Friday, March 21, 2014

Not a "dream" job, but a good life

       A couple of years ago, I traded messages with an old friend/acquaintance who obviously hadn't stayed in touch when he asked, "How did you get to be a sportswriter?"
       From my sophomore year in high school,  I was always headed that way. Maybe you could trace it to when I was 4 or 5, back in Holland, when it was obvious I was going to be a sports fan/nut.
        It was a long road from Holland to Fort Worth, and career-wise, from Shreveport to points far west (Honolulu) and east (Jacksonville), with a few more stops, and finally a home for 10 1/2 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 
        As I've written previously, at the end of my career, I was satisfied that I always did the best I could. I can't say it was a "great" career because I screwed it up so many times, had too many conflicts and made more mistakes than I wanted. But I got the chance to do something I loved, to be involved in something I loved.
         Let me clarify that.
A still-young sportswriter in Honolulu
covering the Aloha Classic in 1982.
        Was sportswriting my "dream" job? No, it wasn't.
        My dream job: Running the New York Yankees. That's right; I wish I had the job Brian Cashman has now: general manager. I'm a few billions short of owning the team. But if I could have put together the teams to win 15 consecutive World Series titles, I would've fulfilled my dream.
         I was never going to be an athlete, I didn't have the skills to be a coach. I could've involved in running, say, a city recreation program or a kids' athletic organization.
          But where I ended up was in sportswriting. From early on, I always had a skill for keeping statistics and for reading -- studying -- books on sports history. I learned to score baseball games when I was 10; one of my parents' greatest gifts to me, at age 12, was a typewriter. I soon learned to type -- correctly, by the book, not hunt-and-peck -- and that would be invaluable.
        From the September 1960 day that coaches Ellace Bruce and Leonard Ponder handed me a letter from The Shreveport Times making me the correspondent who called in results of Oak Terrace Junior High's home football and basketball games, my career path was set.
        The summer after my sophomore year at Woodlawn High -- where I phoned The Times with the box scores and highlights of basketball and baseball games that weren't covered by a writer -- my first newspaper job became writing stories on top players in the SPAR summer baseball program.
         That was arranged through Jim McLain and Ed Shearer, The Times sportswriters I'd gotten to know when they covered Woodlawn games. In my junior and senior years, they also took me with them several times to Louisiana Tech when they covered games in the old Tech football stadium.
         Along with three of the coaches on the Woodlawn staff, those were my first connections to what would be four wonderful college years at Tech. But the most important part of that connection was the sports information director, T.H. "Pete" Dosher, who gave me a job there and taught me more about journalism -- and life -- than just about anyone. (Pete will be the subject of a future blog.)
          As mentioned in a previous blog, I made my first visit to The Times and got my first bylines in the summer of '63 with those kids' baseball stories. Still have the clippings and realize that, even after editing, they were the work of a 16-year-old. (To my friends, save the smart remarks here.)
          Later that summer, when Ed Shearer went for his two-week Army Reserves duty, I filled in for him covering American Legion baseball at SPAR Stadium -- my first Legion bylines.
           For the next 11 years, I covered Legion ball ... it was one of the earliest (and most fun) parts of my days with The Times. Four games every Saturday -- 2, 4, 6 and 8 -- and we had to fill out box scores by hand, then call a cab to take the boxes from the first three games to the newspaper. After the final game, it was a rush to get to the paper and wrap all four games in one story.
            (No cellphones, no computers, no telecopiers, no fax machines, no time to phone in and dictate the boxscores, which had to be set in type on the old linotype maches in the composing room downstairs. Yes, the old days of newspapers.)
            In my junior and senior years at Woodlawn, I wrote sports (and edited stories) for the school newspaper and was co-sports editor of the award-winning yearbooks. Great experiences, but not the same as working for the morning newspaper, and dealing with daily deadlines.
            From there it was four years in the sports information office at Tech, the last three years of which I ended up running the office when the SID left before the school year ended. Before I graduated, Bill McIntyre -- The Times sports editor and certainly one of my mentors -- offered me a fulltime job ... they expanded the staff (five fulltimers) to make a place for me.
             A fortunate break for me. It was already home, and I wasn't anywhere ready to live in the world on my own.
             You might surprised to read this: I did not love newspapers, I did not love writing. I do love reading newspapers and great writing, but -- unlike many people I worked with -- I didn't get great joy from working for newspapers or from writing.
             My passion was for sports, being involved some way with sports and sports people. Newspapers were just a venue for that; I wouldn't have wanted to work in any other department. I was people get transferred out of sports to, say, the state desk -- and I hated that for them.
             As for writing, I felt I improved a lot. Early in my career, I was far too statistics-oriented, too caught up in play-by-play. I didn't pay enough attention to the "people" aspect of writing.
             I spent far too much time researching sports history (on microfilm, for instance) and wasted too much time just reading newspapers from the past. Should have been working on how to improve as a writer.
              And I never found it that easy. Now, I could write on deadline, and write quickly, compose routine, fact-oriented stories in a hurry. But to write what I consider deep, analytical, think columns, or outstanding "feature" stories on people, that wasn't me. I worked with many, many people I felt did that better, and more easily.
               So I wasn't going to be a big-time writer; I knew that early on. I did get to cover many good events -- a Super Bowl, an Ali fight, good college bowl games and NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments, some NFL -- but I was just as happy covering North Louisiana colleges and especially covering high schools in a number of states.
               I never wanted to be outworked. Started out as a workaholic (didn't have much of a life then), but I burned out, had to pull back and I reformed. I learned it was more important to work smart than to work all the time.
               I did aim to become a good all-around journalist -- editing copy, writing headlines, designing pages (formerly known as "layout"), reporter, columnist, statistics keeper -- and I'm satisified I did that.
               I'm not looking for plaudits; this is more self-analysis. And while I don't want to do any more newspaper work, I would be open to editing sports books (I edited a couple of Louisiana-related books last year for friends).
                That is, unless Brian Cashman calls and wants me to take his job with the Yankees, or make me his assistant.



  1. From Bea Van Thyn: I'm truly thankful for Nico's "less-than-his-dream" career in journalism. It was quite a journey in every respect. At one point, I actually joined him working at a newspaper, just long enough to quadruple my appreciation for how he made our living. I love this blog entry.

  2. From Jack Thigpen: Great article on your career and how it panned out. Funny how we end up where we do in life. The sports bug hit me early also. My dad took me to every home Tech athletic event, and many out-of-towns ones, from a very young age. I can not remember when I did not go -- football, basketball, baseball, track -- it did not matter, we were there. I knew from early on that I loved being at the games and wanted to spend my life in the sports world in some capacity. I too had a dream of the professional sports world -- except I wanted to be a player. It did not take long to determine that I did not have the ability to be a pro player. I decided if I could not play, then coaching would be the next best thing. My experiences as a high school athlete solidified that decision of becoming a coach. My sister gave me a T-shirt early in my coaching career that had on the front: “If you can not play it, then coach it.”

  3. From Mike Richey (former Florida Times-Union sports editor/managing editor): Nico, like Bea, I very much enjoyed this entry. And, like you, I couldn't imagine having ever done anything else. I was a senior at Neville and a bagger at Globe Foods when my older brother was getting out of the Air Force. He asked me to look around for jobs for when he got home. I knew a guy in circulation at the Monroe News-Star and Morning World and asked him if he knew of any openings. He told me he knew that a sports writer was leaving. I had always loved sports and figured to hell with Jerry, I wanted that job for myself. I interviewed with Stuart Hill, who asked me why I wanted the job. "I'm tired of sacking groceries" was my answer. He and I were wearing identical green madras plaid pants. I think that's why he hired me. And I think that's how you and I first got acquainted, trading scoring summaries on teams from our respective towns that we mutually covered. And then there was the Grantland Rice Bowl in Murfreesboro, Tenn. I think we sat next to each other on the plane, which was only my second flight. ... It dawned on me how fortunate I was to have fallen into a career that I loved at such a young age. I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. The people we worked with, worked around and covered are some of the best you'll ever hope to know or meet. And you do a fabulous job of illuminating those coaches, players, mentors and co-workers in this blog. ... Oh, and one more thing, nobody ever outworked you. Though I know, and you know, much of the time it wasn't really work. And you are right: It quit being as much fun for me when I left sports.

  4. From Leo Van Thyn: I share with you the love of sports (mostly soccer, hockey, football, baseball) and was always heavily into statistics. I even took some courses in statistics. The woman in my life BC – Before Carol – was a professional musician. She moved to the Bronx. Since we were going to get married she wanted me to also move to the Bronx. It was a tough choice. In Toronto I had my family and a desire to be a teacher. In New York I had (at the time) my future wife, a definite interest in statistics, and a chance to cheer in person my favourite team, the Yankees. Someone in the Bronx was a friend of the majority owner of the New York Islanders, a team that was going to be in the NHL. Apparently they were looking for a statistician. I was going to visit the Bronx anyway and figured I had nothing to lose having the interview. Just before agreeing to the interview it came back to me that in order to be eligible for this job I needed to be a voting Republican. What a laugh! Didn’t they realize I was a Canadian citizen? So the interview never happened. Something else you and I have shared – statistics. You, however, parlayed it into journalism and I ended up being a teacher.

  5. Nico, I don't know if you know this or not, but I was the first student that Coach Bruce had as the correspondent to The Shreveport Times calling in results of Oak Terrace games. And, I even got to travel with the team to the away games. That was during my 9th grade and only year at Oak Terrace (59-60). But, the sports writing bug never bit me like it did you! I love the blog and the memories. Keep up the good work.