My Winning Season

20170903_172954

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.

softball charity game
Some of my fellow sports writers from Athens. Sports editor Blake Giles (79), city editor Rick Parham (28) and my longtime friend Roger Whiddon with the backwards baseball cap and goofy grin helped launch my reporting career. Roger left us way too early. (Photo by Wingate Downs)

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.

Banner-Herald Little League

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?”

“Can I?”

“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.

20170821_101915_resized
Unfortunately, I never got a pass for the most important game that season. The Sugar Bowl.

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.

Jan 2, 1981 Athens Daily News Front Page
This front page still hangs in some Athens sports bars. Time for some new headlines.

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.

IMG_0442
The morning sports section after Georgia’s biggest victory.

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.

20170904_130817_resized

Advertisements

Private matters

As far as questions go, they don’t get much simpler.

When was Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro going to have his deportation hearing?

The 26-year-old Lawrenceville man had come up in our investigation about immigrants busted multiple times for drunk driving, yet still allowed to stay in the country.

Lara-Rostro was on his third DUI before the Mexican-born high school dropout was finally detained by immigration authorities in 2015. He had already been convicted of drunk driving in 2012 and 2013. His last arrest happened after he led Lilburn police on a chase through their city late one night, running multiple red lights, eventually crashing in a ditch.

“He’s all over the road,” you can hear one deputy radioing dispatch. “If he doesn’t stop he’s going to kill somebody.”

lara-rostro-running-red-light
Lara-Rostro ran multiple red lights and eventually landed in a ditch after a late-night police chase.

I wasn’t sure whether Lara-Rostro was here legally. According to the court transcript, he claimed he was a resident alien. His family told me he was born in Mexico but here legally. Plus, he had a deportation hearing coming up that Friday. They didn’t know what time. They really didn’t want to talk to a reporter.

Turns out, they were just as helpful as the immigration folks.

“What time is Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro’s deportation hearing?” I asked the public information officer for the Executive Office of Immigration Review. That’s the section of the Justice Department over the immigration courts.

The PIO said she couldn’t tell me without a signed privacy waiver from Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, a man I calmly pointed out happened to currently be in federal custody.

I had entered the sometimes maddening world of immigration courts, where privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

If any of us is ever arrested and charged with a crime, the records are public. That includes the date and time of any court hearing.

But the immigration courts aren’t part of the judicial branch of government. They’re considered an administrative proceeding under the Department of Justice. And when you’re being administratively deported, you have automatic privacy rights, even if they don’t make a lot of sense.

I had Lara-Rostro’s immigration identification number from some other documents I’d obtained. With that, the PIO confirmed he had a deportation hearing that Friday. But she couldn’t tell me the time without that waiver.

When I got down to immigration court the next day, Lara-Rostro’s hearing was already over. Yet there was the time posted on the bulletin board where anyone could see if they walked in that day. 8:30 AM. So why couldn’t someone tell me that the day before?

Privacy.

What happened in the hearing? Was Lara-Rostro deported? Judge Michael Baird was friendly, but said he couldn’t tell me. Privacy. Neither could the public information officer unless I produced that signed waiver from Lara-Rostro.

In his controversial immigration executive order, President Trump said he would order agencies to exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act. But that might not have helped in a case like Lara-Rostro who apparently had legal status to be here.

Luckily, as an investigative reporter I had other ways to get the information, ways the general public probably wouldn’t know about. More on that in a minute.

immigration-building-1
You won’t find a sign for the Atlanta Immigration Court on Ted Turner Drive, but it’s familiar territory for immigrants in trouble.

Even with the privacy concerns, most deportation proceedings are open to the public. Cameras are not allowed. So a few days later I sat in on judge Baird’s master calendar. They take place in an unmarked dark brick building in downtown Atlanta near the city detention center. That makes sense since many of those held on immigration charges are housed there.

Judge Baird’s tiny courtroom was filled with detainees wearing orange jumpsuits with ACDC stenciled on the back. Others appeared via closed circuit television from ICE’s detention center in Irwin County. Most could only speak Spanish and used an interpreter who sat to the judge’s left. When a detainee answered “si” to a judge’s question the interpreter always said “that’s right” instead of “yes.” She said “that’s right” a lot. Few of the immigrants that morning disagreed with the evidence against them.

Maria Morales appeared by video. She was brought here illegally from Mexico as a seven-year-old, but the Obama administration had made her eligible for a work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. Now she was an adult, being deported because she had been convicted of family battery.

“I don’t know nobody in Mexico and I’ve been here my whole life,” she pleaded with the judge in English.

“You had DACA and you blew it,” judge Baird quietly responded. He gave her the choice of waiving her appeal and being deported now, or sitting in jail for another hearing. She took deportation.

“God bless you,” Morales said to the judge as she stepped away from the camera.

Many of the other detainees in Irwin County also chose deportation rather than remain behind bars in south Georgia.

The seven detainees sitting next to me in court were there for their first appearance, six of them women. Judge Baird explained their option to seek asylum or to get a lawyer, but stressed in immigration court you don’t get free legal representation if you can’t afford an attorney.

Most said they’d be back with a lawyer, but some said they had no money and asked to be sent home as soon as possible.

lara-rostro-fire-engine
Lara-Rostro had to be removed by stretcher after his third drunk driving arrest.

And what about Jose DeJesus Lara-Rostro, the man who was apparently here legally when he crashed his truck after committing his third DUI?

Through another source, I confirmed judge Baird also ordered him deported the same day of his hearing,  January 20, 2017.

A day that many other immigrants will probably not be celebrating, either.

You Gotta Have Heart

imag0427
Braves season ticket partners for 20 years. But would Bob Carr and I hang it up when our team leaves town?

There was a time, in the not too-distant-past, when your Atlanta Braves were the hot ticket in town.
“I have a great idea,” my buddy Bob Carr suggested in the winter of 1995 after the team had won its only World Series Championship. “We should scrape our money together and get season tickets next year. That way we’re guaranteed playoff tickets when the new stadium opens after the Olympics.”
So that’s what we did. And soon that new stadium will be replaced with a newer stadium. Somehow we now live in a world of disposable stadiums. Playing fields with an expiration date. A baseball stadium barely 20 years old with few great moments to remember.

Just a few.

olympic-stadium-with-atlanta-fulton-county-stadium
Olympic Stadium before it would be retrofitted for Braves home #2. We started buying season tickets the final year of home #1.

Bob is an Edward R. Murrow and Peabody Award-winning editor, the guy responsible for crafting so many cool I-Team stories throughout the 90s.
Like me, he grew up in Georgia, subsisting on bad Braves baseball for decades. He’s my equal when it comes to remembering the low tides of our team. (Ozzie Virgil? Sugar Bear Blanks? The echoes of Chief Noc-A-Homa bouncing around an empty ballpark?)

Bob left FOX 5 in 1999 to start his own company, Carr Productions.

fb_img_1455887436467
My two daughters pose at the Braves Museum at Turner Field shortly after it opened in 1997. Can you guess which one grew up to be a Braves fanatic?

But by then, the two of us had planted deep roots along Aisle 410 of Turner Field. First it was four seats, then as our children got older and families less available, we moved over to Aisle 412 and reduced it to two seats per game. Through the years, we always had multiple friends buy into our 82-game season ticket consortium, taking eight, 10, 12 games at a time. At a discounted price of around $10-15/ticket, it’s always been the best sports deal in town. Our wives, both teachers, deserve their own Hall of Fame. Each realizes her husband is beyond salvation.

season-tickets-2008
Prepping for our preseason draft party in 2008 when the Braves actually sent you real tickets.

Our preseason ticket draft party at Bob’s house each March is legendary, even better than our postseason ticket draft. That’s right. Postseason. There was a time after the Braves clinched the postseason each year when I had to carefully consider which playoff game I should bid on first: Game 1 of the NLDS? Game 3 of the NLCS? Game 5 of the World Series? Would we clinch the whole thing by then? (Questions I seriously asked myself in 1996. Never again.)

Bob and his dad John always wound up with the lion’s share of regular season games since Bob lived only minutes from the Braves stadium. It all worked out.

Not anymore.

 

flythrough-rendering12x
The new $1.2 billion home of the Atlanta Braves

Like many Braves season ticket holders, we face a difficult decision. Transfer our season tickets to Stadium #3 in Cobb County in 2017? Or wrap up our 20-year run right now?

(My colleague Dale Russell even featured me and Bob in his two-part series about how hard it might be to get to the new stadium. Of course, the true test won’t come until next spring.)

As the Braves finish their final game this weekend at Turner Field, it’s easy to list what this stadium has failed to deliver:

  • No World Series game victories. We’re 0-2 at the Ted.
  • No dramatic playoff-clinching victories, unless you count Andrew Jones walking with the bases loaded in 1999 to get the Braves to their last World Series. Not exactly a Sid Bream moment.
  • No proper send-off for Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox. We lost 3-2 to the Giants, who would go on to win the World Series that year.

But the more I think about it, I did share some key moments from our seats along the third base line. Not Chipper’s errant throw that cost us his final, trash-tossing, Outfield Fly Rule game. (Chipper never should have started.) No, I’m talking about moments that, when it comes down to it, have little to do with championships.

  • My teenage daughter carefully driving to pick me up at work and going to the game, the rule always being if the Braves lost, she’d have to drive us home.
  • That same daughter being chosen to run out on the field years later to replace first base during one game. We lost. This time I drove us home, still smiling the whole way.
  • Taking my dad, who suffers from Parkinson’s, to games we knew we’d probably lose but didn’t care.
  • Chatting with our longtime usher Jeanette Lockhart about her health, her asking about my daughter’s college plans and, years later, my daughter’s wedding plans. (Jeanette retired last year. We miss her dearly.)
  • All of us trying to sing God Bless America as loud (and deep) as Timothy Miller.
    bob-jay-and-jeanette
    Bob and one of our season ticket partners Jay Davis with longtime Braves usher Jeanette Lockhart before she retired in 2014.

    katie-with-base
    I didn’t have to tell Katie that Freddie Freeman was responsible for some of that dirt.

Will SunTrust Park give me moments as great as those? It’s tough to say. I’m in a different phase of my life now. Not exactly the bottom of the ninth, but definitely close to making a call to the bullpen. My baseball-obsessed daughter is married, my sports pals too spread out to count on for regular company. How can I handle a dozen games at a stadium so much farther from work? (But actually a few miles closer to my house.)

Logical, well-thought out questions. Of course, lifelong Braves fans follow logic as well as Pascual Perez could follow directions.

“I have a great idea,” I told Bob last winter. “Let’s just try it for one season at SunTrust. And we’ll see.”

So on March 31, 2017, you will find me and Bob somewhere down the third base line in a baseball stadium built across the street from a city called Smyrna.
But this Sunday, when the Braves finally say goodbye to their second home, you will find me and Bob one last time on Aisle 412, Row 3, seats 1 and 2.

Feel free to drop by and help us remember.

14495478_1438988772794812_9144758348763169064_n
Bob and his dad John on their final game together at the Ted this week against the Phillies. John says he has no desire to go to Stadium #3. We’re on our own.

The Joy of Running

Yes, a picture is still worth a thousand words, but please don’t assume the following words with the following pictures:

Agony. Regret. Insanity.

IMG_0854IMG_0853IMG_0855

 

Try words like Healing. Victory. Fun.

Jog along with me for a bit and I’ll explain.

Running does not run in my family. I took it up in college when my first journalism boss, Athens Daily News sports editor Billy Harper, encouraged me to sign up for the Peachtree Road Race. That was in 1982. My roommate Mark Karwisch and I drove to Atlanta, crashed at our friend Lou Barnett’s house off LaVista, and made it to the starting line on time, one of 25,000 runners back then who struggled into Piedmont Park July 4. I wore the t-shirt for a year and then used it as a rag to wash my car. Yeah, yeah, no car is worth that much.

 

I quit running once I got my diploma and moved away from Athens. It took eleven more years before I would run my second Peachtree, and only after some life-altering news.

27067772

In 1991, WAGA assigned me to cover the soldiers returning to Fort Stewart after Desert Storm. We worked long hours, doing live reports from morning until late at night. I was tired, but for some reason I also couldn’t quench my thirst. No matter how much water I drank, I still needed more. It also meant making constant trips to the nearest bathroom. Once I even poured two Cokes into the Holiday Inn ice bucket and walked around drinking out of that while we edited our stories. It became ridiculous. The next week I went to my doctor and learned the reason: Type 1 Diabetes.

 

Like running, diabetes also does not run in my family. We think it came from a virus that weakened my immune system, slowly killing my pancreas. At 29 years old, this was a stunner. It meant changing my diet, learning how to inject myself with insulin multiple times a day, and figuring out the crazy see-saw world of high and low blood sugars. I found a great endocrinologist, Dr. David Arkin, who casually mentioned regular exercise could help control diabetes. Exercise. As in running. Motivation can come in the strangest of ways.

 

The doctor was right. Running in my neighborhood was painful at first, but slowly I managed to again go one mile without stopping, then two miles, then five miles. My schedule changed at work and I was able to take the day off July 4, 1993, finishing my second Peachtree. It was a blast. It got even better when my wife asked, “how can I get a t-shirt?” Well, honey, you have to run the race.

 

1994 peachtree
The oldest Peachtree running picture I own, circa 1994

Not only has she finished 21 Peachtrees, she’s made it a true party. We invite our running friends to get hotel rooms with us at Embassy Suites near the starting line. We have a party the night before the race, feast on Maggiano’s after the race, and stay for more food and fireworks in the Lenox Mall parking lot. I tell people we have an eating marathon with a 10K in the middle. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution even profiled our merry group a few years ago.

 

PEACHTREE15 011
The Travis Peachtree Group before the 2015 race

This year we expect at least 100 people with 45 hotel rooms reserved. Every year I tell my wife it’s gotten too big. Every year it always works out. And none of this fun would likely have happened without that terrible news I got in 1991. We didn’t just turn lemons into lemonade. We turned them into a celebration.

 

PEACHTREE15 051
We believe in post-race carbo loading
BolderBoulder
My running buddy in Boulder after finishing the SECOND largest 10K

These days, my wife and I also run marathons. We’ve run in Paris and Scotland, New York and Chicago. Running gave us one more thing to enjoy together, especially now that our girls have grown up and moved away. Twenty-five years after getting some terrible news, my disease is under control. It’s never perfect, but when they run their tests my doctors shake their heads and smile. Running has truly been a blessing. And trust me, despite the pictures you see here, it really is fun.

My wife’s running pictures always look like she’s the grand marshal of some parade, always so happy.

My running pictures always look like the Agony of Defeat. I figure if you’re going to run a race, run it as hard as I can. That philosophy doesn’t just apply to running. It works with anything you set out to do.

TSP_10277637

 

This year, the Atlanta Track Club has invited the local TV stations and newspapers to compete in a Peachtree Road Race Media Challenge. Eight of us will line up between the B and C groups and run our own little race. I can’t make any predictions on who will win, but I can predict this fact: when the photographers snap those official race pictures, you will not see me smiling. At least, not on the outside.

Riding in an elevator with O.J. Simpson

We laughed so hard. Who wouldn’t?

O.J. was hilarious.

20160621_154850_resized
My brothers David and Joey joined me in NYC. Pretty sure Dad took the picture.

It was Labor Day Weekend 1989. My two brothers, my Dad and I planned a guys’ weekend in New York City. At the time, I was working for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN, one of the strongest NBC affiliates in the country. I promised the guys I’d make sure we scored tickets to see David Letterman while we were in the Big Apple. Next to Saturday Night Live, Dave was the cool show to see in NYC. And back then he was on NBC.

late night

The show taped in the late afternoon. Dad was at a conference and planned to meet us at our seats. So the three Travis brothers walked into 30 Rockefeller Plaza, presented our tickets to the NBC staff and were directed to a waiting VIP elevator. As the doors started to close we heard someone yell “hold it!” I grabbed the door and the Juice jumped on board.

Me, my two brothers, the elevator operator and a panting O.J. all taking a ride together.

“You run here all the way from the airport?” I offered, remembering his iconic Hertz rental car commercials. He laughed. We laughed. Heck, even the elevator operator probably laughed.

What a great guy.

1459546884158

Just nine months earlier, O.J. had beat the crap out of his wife. According to the police report, a badly bruised Nicole Brown Simpson ran up to police yelling “He’s going to kill me! He’s going to kill me!” Four months later, and just five months before I would find myself yukking it up with him on a New York elevator, O.J. would plead no contest to a charge of spousal abuse. He got 120 hours community service. This was news I did not know until 1994. If I had known it in 1989, my question on the elevator might have taken a different tone. Or maybe I wouldn’t have said a word. Probably that second option.

This was before selfies. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TMZ. But didn’t our hero David Letterman have to know the ugly baggage his guest was carrying?

20160621_155108_resized
David, Dad and Joey in the Letterman studio after O.J. appeared as a guest.

On that Brush With Greatness Day in 1989, the elevator door opened and O.J. rushed off. “See you soon,” I said. And we did. Thanks to the NBC affiliate connection, our seats were great. We clapped hard when O.J. came out. “I can’t believe you talked to him,” one brother whispered. “I can’t believe we rode in the elevator with him,” said the other.

Man was O.J. funny. Of course he was. This was Nordberg from the Naked Gun films. It was his new image. Funny ex-athlete. Self-deprecating. Approachable. Harmless.

Dave asked him if he’d ever gotten any speeding tickets, a question no doubt suggested by O.J. in advance. O.J. spent a few minutes describing how he was taking his Ferrari Testarossa for a drive in Southern California and got it up to 170 before blowing by a cop.

“Even before he turned on his lights I stopped and about 10 minutes later he pulled up.”

We laughed so hard. Dave did, too. He demanded O.J. surrender his license to him that very moment. You can watch it all here:

 

Five years later, O.J. would lead police on the opposite kind of chase, his friend Al Cowlings driving the two slowly through the L.A. suburbs. This chase lasted two hours and one minute before Cowlings finally pulled into O.J.’s estate and surrendered. On that day, it didn’t take the cops 10 minutes to catch up.

We left the Letterman 061214-OTHER-20-years-after-oj-car-chase-ahn-PI.vadapt.980.high.12show that night still pumped about our great luck. All of us are sports fanatics. We had spent time with one of the greats.

You’d think that might be a favorite story at Travis family reunions. Until 1994 it was. But even with the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and the popular FX movie “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” we really don’t talk about that day much anymore.

I know this feeling from hundreds of investigations. Scam victims rarely like to revisit the moment a conman played them like a fool.

A Wedding and a Funeral

922846_1026730074058498_5298901902210519584_n
Father of the Bride

“You ready?” I said to her as my brothers-in-law Ron Rose and Jon Revelos dramatically opened the double doors to the sanctuary.
“Yes Dad,” she said, looking straight ahead at all of our friends and family looking back at us.
“Go slow,” I whispered. “You paid a lot for that dress. Let’s make sure you get your money’s worth.”
And with that, I walked my daughter Katie down the aisle toward her new husband and future life. Immediately, there was a problem. My size 12W rented shoes stepped on the edge of her previously-mentioned expensive dress. I subtly tried shaking it loose as we inched down the aisle, but I was met with stubborn resistance.
My heart was ready to let her go, but apparently my big feet had second thoughts.

DSC_0232
Joan and I surround the happy couple on a crowded dance floor

I’d been thinking about this day for 26 years. Not in a worrying way, though. Katie is a smart, kind daughter, with sound judgment in people. Her husband Stuart is studying computer software development and is a former national fencing champion. She’s a public school special education teacher in Gwinnett County. They’re both careful with their money. My wife Joan and I have our list of worries for them, but it’s a much shorter list than most.
Katie and Joan had planned this wedding for nearly a year. A Christmas season wedding seemed perfect. I saved up vacation days so I could be around to help in anyway they’d let me.

None of us expected this week would turn out the way it did.

DSC_0165
My father-in-law Anthony “Porky” DeProspero had a special place in his heart for Katie

Since the wedding was set for December 26, Stuart’s parents scheduled the rehearsal dinner for the week before, not the day before. We had a wonderful time at Maggiano’s in Buckhead, toasting the future bride and groom. My family goes there every July 4 after running the Peachtree Road Race. The food was fantastic. We love Stuart’s parents Richard and Denise.
At the end of evening, as the guests were putting on their coats and saying goodbye, my father-in-law suffered a heart attack and died there in the restaurant. Anthony “Porky’ DeProspero had been sick but wanted to share in the joy of the wedding festivities. He waited until the evening was over, had one last good Italian meal and then quietly said goodbye.

The scene he left behind was anything but quiet.

After the paramedics and the fire engine and the emergency room personnel and all those tears, we all woke up to the realization that the wedding absolutely had to go on.

And it did.

DSC_0162
Grandpa Porky passed along his love of Krispy Kreme donuts to Katie. Even before he died, she already planned to make her wedding cake a tower of sweet, colorful goodness. We had 27 dozen ready to go

In one week our family received sympathy cards, Christmas cards and congratulations cards. In one week I delivered a rehearsal dinner toast, a eulogy and a Christmas prayer. In one week our family had the lowest low and then the highest high.
(If you must have those two in one week, I recommend you have them in that order.)
The wedding was, if I do say so myself, perfect. Full of joy and funny moments. My famously always-late brother and his family arrived with my parents at St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic Church one minute before the ceremony was supposed to begin. I knew I should have told them it started at 2:30 instead of 3:30 pm. A family friend performed the ceremony and gave a homily loaded with baseball metaphors, a game Katie loves. Oh, and my shoe finally said goodbye to her dress.

DSC_0190
Our Father/Bride dance song? “The Baseball Song” of course, by fellow Athens native Corey Smith.

At the reception at Little Gardens in Lawrenceville, a true Italian wedding celebration erupted. Food, drink, music from a talented DJ (DJTodd, highly recommend him) and top notch staff at the venue.
My mom made Katie a wedding quilt with a baseball design that all the guests signed. Joan’s mom danced and smiled.

DSC_0181
Katie’s Wedding Quilt. All the guests left their autographs and more.

How could you not be happy when celebrating a new branch of a strong family tree?

100_6646
My mother-in-law Dolly DeProspero celebrating a new member of our amazing family.

(Randy’s toast)
Dear Katie,
As I write this, it’s February, 2015. You’re with everybody trying on dresses right now. I’m at home alone trying to get used to the idea of living in a house without you.
For five years, Mom and I did it with no problem. That was when Mom was only called Joan and I was only called Randy. Then we decided to invite someone else to our party. We got a new little friend. We both got new names.
You came into the house of a teacher and a reporter. We liked to read books. We liked to write things down.
Here’s what I wrote down November 14, 1989, right before you were born:
“Well, everyone knows you’re on your way. They had to stick your head 4 or 5 times to attach a wire that monitors your heartbeat. You have a head like your mother’s. It’s so hard nothing can get in.”
But even with a hard head, you grew up to be a beautiful, hard-working, never-surrendering, baseball-loving young woman. We could not be prouder of you and all you’ve accomplished.
When it came time for college, we worried and prayed. Prayed and worried. Guess who did most of the worrying? Turns out, God really does have a plan for all of us. His plan for you was not only to get a degree and get a job… but to meet a guy who fits you like a glove – or like Forest Gump once said about him and Jenny – you go together like peas and carrots. Maybe the only time the words peas and Katie are mentioned in the same sentence.
Stuart, you are getting a woman who may seem like a living contradiction: quiet but confident. Simple yet stylish. Giving yet firm. I have a feeling that’s what makes her so compelling to you. Marriage is a wonderful mystery you’ll spend your life trying to solve. You never will, trust me, but with patience and kindness and an open mind you will enjoy an amazing ride.
Soon you’ll be marking your own calendar together. Key dates in your life where your world takes a sudden turn.
Like a text I got December 9, 2014… 2:01 PM.
“Hey this is Stuart, how are you doing today? I was wondering if you were available this weekend to have a conversation?”

Yes, that would be great. Come on over. Sit down on the couch.

What’s on your mind?

And so here we all are. My toast is to remember what I always say about my definition of love. It means voluntarily surrendering control of your happiness to someone else. Literally, giving it away. You are giving that important power to each other. Use it wisely. Take a moment before you say something that might hurt the other. Take a breath. Take your time. Take it easy.

As many of us in this room will tell you, it goes by so fast.

DSC_0243
Two beautiful, happily-married women

(Joan’s toast)

HERE’S TO GOALS!
Thirty-one years ago Randy and I started out much like you are this week.
Wondering what the crystal ball has in store.. it’s all part of the mystique.
We decided our goals were to purchase a house, then a puppy, and last have a baby.
That’s exactly the order it happened so we brought home our sweet Katie.

Our goal was to try to keep her alive and still be sane.
She cried with colic constantly. Everything we did was in vain.
After a few months, Katie became the smiling and chuckling tot.
And before we knew it, it was time to give school a shot!

Off to preschool and then to kindergarten at Saint John Neumann School
Katie worked very hard and never broke a school rule.
(Millie lasted one month before she brought home a teacher note)
Nightly, Katie and I would sit at the kitchen table tackling homework until it was all rote.

Brookwood High School was Katie’s next goal along with swimming on the team.
School, homework, life guarding and swimming: nothing too extreme.
Yet another hurdle -college and what would she do for a profession.
Special education of course- there was never a question.

So this brings us to this moment, with many of Katie’s goals achieved.
Hard work and never giving up has helped Katie to succeed.
May God grant you both wisdom, strength and good health.
Here’s to all the future goals to be achieved together. Let their accomplishments be your wealth.

1919133_1026832560714916_7120249916751637729_n
Younger daughter Millie was Katie’s maid of honor. Love this pre-game picture

(Millie’s toast)
Some of you may have caught on to the fact that my sister and I are just a little bit different. I can remember sitting down for dinner once and Dad saying, “Millie, be home by midnight. Katie, I don’t want to see you until midnight.”

Being so different led to Katie and I having a different sort of relationship than most sisters have. If I had to describe it in one word, I’d have to say admiration.

I have not and will not admire anyone like I admire my sister. I think the reason for that might be because we are so different. Growing up with someone the complete opposite of you makes you realize what traits you’re missing yourself.

I strive to be more like my sister every day. Kinder, gentler, more genuine, and believe it or not, sometimes I do see the need to be a bit more soft spoken.

I’d like to think I helped bring Katie out of her shell a little bit by showing her what it’s like to be headstrong, rebellious, and assertive. Over the years Katie has grown to be the perfect mixture of kind, gentle, headstrong, and assertive. I’m proud of her for that. I’m jealous of that. But I noticed a while ago I really can’t take all the credit for that.

When Stuart came into Katie’s life, my sister changed. Of course, for the better. We wouldn’t all be here otherwise. She was constantly laughing. I honestly don’t know if I’ve seen my sister without a smile on her face in the last four years. She learned how to navigate a fight and stand her ground. Most of the time her version of standing her ground was making Stuart go where she wanted to eat instead of where he did. But a win’s a win right? She learned what it was like to be responsible for someone else’s feelings and someone else’s heart.

When Stuart came into Katie’s life, she blossomed. And Stuart, that’s why I’m letting you marry her. You make her laugh. You lift her up. You remind her every day how incredible of a person she is. Stuart, you admire her. Just like I always have. I will never worry about my sister’s happiness because you are in her life.

But, if for some reason, I ever see a frown on my sister’s face again, remember: I am headstrong, I am rebellious, and I am assertive. Remember, I am different than my sister. That’s not a threat, just something good to remember. I love you both. Thank you for showing me how simple and genuine love should be and can be and for you, how it will be.

12375287_10208330038511432_4077537846560789727_o
Porky and Dolly dancing at our wedding 31 years ago

(Randy’s Eulogy for his father-in-law)

Porky always called me his No. 1 son-in-law. For a while I figured that was because he liked me the best. Then I realized it’s just because I got there first. He liked all of us. He loved every one of us.

I could use a lot of words to describe Anthony Porky DeProspero. I imagine there are a few you can think of, too. Here’s the best word I could come up:

Porky… was a rebel.

That’s right. The man who was born and bred north of the Mason-Dixon line was really, deep down, a die-hard rebel. He went against the grain. He took the opposite position of anything you liked… because it just made life more interesting that way.

What was his favorite team during any sports season? Well, his team always seemed to be the team your team was playing against. Favorite politician? Well, heaven help the politician that ventured into the Pot Luck and got too close to Porky… better yet, heaven help the politician who sat in Porky’s spot.

Porky grew up in a little town an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and legends Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente. So who was Porky’s favorite baseball team? Naturally not the Pirates. Porky’s favorite baseball team was only the most hated team in the country. Those damn Yankees. Yep, a rebel pulling for the Yankees. Makes all the sense in the world.

I for one am glad Porky did not follow in anyone’s footsteps… walk down the well-worn path of others. All of his relatives lived within a few miles of each other in New Castle, Pennsylvania where he was born. Many of them, including Porky, worked at the big plant in town called Universal Rundle. In 1970, Universal Rundle opened a new plant here in Monroe. Porky had a chance at a promotion, more money, a better future. But it meant taking his family away from everything they knew and loved. It meant rebelling against the status quo. Even worse, the Italian status quo.

Porky made the right decision and headed South. Even though Dolly and his girls gave him grief for a while… maybe longer than a while… it was the right choice. He bought a better house… he and Dolly sent all three daughters to good colleges… all three developed good careers… all three met absolutely great guys. Really fantastic guys. The best guys.

And a few years after they moved here… that Universal Rundle plant in New Castle that employed so many of Porky’s friends and family… well, it closed down. They lost their jobs. The economy in New Castle collapsed. The rebel made the right call.

Everyone in this church knew Porky in some special way. The Pot Luck group knew him through his antics at breakfast… the National Guard through all those weekend drills and summers away… Porky calling to have pizza delivered out in the field where they were training.

Maybe he coached you in football or baseball… you thought of him as a surrogate father. He certainly loved you like surrogate sons.

When he had  to stop coaching, he switched to umpiring youth baseball. Once, he told me he was umpiring and a young batter got hit pretty hard by a fastball. Porky leaned over to the little boy and through his umpire mask said “if you start crying, I’m going to kiss you!”

Yes, we all knew Porky.

But I’m guessing none of you knew him from the perspective of a rather nervous 19-year-old college student heading into that house for the very first time… to meet the father of a girl you were kind of partial to.

Come on over to my house for spaghetti so you can meet my parents, Joan said back in the fall of 1981. My mom’s named Dolly. We call my dad Porky.

Great. What do I call him? Cuz it ain’t going to be Porky.

Joan was the only Italian I’d ever dated. My entire experience with Italians came from watching the movie the Godfather. Joan looked a little like Talia Shire… so I figured I was about to meet Marlon Brando.

Porky sure looked the part. But after a few minutes I realized I was ok. The first hint was when he told me what he did for a living. Universal Rundle manufactured toilets. Porky told me he made “after dinnerware.”

Then we sat down to eat… instead of a nice Italian wine – we had Kool-Aid. Now that’s a rebel moment I did not appreciate.

He was constantly trying to get me to eat more food that night. “Mr. Dep—Porky, I’m only 160 pounds. I can’t physically put any more food in my body.”

But that’s one of the ways Porky showed you he cared about you. Come eat breakfast with me, he’d say. I brought donuts for the girls he’d say. I made wedding soup for Christmas he’d say. The way to Porky’s heart was definitely through his stomach. Both of them getting bigger every year.

When Joan and I got married, Porky pulled me over just before we were about to get in the car and drive away from the reception.

“I just want you to know that if you two have any problems…”
Yeah, I know. Call you.
No, he said. Call Dolly.

Two more daughter marriages followed. I’m guessing Ron and Jon got the same advice. Call Dolly.

Then came the grandchildren. AnnaMarie wrote this about their relationship with their grandfather:

Taylor was Papa’s joy. He was the first born and a boy, so it was a double win. He had a grandson that learned from and loved every ounce of him. And the loving and learning never stopped. Taylor still has a passion for food only Papa could understand. When Taylor got married to Michelle, it was just another grandkid to add to the family. He loved her just as much as he loved us. Katie was Papa’s weakness. Her kind, gentle soul connected with his, under that layer of steel. Katie was his soft spot and still was as he sat there celebrating her and Stuart’s future wedding. He will definitely be there in the front row. I was Papa’s helper. I was the first one he called on to help him with anything. He shared the old family recipes and showed me exactly how to make them. We also shared a bond of saying Italian phrases whether they were bad or silly. Millie was Papa’s wild child. He knew Millie had an adventurous soul, and he appreciated every bit of it. He loved how she does what she wants to do and no one can stop her. He was a lot like that. And Nicholas was Papa’s youngest. Nicholas was the grandkid that he couldn’t wait to see grow up. His imagination and intelligence made Papa intrigued and proud.

And I’ll add to the list this week. Stuart. He approved of you from the beginning… as soon as he saw his oldest granddaughter’s eyes light up whenever she was around you.

But through it all, Papa… Porky… relied on one family member above all others. His wife of 57 years. He not only loved you Dolly. He could not survive without you. We knew it. He knew it. In fact, you are the one who got him as far as he did…. To the very end of a truly wonderful evening, surrounded by everyone he loved. He made sure he got dessert first… then he said goodbye to all of us.

As we were all at the hospital that sad night, Millie cheered us up by saying Papa’s in heaven with our dog Callie right now… feeding her chicken under the table.

And I’m sure God’s looking over there and saying, great… another Rebel.

Thanks Porky for all the lives you’ve touched… and all the lives you’ve changed. Ours would not have been nearly as happy if it wasn’t for you.

Warm Greetings from Death Row

“Conner became enraged and started beating White. (The DA) says Conner left a tennis-shoe print on White’s forehead.”

Jackson Diagnostic Prison
Interviewing Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson
conner000
Convicted murderer John Conner

When the invitation came to drive down to Jackson Diagnostic Center to cover a meeting between a federal bureaucrat and a state bureaucrat, I almost said no thanks. Even though the meeting involved efforts to crack down on the growing problem of smuggled cell phones in Georgia prisons – an issue I’ve been investigating for years – I was frustrated because the Department of Corrections said we would not be allowed to bring cameras inside the prison to cover the meeting.
No cameras? Are you kidding me? What a waste of time.

Glad I had some time to waste.

1956899_674416195956556_1040713431_o
A bag of cell phones and other contraband tossed over the prison wall in Augusta
10009768_681994165198759_1439369976_n
Prisoner families say smuggled cell phones help them avoid steep collect call charges that go into state coffers. Authorities say the phones help inmates plan attacks.

The meeting itself was marginally newsworthy: Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai agreed to lobby fellow commissioners and cell phone providers to come up with a way to make those cell phones useless, thus eliminating the opportunity for gang members to plot attacks on each other, prisoners to harass their victims on the outside and stopping staff from profiting from the sale of such contraband.
But after the meeting, it was time for a tour of Jackson. And that included G-House. Death Row.

10506855_768609349870573_327442990050708400_o
The schematics of Georgia’s now-retired electric chair

I’ve been to Death Row once before. In 2001, we aired a series of stories about Georgia’s electric chair. The investigation focused on some remarkable audio tapes recorded by prison staffers as they witnessed each person being electrocuted, a la Larry Munson. “The prisoner is being asked by the warden if he has any last words. The prisoner spits on the warden.” The audio tapes also revealed how the chair twice failed to kill the condemned man with the first jolt of electricity. Six months after our series aired, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the electric chair unconstitutional. Now, convicted killers are put to death by lethal injection. There are no audio tapes for that.

But when I was preparing that story, the warden agreed to give us a tour of Death Row, with my photographer Tony D’Astoli allowed to shoot from just outside the cell block main door. You want to talk about creepiness? Walk along the cold, grey cells as each inmate stands at attention, just like Anthony Hopkins did in Silence of the Lambs. Only this time, instead of “hello Clarise” several of the Georgia inmates said “hello Randy.”

John Conner was there during my 2001 tour. He was there again in 2015.

0000384035
John Conner beat to death his friend during a night of heavy drinking

“I was down there at him right there in the ditch where he was at and he was swinging trying to get up or swinging at me to try to hit me one, and there was a stick right there at me, and I grabbed it and went to beating him with it.”

Conner stood at attention as the FCC commissioner and the rest of the tour walked by. I asked him his name.

“John Conner, like the guy in the Terminator Movie.”

I asked him how long he’d been on Death Row.

“Thirty-three years,” he smiled, almost as if I’d inquired how long he’d been married. Believe it or not, there are five other members of Death Row who’ve been here longer.

I asked him whether he’d seen any cell phones, since the warden had earlier admitted to us they’d found some a while back on Death Row, the most secure spot in the entire state prison system.

“Oh, no sir,” he smiled again, many of his teeth missing.

Old televisions are set up in a row outside the cells, allowing inmates to watch TV. Their favorite show? The local news.

“What news do you like to watch?” I wondered.

“Channel 5,” said the convicted murderer. Not exactly the demographic you’ll hear us promoting anytime soon.

Mark Winne from WSB-TV was listening to the conversation. “If you’d been watching WSB, you might not be in here.” Score one for the Raymond Chandler of local reporters.

Conner showed us his watercolor paintings he keeps stashed under the mattress of his cot. They were colorful but dark. We chatted about the classes he’s taking. The warden allows as many as 10 of them at a time to go outside, play basketball, socialize. Other than that, it’s sitting in their tiny cells, watching FOX 5, waiting for someone to walk past their space and engage in awkward conversation.

“Where does your case stand?”

“My appeals will run out in December. Then I go before the Parole Board.”

He was convicted in July, 1982 in Telfair County, of beating his friend to death with a whiskey bottle, a stick and his fist. That same year, my UGA journalism class had just finished up a documentary about the Georgia Death Penalty and how no one had been put to death since the state had made its law constitutional nine years earlier.

Since then, 58 convicted killers have been executed in Georgia. I shot video of the first one when I worked at WMAZ-TV in Macon, John Eldon Smith, as he was led into a courthouse in Jackson in 1983 to make one last appeal.

And I may have just made small talk with the next one.

“Conner presented no evidence, either at the guilt-innocence phase, or (against the advice of his attorney) at the sentencing phase of his trial. He was found guilty on all three counts and sentenced to death for the murder.”