life in the basement two stories below. I would ultimately learn how to use pica sticks and blue pencils, how to avoid “widows and orphans” while pasting up the slicks with hot wax, using percentage wheels for the superb photos shot by Wingate Downs and Karekin Goekjian, the pressman bringing up the first papers literally hot off the presses for us to look over, and then finally seeing my work show up on my parents’ kitchen table the next morning. Day after day after glorious day.
My winning season would actually start in January, 1980, one year before the Notre Dame game. The sports department was buzzing about a high school running back out of Johnson County who was thinking about going to UGA. A guy with a funny first name.
“Has anyone here ever interviewed Herschel Walker?” I asked Harper, my sports editor.
“Nope. You want to?”
“Be my guest, son.”
Billy was not one for long conversations.
So after calling his coach to set up the interview, the next week I found myself driving south to Wrightsville in my 1968 Rambler to give our Athens readers their first sense of a man who would soon become the greatest college freshman tailback of all time.
I found the audio cassette of that interview the other day. I sound exactly like an 18-year-old Athens boy nervously conducting his first big interview with someone who was about the same age. Herschel? He sounds like Herschel. Here’s a portion:
Herschel would keep everyone guessing until Easter Sunday of 1980 when he finally signed his letter-of-intent with the University of Georgia.
By the time he walked onto campus that fall I was a junior, a fully-credentialed sports writer with passes to all the UGA home games. I still have them with all my other sports press passes crammed into an old AP teletype ribbon box.
The low man in the department didn’t get to cover the road games, so I missed Herschel’s debut against Bill Bates and Tennessee. Still, I got to witness his 283 yards against Vandy, 219 yards against South Carolina, 205 yards against Tech. Standing on the field as the seconds ticked down in that Vandy game I remember the student side screaming “Herschel!” The North Side screaming back “Walker!” It was the loudest I’d ever heard Sanford Stadium.
My bosses taught me to get to the athletes in the locker room before those rude TV guys took over. They made sure I knew no cheering if you’re wearing a pass. And I learned some of the wildest tips can sometimes be true.
After the Georgia Tech victory we all raced back to the newsroom to get our stories filed for the next morning’s big Sunday edition. City editor Mel Epps took a call from someone urgently asking to speak to a sports editor. I won’t say who took the call, but after talking to the tipster for a while, he hung up and briefed us.
“Some guy says he’s got it on good authority that Vince Dooley’s going to resign and take the Auburn job.”
We all laughed. Right. That’s really going to happen now that UGA is 11-0 and would soon play for the national championship.
Turned out, it almost did happen. A Birmingham newspaper broke the news two days later. Dooley only changed his mind and decided to stay after he was promised the Athletic Director job at UGA.
To this day, I don’t laugh at those crazy-but-maybe-it’s-true tips until I check them out.
Since I was still low-man in the sports department, that meant I got left behind for the Sugar Bowl, too. Blake and Billy went along with my pal Roger and Linton Johnson, the prep editor and a fellow UGA student. (And as it turns out, another UGA student named Joan DeProspero would also make it to New Orleans after camping out all night on campus for Sugar Bowl tickets. I would meet her a year later and, in 1984, she’d change her name to Joan Travis.)
Instead of going to the Crescent City, I was assigned to put out the sports section, a 19-year-old college kid in charge of designing the layout, getting the copy filed and, perhaps most important of all, writing the headlines.
So on January 1, 1981, I watched the Sugar Bowl from 1 Press Place in Athens, squinting at a tiny television perched on top of the newsroom mailboxes. I watched Herschel separate his shoulder on one of his first carries, but still finish with 150 yards against a Notre Dame defense that hadn’t given up 100 yards to a running back all season. I watched Buck Belue miss on his first 11 pass attempts, but complete his final attempt on a 3rd and 7 to my fellow Cedar Shoals High School alum Amp Arnold. Buck needed 7 yards to keep the drive alive at the end of game. He got seven yards. Georgia beat Notre Dame 17-10.
After the victory, we had to come up with a clever headline. I wasn’t in charge of the front page headline. I think it was Mel, who passed away last year, who wrote “Sugar as Sweet as Irish Stew.” That one has held up over the years.
I went the safer route. “The formula: 12-0 = No. 1” My other headlines on that page do not qualify as my proudest creative moments.
Herschel would go on to play two more seasons before a millionaire named Donald Trump would steal him away for the USFL instead of playing his senior year. If he had stayed, Herschel would have set college career rushing records that could never, ever be broken. Sadly, that’s not fake news.
I went on to become sports editor of the rival Athens Observer my senior year. But it would be that Winning Season of 1980, with all that deadline writing pressure, that would help a guy who didn’t look old enough to vote somehow land his first TV reporting job.
My major was broadcast news. Even though I loved newspapers, I worried about their future. Even as a teenager, I could see trouble ahead for print.
Since then, the Athens Observer has closed its doors. So has the Athens Daily News. These days, the Athens Banner-Herald is the morning paper. Years ago they moved out of their familiar location at the corner of Broad and Thomas. Recently, corporate owner Morris Communications announced it had sold the Banner-Herald. At some point – probably soon I imagine – the newspaper will go all digital like many others across the country. Printing and delivery costs continue to go up while circulation numbers continue to fall. In fact, nationwide newspaper circulation numbers have dropped to 1940s levels. And we have a lot more people in this country now.
One day we’ll be telling the next generation about newspapers like our grandparents talked to us about milk delivered right to their doorstep each morning. And like us, it will be hard for them to imagine.
I’m one of the few in my neighborhood who still gets a newspaper delivered every day. I like the touch. Even the smell. The ability to scan large amounts of information using only my eyes and not my finger. Every so often, I get a whiff that takes me back to those teenage years when my journalism career was still unwritten. Scary, sure, but seemingly limitless.
Looking forward to seeing the newspaper that lands on my driveway September 10, 2017, the day after Georgia plays Notre Dame for the first time in 36 years.
Can’t wait to read the headlines.