Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The "accidental" stories ...

      In the newspaper field, there are stories you just absolutely stumble into. Here are two examples. One turned into an award winner. The other never made it into print.
      My first year as a fulltime sportswriter was the 1969-70 school year, and one of the programs The Shreveport Times covered -- but only slightly -- was the basketball team at Baptist Christian College. We rarely, if ever, covered its games; usually, the coach or someone with the team phoned in the results with a box score.
       Baptist Christian was a very small school founded in the mid-1960s by Rev. Jimmy G. Tharpe; it was located, in fact, at the northwest end of my neighborhood -- Sunset Acres. A daughter of Rev. Tharpe was in my sister's classes, elementary school through high school. So I was familiar with the place.
      It was a non-accredited school, meaning a degree from BCC meant ... what exactly when searching for a job?
      The basketball program had some players who weren't quite at the level of those at the area universities (Centenary, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State, Northeast Louisiana), or in a coouple of cases, players who had left those programs.
       BCC was competitive, though, against the schedule it played, mainly NAIA schools from Arkansas and Mississippi.
        The coach in 1969-70 had been a moderately successful high school coach from our area. I knew a couple of the players. The team had a good record past midseason, late January, although -- as I said -- The Times did not cover many of its games in person. In talking to the coach occasionally when he called in, he seemed to be a friendly type.
        One day, one of our parttimers -- Rob Durkee, then in the Air Force stationed at Barksdale -- came in with a Jackson, Miss., newspaper he had picked up on his way through there. He noticed a story that BCC had lost a road game to Belhaven College there. But when he came back to Shreveport, he noticed that in our paper it was a win for BCC. 
          Rob and I took out the BCC schedule and began checking. There were a couple of other road wins that looked suspicious, and in making some phone calls, indeed, they were in fact losses,
          I found phone numbers for the two players I knew on the team. But the team was on a road trip. I reached one of the players' wives and asked what she knew about the results of these road games. After a few moments of silence, she broke into tears.
          "They told us not to tell," she confessed, "The coach said they'd take away the scholarship."
          I promised her I would not reveal who had told me the story. Tried to reach the coach by phone, but couldn't. Then I called Rev. Tharpe, told him what we'd found, and asked what was going on. He said he would check with the coach and get back to me.
           I had not gone to my boss, Bill McIntyre, with what I had found. Probably should have. But Durkee and I decided we should get an explanation first. 
          On a Sunday night a couple of days later, I was working in the office at The Times when the coach suddenly appeared in the office. This was the days before a security officer had to get permission to let people into the building.
           I was a bit fearful. But the coach wasn't angry or threatening; he was apologetic. He did not deny what he'd done. He was over-apologetic. He begged us not to do a story. I told him I would have to talk to my bosses about it, and he left on somewhat amicable terms.
           When I talked to McIntyre the next day, he said he would take it to the editor of the paper. When he did, the decision was we would not do the story in print. We did, however, cut off all coverage of BCC for the rest of the season.
            Which was fine with me; it wasn't my call.
            At the end of the season, the coach was gone from the program. He eventually went back to his hometown, where he'd been the high school coach, and became a school board member, and he's in the school's Hall of Fame.
              But he's not in my Hall of Fame.
              In 1982, I covered my first LSU football game. All those years at The Times, McIntyre and sometimes Gerry Robichaux covered LSU football. But in my first year as executive sports editor of the Shreveport Journal -- the Monday-Saturday afternoon paper -- I covered a couple of LSU games.
              My first game, on Oct. 23, was a tough 14-6 victory against South Carolina at Tiger Stadium. It was the third (and best) of Jerry Stovall's four seasons as head coach, and the win made the Tigers 5-0-1.
              They would get to 7-0-1 before a loss at Mississippi State and they lost at home to Tulane (for the first time since 1948) in a terrific game I also covered to close the regular season, then lost the Orange Bowl to Nebraska 21-20.                       
             Bea and Jason, then 8, made the trip with me to the South Carolina game. It was Jay's first Tigers' game; the first of many. Maybe he fell in love with LSU on that night.
             Because I didn't know the postgame routine, or know my way around, it took me a long time to do interviews afterward. I remember talking to Stovall, and to quarterbacks coach Mack Brown -- yes, that Mack Brown -- and to several of the players, and it was getting late. I didn't have to do a story (for Monday's PM paper) until the next day.
             So I was one of the last media people in the dressing room, maybe the last. As I was about to leave, I noticed an LSU player still in full uniform sitting in front of his locker, staring into space. Several players and coaches were coming by and speaking to him.
             It was Jeffery Dale, a sophomore starting safety from Winnfield and a future NFL player, a town in north central Louisiana on the fringe of our circulation area.
             "What is going on with Dale?" I asked an LSU sports information person.
              "His father died," he replied, "and they didn't tell him until after the game."
              This was a story waiting to be written. I was pretty sure I was the only media person who had it -- at least in that setting.
              I couldn't bring myself to go talk to Jeffery. But the scene stuck in my mind.
              Then, after going back to the press box and gathering up my stuff, I went outside the north end of Tiger Stadium, where Bea and Jason had waited much longer than they expected.
             "Dad, where have you been?" Jason said, shivering because it had turned cool. "I'm ready to go."
              My Monday column described Dale's despair and I contrasted it with my young son's reaction after his long wait. The column began on the front page of the paper, and received a lot of reaction.
               Jeffery Dale was a four-year starter at safety for LSU, a rangy, ball-hawking player who was a second-round pick in the 1985 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. He played with them for four years. A 2009 story I found on the Internet, from  Columbia, S.C., concerning someone finding his lost 1983 Orange Bowl ring says he was a director at St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis.
               I will remember him as the player who played a game at Tiger Stadium, then found out his father had died that day. And as the subject of a story that I found almost by accident.


  1. From O.K. "Buddy" Davis: Gosh, Jeffery Dale. Great player,good guy. Saw him several times at Winnfield High, alma mater of one Ricky Chatman.
    And you had one heckvua "scoop" there, Nicholas.

  2. From Teddy Allen: Good effort! Had never heard the story about the phantom road wins. Nice …

  3. From Jesse Carrigan: Accidental," very nice stories, Nico.

  4. From Pesky Hill: Help me remember the coach’s name at BCC? I do remember Pat Pool from Airline played on one of those teams.