Monday, December 31, 2012

Gratitude for an old year, and a new one

          As I start this blog, there are seven hours left in this year. It is an hour-and-a-half until kickoff of the LSU-Clemson game, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta -- and appropriate finish for my sports year.
           I am also on the last page of my 2012 calendar, which -- as mentioned in a previous blog -- I used to write a daily gratitude. My wife encouraged that, and the other day, she asked if I was going to continue in 2013.
          And I am. Plan to do it in a different format -- such as a notebook -- but the idea is to stop daily and make note of something, or someone, that impacted life that day, or maybe that week.
          So my last gratitude of 2012 is for ... my gratitude journal. I'm saving it because Bea says it'll be fun to look at it again, say, three years from now. OK.
          In short, though, there is so much for which to be grateful, mostly family and friends. Facebook has its advies and disadvies -- as my close friend John W. Marshall III coined it years ago -- but the connection with old friends is, for the most part, a plus.
          One of the great pleasures of the past year was seeing old friends, some of them for the first time in many, many years. Can't express to you how good that feels. Going to Bea's high school reunion in Ringgold, La. -- where I knew only a few people but one of them was one of Louisiana's top basketball players of the early 1960s -- was a good day.
          Saw a lot of old familiar faces, too, in a more somber situation -- the visitation and then funeral service for our great friend, Dr. James C. Farrar ... Coach Farrar. He touched us all in a positive way.
          These days there are always too many old friends listed in the obits, and too many funerals.
           Our toughest days this year were Feb. 23 -- the day Bea's only brother, Howard (my age, two years younger than Bea) -- died (not unexpectedly) and Feb. 27, the day he was buried in central Texas.
 ---
            As the year closes, we're into a new phase, as I wrote last week. This is the ninth day of my retirement, not that I'm counting the days. And I'm bored.
            No, just kidding. It's a good life.
Our "big three": Kaden, Jacob and Josie
            Nothing boring about having my three grandkids together, which happens only a couple of times a year. It was -- as I put on a Facebook post Saturday -- a loud, busy afternoon in our little apartment. These three -- Josie, 5; Jacob, 3 (almost 4); and Kaden, 1 (almost 2) -- are lively, but they got along beautifully.
             If every day was as good as Saturday, Bea and I would be content. She adds, "also exhausted."
             So people have suggested I will be bored, and have asked, "What will you do with your time?"  Do not worry, I have told them, there is plenty to do.
            I have eight books sitting to my left that need reading; they have been sitting there for two years. I have an electronic picture frame that needs putting together, and the pictures on my computer that need organizing, so that the frame can function. Because my daughter is an avid scrapbooker, I could do scrapbooks -- many scrapbooks -- with the hundreds of career clippings, photos and memorabilia I have collected for 50-plus years.
            I have my daily walks -- through the TCU campus and around the nearby neighborhoods, looking for money that's been left on the streets and in drivethroughs and parking lots (it's a lucrative business, at times).
            If it's too cold or too wet, the walks are on the boring treadmill (but the workouts are more intense). Really should do that more often if I want to maintain the 155-pound level for which I am. Because we pay more attention to what we eat -- and cut out a lot of the sweet and white stuff (cake, ice cream, cookies, mashed potatoes, white bread) -- I lost 20 pounds about two years ago. Still, I could do better when it comes to sweets.
             We plan to travel some. We'd like to see Chicago and San Francisco and Boston and New York City again (the new Yankee Stadium sounds good, if someone will give me a ticket), and one goal for me is to make it to Cooperstown when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera go into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Never been to Cooperstown.
               But our immediate travel goal is another trip to my home country, The Netherlands. Maybe in late April/early May when the tulips bloom. We're thinking of taking a river cruise so we can see a lot of the country. We'll see.
                Travel takes time, and money, and energy. We have the time. The money and energy ... hmmm. When we went back to Hawaii -- where we lived in 1980-81 when I worked for The Honolulu Advertiser -- we never did get over the jet lag. Still trying to get over it.
              And, of course, we'll be going to Knoxville, Tenn., a couple of times a year, hopefully, because that's where Josie, Rachel and Russell are. Plus, there will be plenty of trips to "new" McKinney, an hour away to see Jacob, Kaden, Ann and Jason.
              Also, what will keep me going is this ... the blog. Started it in late January a year ago, and it's been fun. It's a personal blog, my memoirs, I suppose, and a way to recall the events and thank people that have been important in my life.
               Sometimes it's a way to get on the soapbox and express my feelings. Of course, a lot of it is about sports and newspapers/journalism because that's what I know, that's who I am. Broke a personal rule and delved into politics a couple of times, and that irritated some people -- to say the least -- but so be it.
              Mostly, though, it's been fun to see the reaction and the feedback. It's been well-received and I thank you. How's that for gratitude?
              Happy New Year to each of you.
             
         

Sunday, December 23, 2012

One word: Retired

    "And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."
---
     Borrowed the quote above from the last Tonight Show appearance by my favorite all-time television performer, Johnny Carson, in May 1993. Today it fits for me.
     My sportswriting career is finished. I am done.
     No more comebacks, even parttime ones. I thought I was done in May 2011, when I was part of the fifth layoff at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 3 1/2 years.
    I said then that my fulltime career was over. And it was.
     But because I wanted to cover high school football in the fall of 2011 and again this fall, and because there also was parttime work available inside -- on the desk, in newspaper parlance -- I worked four months at The Dallas Morning News and almost all this calendar year back at the Star-Telegram.
      One or two nights a week -- sometimes three nights -- wasn't a bad deal. Little pressure, and good people around. And the papers paid me.
     Covering high school football these past two seasons, at some fabulous facilities and some ordinary ones, was a blast. Texas high school football -- Friday Night Lights -- is as good it gets, if you love covering the preps ... and I always have.
      My last desk shift was last Monday, a tough five-hour grind right to the deadline. Edited my last story, wrote my last cutline, my last headline. Done. See you.
The last media credential
of my career.
      My last act, my last game, Saturday afternoon, the Class 5A Division II state championship game -- Cedar Hill vs. Katy -- at the fabulous Cowboys Stadium. Wow. What a finish. I wrote the story, and I checked out of a career.
       And I'm happy; I'm satisfied. There was a little sadness this past week, but not much. I've had enough.
---
      Several people the past few weeks have suggested I would be calling next fall asking to cover games again. Several have said I will miss working, will miss the newspaper business.
    No, no and no.
    I told Bea early this year that this would be my final year, my final set of games. I don't see as well, I don't hear as well, I don't sleep well after I work, I get tired more easily. 
     Covering high school football, as much fun as it was, is more difficult these days. The games are so fast-paced, the scores are so much higher, there are tweets to post, and stats to compile and enter into the computer, and there is -- always -- a deadline to meet. 
      I found I could still do it, and I still worked at it as hard as ever. Got there early, explored the stadiums and met people, and stayed late. Did two stories: (1) a version for the next day's newspaper; (2) a longer, more detailed -- with quotes -- for the paper's web site. Happy to do it. Loved the action.
       Glad to be done. Lots for which to be grateful. I'm certainly blessed.
---
       Can't say that I loved every single minute of my career; sounds good, but I don't believe that was true even for Johnny Carson. 
       In almost 50 years -- from the time I first walked into The Shreveport Times sports department when I had just turned 16 -- there were lots of tough times. Most were self-inflicted.
      I went from job to job because I got tired of some people and misbehaved, and they got tired of me. I was told to move on more times than I could have ever imagined. But if you believe that most everything happens for a good reason -- and Beatrice has convinced me this is true -- I found that change can be good.
       We went from Louisiana to Hawaii back to Louisiana, to Florida, to Tennessee and finally to Texas. I worked for seven daily newspapers, one college, and three pro baseball teams -- some great jobs ... and some jobs.
        I was never enamored with upper management in the newspaper field, never one to totally follow the rules. But I will say that upper management at the Shreveport Journal and The Honolulu Advertiser were the best and, with few exceptions, management in the sports departments where I worked was wonderful.
          Lots of people helped me along the way. Don't even want to start to name names; just too many people, and I don't want to slight anyone. Some people saved my career; I hope they know who they are. Most people enhanced it. I tried to learn something from everyone; I hope I passed on some knowledge/advice.
        I had some management roles; some were easier than others because I was working with great people. Shreveport Journal sports for much of the 1980s was the best group, the most fun; the Star-Telegram -- I arrived late in 2001 -- was the best section in which I was involved ... at least for the first half-dozen years. 
         There's lots of thanks all around, but the biggest thanks go to my home folks. My parents ... I miss them. Mostly, though, Beatrice -- who supported me through lots of great times and difficult ones; I can always say I married well -- and my incredible kids, Jason and Rachel, who put up with much more than they should have.
         There's more I want to express, and I'll do that in a couple of days. I've got time. I'm retired.         
      

Friday, December 21, 2012

A coach who should be Fame-ous

Woodlawn was so fortunate to have these two men
as its first head football coaches: A.L. Williams
and Lee Hedges (The Shreveport Times photo). 
   Getting right to what I want to say ...
    (1) A.L. Williams has been one of my best coaching friends -- a great friend, period -- for more than 50 years. If you read my previous blog on him, you already know that.
    (2) He should be chosen for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He's been on the ballot for several years, but he hasn't been picked. Maybe there's some debate on his credentials, but not in my opinion, of course because ... I'm biased (see point No. 1).
    (3) He should have been chosen for the Louisiana High School Sports Hall of Fame years and years ago. They have been selecting people for 35 years. How in the hell they have overlooked him is a damn travesty. 

    The list of athletes, coaches and administrators for that Hall of Fame is a long one -- and there are many, many people who have been selected with far, far less credentials than A.L. Williams. How have they missed him this long?
    I haven't discussed these Hall of Fame matters with him, because I know he's too self-effacing to promote himself for these honors. So I don't mind doing the promoting.
     He helped win a state football championship in Louisiana's top class as a player; he scored the last five touchdowns for Fair Park's 1952 champions, the only football title in the school's 84-year history.
      He coached a state championship team (Woodlawn, 1968, the Joe Ferguson-led 14-0 Knights). He was part of high school coaching staffs at Woodlawn that won 111 games and seven district titles in a 13-year period (8.5 wins a year). His head coaching record there was 64-25, with district titles in each of his first four seasons.
      He was the track/field coach in his early years at Woodlawn, and in the spring of 1966, nurtured a national record-setting javelin thrower who had to be careful with a sprained right elbow. Terry Bradshaw didn't ruin his arm that spring, but got his first taste of national attention (and had a memorable best javelin effort of 244 feet, 11 inches).
     He was a star running back/defensive back and record punt-return man at Louisiana Tech, led the Bulldogs in scoring three years in a row. He was a part of two conference championship teams; the 1955 team, whose only loss was by one point, is considered one of the school's greatest.
     He was a star track man, too, part of relay teams whose school records stood for a decade, and also a long jumper/triple jumper. He is in the Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame.
    He was a college head coach for 12 seasons -- eight at Northwestern State, four at Louisiana Tech. His team played for the Division I-AA national championship at Tech. He was an innovator; one of the first in Louisiana to go to almost all-out passing game.
     And I believe this: He did it the right way; he tried to play by the rules. He made it fun for the coaches, and the players, and the parents, and the fans.
     He very much bought into the philosophy/teaching of two of his mentors, Joe Aillet (Louisiana Tech) and Lee Hedges (Woodlawn), and the coaches who had guided him at Fair Park -- F.H. Prendergast, Roy Wilson and Clem Henderson.
---
    If A.L. Williams is nominated for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame just as a college coach, I can see where he might not qualify. The final record was 66-65-1.
     Those of us who know realize that he came into a Northwestern situation where his first two years there -- the first as an assistant -- were 1-10 seasons. So he rebuilt that program, developed a bunch of NFL talent (Bobby Hebert, Mark Duper, Joe Delaney, Sidney Thornton, Petey Perot, Gary Reasons, Victor Oatis) and made it a respectable program.
       He also had to rebuild much of the Tech program his first year (1983), but by the next season, the Bulldogs were playing in the I-AA national title game. Still, consecutive records of 10-5, 8-3 and 6-4-1 weren't enough to satisfy some of the Tech folks, and he chose to leave after the 1986 season rather than -- as had been suggested -- fire some of his assistant coaches.
       One of those coaches was Billy Laird, the offensive coordinator/play-caller who was being criticized (but probably not to his face). Laird had been Woodlawn's first star quarterback, close to Coach Williams since 1960, and on his staff for seven years. No way was A.L. about to let Billy, or others go; he took the fall himself.

       Dr. Pat Garrett was chairman of Tech's athletic council then and what he said when Williams' resignation was announced still rings true with me.
       "His worth to Louisiana Tech cannot be measured," Garrett said. "He was asked to come here and return stability and integrity to the football program, and he's done that in Tech fashion. And he's done it with style and class and often under adverse conditions. A.L. Williams is a winner."
 ---
        Look, A.L. has his opinions, his views on how things should be run -- especially how athletic programs should be run. He'll speak his mind, although almost always tactfully.

       For years, he was critical of the administration and some boosters at Louisiana Tech because he felt that Joe Aillet -- a man and coach he (and many others) revered -- had not been treated respectfully enough in his final years at the university.
       His coaching/teaching style was thorough and generally low-key -- if you saw players being abused or you heard profanity on the field, in practice or in games, by anyone, it was rare.

       But I have seen A.L. lose his cool. In fact, I've experienced it.
       We didn't always share the same view; he once got on me fiercely about a column I'd written and I'm sure there were other times when he held back. (Of course, John James Marshall says that people disagreeing with me is a long list.)
      People have been critical of A.L. to me directly, or I have heard it second-hand. I listened to those opinions and took them in. Didn't say I agreed. Because I know the man pretty well; I know where he's coming from; I believe I know his values.
      And if you ask me (and no one did), I will say that for all he did -- as an athlete and a coach, as a leader and a contributor -- he's a Hall of Famer.   
     I haven't been on the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame selection committee since I left the state in 1988. I know there are great candidates every year. But I know one person I'd choose if I had a ballot next August.
     As for the Louisiana High School Sports Hall of Fame and whoever makes those selections, people ... how have you missed A.L. Williams all these years?        
    Don't mean to be overdramatic, but that might be the biggest oversight in the history of Louisiana athletics.
    

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A.L.: The players' friend

     Two memorable moments in A.L. Williams' early years as head football coach at Shreveport's Woodlawn High School:
     -- January, 1967: Trey Prather -- Henry Lee Prather III -- comes back to the Woodlawn athletics dressing room, having just dropped out of LSU and enlisting in the Marine Corps. The Class AAA All-State quarterback of 1964, a rarely used backup at LSU in the 1966 season, asks to speak to Coach Williams.
     They go into the trainers' room next to the coaches' office. Trey sits on the training table, where he so often had had his ankles taped and been treated for injuries. He breaks down in tears.
      "I made a mistake," he tells Coach Williams. "I should have listen to you guys [the coaches]. LSU wasn't the right place for me."
       But it was too late; he was on his way to Marines' boot camp, on his way eventually to the Vietnam War.
        "We would have done anything for him," Coach Williams remembers. "We would have helped him transfer anywhere he wanted to go. It was such a sad moment. If we'd have known ..."
        -- The night of Dec. 6, 1968, State Fair Stadium, Shreveport: Woodlawn has just won its first (and only) state football championship and thousands are on the field celebrating. It is probably the shining moment of Williams' coaching career, and he is being congratulated from all sides.
        Suddenly, he is face to face with Marilyn and Lee Prather, Trey's parents. It is almost a calendar year after Trey's death in Vietnam. Marilyn and Lee are crying.
         "This was Trey's dream," one of them blurts. "He would have been so happy."
         "That put it in perspective," Coach Williams remembers. "I was so high, so elated. And then to see them. It just showed that football is just a game, no matter how big the victory.  It could never make up for what we lost when we lost Trey."
---
         He was always the players' best friend. Whether he was fishing with Terry Bradshaw, making Joe Ferguson almost a part of his family (practically Amy and Kay's big brother), engaging Ken Liberto in dragon-fly snagging on the practice field, demonstrating how to field punts properly and return them with great success, guiding running backs and defensive backs and later quarterbacks on prep techniques, drilling QBs and receivers on the intricacies of the passing game, or just counseling kids on life itself, we knew we could count on Albert Lawrence Williams Jr.
         It's been that way for the 50 years I've known him. He always had time, too, for a young (and now old) manager/statistician/sportswriter. He always had time for the media, period, no matter how big the game ahead.
         If you had a dollar for every minute Coach Williams and I have spent talking in person or on the phone, we could clear the national debt. It's been that kind of friendship.
        We might not have gotten the world's problems solved, but we gave it a lot of effort.
Sarah and A.L. Williams
        Nah, mostly we told stories. Few people can tell stories in greater details from any of the past six or seven decades than A.L., and I've been known to have some lengthy conversations myself.
         "You know how A.L. can go on and on," Sarah Williams said to me recently. She was laughing, and so was I. Sarah knows; she's been his sweetheart dating to when he was a star athlete at Fair Park in the early 1950s and she was at that other school across town. Yes, it's been a Fair Park/Byrd marriage, and it's worked fairly well for, oh, a lifetime.
          And if Sarah and A.L. are at a reunion -- and they are at many these days -- you know they are among those at the center of attention, with Coach spinning his stories.
---
           Most people know A.L. Williams for his football coaching career, his work with quarterbacks, his frequent appearances at coaching clinics talking offense. You also should know his love for Sarah, his daughters and their spouses and especially the four grandkids; his love for fishing, and visiting, and these days being a spectator at Ruston High or La. Tech games.

Coach A.L. Williams and the one-time kid
who has been his friend for 50 years.
          Those of us who are familiar, though, can tell you how much of a star athlete he was back in the '50s. Maybe never the star on his team, but one of those outstanding players -- and a great team guy.
          That's why, as a coach, the team, the school and the kids -- and not the coaching staff -- were always his top priority. I've known few people who ran a cleaner, more efficient, more successful  program than A.L. Williams. He was well-respected and, besides, he was a darned nice guy. Yes, I'm prejudiced.
          There's a lot more to tell -- of course, there is -- and so this is going to be a two-parter.
         Next: Why A.L. should be Fame-ous.
                
       
        
         

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. 
          Oh-oh.
          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."
(from fanbase.com)
              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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The real St. Nick's day

Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets arrive by boat
(photo from Josje-bouwt.blogspot.com)
        I'm putting my shoes -- my wooden shoes? -- near the chimney tonight. Been doing it for 60-something years on the evening of Dec. 5.
        St. Nicholas -- and Zwarte Piet (translated: black Pete) -- are making the rounds tonight.
        The real St. Nicholas. Not Santa Claus. Not Nick Saban. Not a fat, jolly guy with elves nor a driven, single-minded, often obnoxious football coach.
        No, a tall, thin white-bearded man wearing a red miter, carrying a curled staff, riding a white horse, accompanied by "six to eight" black men. (Not really black, just painted that way. And not just six to eight; that was a myth. It could be just one, or it could be a boatful.)
        Word is that our St. Nicholas originally was the bishop of Turkey but now lives in Madrid, Spain, and comes to Holland by steamship every year in mid-November, arrives at the harbor in Amsterdam, and then is featured in a parade going into downtown.
         I have seen it happen, honestly.
         From the time I was old enough to figure out what was going on until we left Holland when I was 8, my parents took me (and my baby sister) to the parade. I can remember how beautiful it looked all lit up in holiday lights as we rode the tram toward downtown. 
          And then, amid the bands and floats and marching units, we saw the man on the white horse, with his helpers. I've seen them up close.
          What I'm realizing now, doing research for this piece, is that maybe -- maybe -- he also arrived by boat in the harbor in Rotterdam, and The Hague (Den Haag), and Eindhoven ... wherever he was needed in Holland.
            So, from mid-November until tonight, Sinterklaas -- it sounds like Santa Claus, doesn't it? -- makes public appearances. But there's work to be done tonight.
           Tonight is the night St. Nicholas -- accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet -- delivers the gifts to all the houses. The tradition is to place your shoes by the chimney or the door, with hay and/or sugar or a carrot for Sinterklaas' horse.
          In the morning, if you've been good, the shoes will be filled with chocolate -- often small bags of chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper. If you've been bad, you'll find a lump of coal.
           We did have coal at our little house in Amsterdam, but I don't remember it showing up in my shoes. Chocolate, yes. And there were gifts on the morning of Dec. 6.
            Now here's a twist that is part of humorist David Sedaris' essay/performance entitled "Six to Eight Black Men." Joe Garza, when he was sports editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a couple of years ago, found it and printed it out for me, circled this part -- and reminded me of it often.
            As told to Sedaris by a Dutchman, the legend is that if St. Nicholas disapproved of a child's behavior, he would kick the child -- or at least pretend to kick him or her.
            So would Zwarte Piet. If the child was really bad, St. Nicholas would beat the child with a switch, then put the child in his bag and take it back to Spain.
            Yikes.
            Garza says that's what happened to me. Ha!
            Not true. I always got chocolate, and I made it to America. So did my sister. So there.
            Another story, and please don't take this the wrong way: There were, in the early to mid-1950s, few black people in Amsterdam. I was a kid; I honestly don't remember seeing many, or any black people. Except for Sinterklaas' Zwarte Piet helpers. I know, it sounds awful.
            So we get to the U.S., we get to Shreveport, and there are a lot of black people. And I'm thinking ... lots of Zwarte Piets here.
            Told you, it's an awful thought.
            Christmas really wasn't celebrated that much in Holland; St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) was the big day. So it was much different when we came to the U.S. and December was all about Christmas and this jolly character named Santa Claus and his elves and the North Pole.
            But I never forgot the St. Nicholas traditions. I even remember a couple of lines from my Sinterklaas songs. My wife has asked -- told me -- to refrain since I don't sing well ... at all.
            And I still put my shoes by the chimney on the night of Dec. 5. Oops, no chimney here. The patio will have to do. I'm sure St. Nicholas and Zwarte Piet can find it tonight. Chocolate, please.
---
     David Sedaris' essay entitled "Six to Eight Black Men" from the album Live at Carnegie Hall. It was originally published in Esquire Magazine: http://www.channels.nl/knowledge/28970.html

Monday, December 3, 2012

Valdosta meant lots of W's ... and LD

     On one of my infrequent trips to the nearby Barnes & Noble -- it's like a second home -- I picked up a new sports book, Must Win. It's a behind-the-scenes look at Valdosta (Ga.) High School's 2010 football season, in particular, and the story of Valdosta football in general.
      If you're not familiar with "Titletown USA" -- as ESPN named it in 1988 -- consider this: No high school football team in the country has won more games.
No greater tradition than Valdosta High School.
      I can name a dozen programs with great traditions, and numerous state championships. In my opinion, none of them top Valdosta.
      The book, by Drew Jubera, might be -- as I read in one review -- much like Friday Night Lights, the book that chronicled a season with the powerful Odessa (Texas) Permian program and turned into a movie and a television series.
      But Must Win is of interest to me because of one guy -- Lawrence Dennis. I began reading the book and couldn't help but think of him repeatedly.
      I've seen several games at Valdosta -- 12 miles above the Georgia/Florida state line  and about 120 miles from Jacksonville. All of us who worked at the Florida Times-Union through the 1980s and '90s lived almost every day with Valdosta. Larry was the reason.
       In just about every conversation with Larry, or LD as we called him, he talked about Valdosta High football. Whether we liked it or not. And there were no short conversations with Larry.
       He wrote about high school football in South Georgia for about 25 years, but mostly about Valdosta because (1) that was the love of his sportswriting life and (2) all the Wildcats did was win.
        Some quick numbers: 876 total victories (876-209-34 record), 23 undefeated seasons since 1919, 23 state championships (the first in 1940, the last in 1998), 41 region championships, six national championships (1962, '69, '71, '84, '86, '92), two legendary coaches (Wright Bazemore, Nick Hyder).
       Larry was one of those great characters you meet in 45 years of sports journalism. He was big, he was loud, he was gruff, he was -- well -- profane, he liked his drinks, he liked his work, and he complained (the nice way to say it) about a lot.
       I swear, Larry was the role model for Archie Bunker.
        If you had suggested to Larry that he was the epitome of a redneck, he would've said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Damn right, pal, and proud of it."
       But he was a smart guy, an expert on boating -- which he covered for the Times-Union all those years -- and many other subjects. He was a student of military history, especially World War II and even more so the Civil War. The Rebel flag flying from his sailboat was a clue whose side he favored in that one.
        But he was really an expert on Valdosta football. He didn't have to look up much on that and what he couldn't remember, he'd ask his friends Sandy Atkins and Scott Alderman, the chief historians for the Wildcats (see the web site www.valdostafootball.com)
         Larry more than wrote about the Wildcats, though. He was a star tackle for the Valdosta teams  in 1961 and '62. In fact, in Larry's three years in high school, Valdosta's record was 36-0-0 ... three Georgia state championships. He was good enough to earn a football scholarship to the University of Alabama.
         So Larry played for two coaches he revered, Bazemore and Paul "Bear" Bryant. Don't think he ever got in a game at Alabama, but he was in the program for a while, got his degree in journalism from Alabama, and thought nothing in the world was better than Valdosta or Alabama.
        (He would have snorted at my recent idea that Bill Snyder at Kansas State has done the greatest college football coaching job ever. "Pal," he would've said, "you're full of it." He wouldn't have used "it.")
---
         Larry was as legendary to us as the two coaches who built the Valdosta dynasty -- Bazemore and Hyder -- were to him. In fact, he wrote the words "the legendary Wright Bazemore" so often that the guys in the office simply shortened it to TLWB when talking about the man.
         We lost Larry in 2003 at age 59, kidney and liver problems taking him down after years of warnings from his doctors. He was a guy with a big heart who would do anything for anyone if he could -- even after he suggested he wouldn't.
         But he was a piece of work. He had been the prep sports editor when I came to the Times-Union midway in the 1988 football season, so I succeeded him in that role. Working with him in the office was unique.
          Larry had some expressions I've never heard before (and don't want to spell out). They were, uh, politically incorrect. He had a name for his second ex-wife that wasn't exactly endearing.
          He called parttimers "googins." We think he made that up. Looking it up, it is a fishing term and has nothing to do with parttimers. Again, I'd never heard that before, and only once since -- in The Dallas Morning News sports department some 15 years later.
        LD and I first crossed paths in the early 1970s when he was a sportswriter at the Monroe (La.) Morning World and I was in Shreveport. I'm sure he told me about Valdosta then, too, especially after Bazemore -- 14 state titles in 28 years, 11 undefeated seasons, three one-loss seasons, 268-51-7 record (83.2 percent) -- had retired after coaching a 1971 team considered one of Georgia's greatest ever, if not the best.  
       Shortly after Larry came to the Times-Union, he got one big scoop. Having covered the Clemson-Ohio State game in the 1978 Gator Bowl, he had a connection in the Ohio State athletic department. Larry was  at the team hotel the next morning and was the first to find out that Woody Hayes -- having shoved a Clemson player and swung at him on the sideline late in the game -- had been fired. Yes, the legendary Woody Hayes, who routinely abused the media and anyone who hissed him off.
        Here's what Mike Richey, our mutual good friend and sports editor in Monroe and then Jacksonville, remembers LD writing in a column: "Woody Hayes was a festering malignancy on the face of college football ..."  
---
        Larry loved to write about the 'Cats and TLWB and the "ghosts at Cleveland Field" helping Valdosta pull out another win. Maybe he called the stadium "Death Valley," too, although I know a couple of teams headed for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl that have their own Death Valleys.
        When I went with him as he covered Valdosta games in 1994-95, he seemed to know everyone that was anyone with the Valdosta program, and they knew him. He was treated as royalty.
         Although LD considered Bazemore -- by then wheelchair-bound and speechless after a stroke -- the greatest high school coach ever, he thought Nick Hyder was in the same class. Having dealt with Coach Hyder on the phone and meeting him at those games, I, too, thought he was classy.
         Hyder was known as a devout Christian, a life philosopher and spellbinding speaker with his players. He came in from Rome, Ga., after the coach who succeeded Bazemore was fired following 9-1 and 8-2 seasons -- yes, expectations were high in Valdosta. Hyder's first team went 3-7, but 10-2 in '75 kept him around and soon he was winning big.  In 22 years, he went 249-36-2 (87.1 percent, better than Bazemore).  That included six undefeated teams, six one-loss teams, seven state champions.            
          In the first five seasons I was at the Times-Union, Valdosta (and Hyder) went 64-3-1. Think Larry wasn't proud?
          Sadly, Hyder died of a heart attack in the school cafeteria in 1996, at age 61. His public funeral was held at Cleveland Field, with the home-side stands filled and his coffin placed at midfield. His gravesite includes a huge memorial wall. Bazemore, who died in 1998, had a more low-key funeral and has a more simple burial plot.
---
            The tradition, and the expectations, continue at Valdosta High. The Wildcats are still winning (7-4 this season), but changing demographics and less enrollment have made the program just ordinary these days.
            Its crosstown rival Lowndes, the county school, has won four state titles and another South Georgia school, Camden County (St. Marys), has won three since Valdosta's last title in '98.
            LD wouldn't like this much. But he'd think the ghosts are still rattling around at what is now, appropriately, called Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. He'd want to read this book, and he would have liked it. Plus, history buff that he was, he'd have found something to correct.
---
Link to the story in The New York Times from which the author developed his book ...
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/sports/26valdosta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
---
Links to stories on the two Valdosta coaching giants ...
http://valdostascene.com/august2009/x20311895/A-coaching-legend

http://valdostascene.com/august2009/x20311893/Remembered-as-God-s-servant-and-a-football-coach