Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Our man Jeff: He left us with a smile

       Jeff Fries passed away on May 23 in Jacksonville, Fla., at the age of 53, and his friends -- including many of us who worked with him in the Florida Times-Union sports department in the late 1980s/early 1990s -- are mourning his loss.
        His name won't mean anything to many of my blog readers, but if you want to read some good writing, read below my introductory part. Promise, it's worth it.
        Jeff was a sportswriter, and a damn good one. He was a better guy.
        Not much was easy for Jeff the last 23 1/2 years. Life was difficult, but he lived it with grace and humor, and a toughness we all admired.
         At age 29, he had a severe stroke while visiting his parents in the Philadelphia area over the Thanksgiving holidays. He was impaired from then on, his career basically finished.
         He recovered to learn to walk with use of a cane and to type (one-handed, and slowly) columns on sports TV subjects that ran online at the T-U. He enjoyed some good times and good outings with his friends and family, and a decent quality of life in the Jacksonville Beach area.
         I left that area almost two decades ago, so I wasn't close to check on Jeff's situation regularly. But I was thrilled when I received a Facebook friend request from him a couple of years ago, and we had several message exchanges. He was still sharp.
         However, two more strokes since then were too much, and we lost him. It was not unexpected, but sad nonetheless. 
         On a talented staff of writers, with strong personalities and strong opinions, Jeff was one of the least stringent and most agreeable people.
         He was a good beat writer (University of Florida), a good reporter, a good columnist, and he was the best takeout/feature writer we had at the time. He could take a subject and deal with it thoroughly, and write an interesting, entertaining piece.
          Many from that staff moved on to bigger and better, some now nationally prominent, a couple still at the T-U as veteran leaders in the department. I asked a number of them, and Jeff's friends, for tributes/remembrances.
           So here they are. I give them to you with respect for these people and especially for Jeff's family, and with love for a fine once-young man who was dealt a tough lot in life. 

          Pete Prisco: I first met Jeff Fries at Arizona State when we were 19-year-old kids, dreaming of working as sports writers, talking sports night and day and laughing way more than we studied.
     Through the years, including our time in Jacksonville working for the Florida Times-Union, there is one thing that never changed about Jeff: He was the nicest guy in the room. Always.
     As many of you know, I am jaded and have an acerbic way about me, but Jeff was the complete opposite, which might be why we were friends.
     Jeff never had a bad thing to say about anybody (OK, maybe a sports editor or two with a bad idea).
     But, seriously, he might have been the most upbeat person I know. One of my favorite stories involving Jeff was when we were assigned to ride along with a Gainesville police officer for a story on drugs in the city since the University of Florida -- our beat at the time -- was having some issues.
      It was a bad idea since we had no crime-reporting experience, but even more so because it really had nothing to do with the school.
      Yet here we both were riding with the cops as they went on cocaine busts. I remember one situation started to look serious and it appeared that there could be some shooting. So I looked over at Jeff, and we're both slumped down in the back seat of the car as the cops ran to the suspects.
      Jeff, in his usual dry wit, looked over and said, "I wonder how (sports editor) Mike Richey gets this story if we both die."
      We didn't die that day, but the sad news I got last Friday was that Jeff did die -- way, way too young.
       For most of his adult life, since suffering a stroke in his early 30s, Jeff battled constant physical problems. Yet, through it all, he never complained. Not once. He instead found humor in his plight to offset what truly had to be a burden for a kid -- I still see him that way since I met him in my teens -- I know who was once so full of life.
      Even after he suffered a second stroke, he would text me to discuss the things I wrote or something I said on the radio.
      His favorite line: "Somebody wrote a pretty good story and put your name on it."
      As I remember him, and look back on all our fun times, from the innocent dreams of our youth to the horrible hand he was dealt later in life, the one thing that stands out to me more than any when it comes to Jeff Fries is this:
      He was the nicest man I will ever know. RIP, friend. You will be missed.
      Mike Richey: Jeff was one of the nicest people anyone could ever hope to meet. We first met in Denver at The Post when he was just out of Arizona State, and he was on the staff in Jacksonville when I became sports editor.
      He always had a smile, even after his life had turned upside down. Not too long after this first stroke, a mutual friend (Bob Van Winkle, Washington Post) and I drove up from D.C. and spent the day with Jeff at his parents' home outside Philly. He couldn't walk and couldn't use one of his arms at all. But he could smile, and joke, and laugh. There wasn't even a hint of self-pity. Not then, and to my knowledge, not ever.
      He was the model of what we all would hope to be if faced with similar circumstances. Most of us wouldn't come close, myself included. He was a good reporter and talented writer but his legacy to me is one of attitude, determination and inspiration.

     Pat Dooley: Jeff was genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever known. He had the gift of being able to mimic people and his impression of our boss Craig Stanke would have us doubling over in laughter. Unfortunately, Craig has passed on, too. Of all of the staffs I have worked on in my 37 years in the business, the staff at the T-U when Jeff was there was the closest. We did everything together and I believe he was a big reason. Everyone loved to be around him.

      Jill Cousins: I worked with Jeff at the Florida Times-Union from 1987 to 1990. I was the only female sportswriter at the time, and -- in an office with plenty of male chauvinists -- he always treated me with kindness and respect. He was funny and had a sweet smile, and I remember him defending me when he heard a co-worker complaining that I was taking too much time off to visit my sick sister (who, shortly afterward, died of cancer). Now that I think of it, his bright eyes and sweet smile remind me a little of Jimmy Fallon! Jeff, you will be remembered as a sweet man and a talented writer whose life ended too soon. May you R.I.P.

     Matt Hayes:  It would be easy to talk about Jeff Fries, the professional. The writer who had more talent, more vision, more concept of telling stories, than anyone I’ve ever met.
     I prefer to remember Jeff Fries, the friend.
     The guy who playfully nicknamed me “two-buck,” because when you’re making $8 an hour as a part-time sportswriter working full-time hours and paying off student loans, well, you’ve got two bucks in your pocket when you’re eating lunch and the check arrives – and once again, somebody has to cover you.
     The guy who never took anything or anyone too seriously, and never showed anger.
     The guy who, after dealing with so much heartache, looked at me years ago as I apologized for not seeing him enough, and said, “forget about that; tell me about your family.”
      The guy who loved to laugh; who had this barely audible, guttural sound when he saw or heard something that turned him sideways. One such moment, a certain anecdote Jeff and I shared over and over, was at the expense of one of our colleagues, Garry Smits.
      One weekday night, after Garry had worked long into another night of taking prep calls and writing roundups and making sure the guys downstairs in prepress didn’t wrap type on different columns and screw it all up, he called his sister who was expecting.
      Jeff was GA writer that night, and had to stay late, and I was working with Garry on a typically busy spring weeknight. Garry made the call – to this day, I’ve never asked him who he was talking to – and started getting the specifics.
      “Oh, great! So the baby is fine? And how big? How much did he weigh? And no problems with the birth?”
      At that moment, there was a pause for what seemed like an hour, but was really only a matter of seconds, before loveable Smitter blurted out, “What … huh? It’s Garry!!”
      Apparently, whomever Garry was speaking with; whoever was giving intimate details of a wonderful family moment, suddenly realized they didn’t know Garry.
      Jeff and I laughed so hard my temples hurt. We replayed that once in forever moment over and over through the weeks and months that followed, laughing harder each and every time. Smitter, bless his heart, learned to laugh about it, too.
      When I heard of Jeff’s passing, the first thing I thought of was that perfectly imperfect laugh of his, and that moment with Garry that will forever tie the three of us together.
      The second thing I thought was I should have been a better friend. I told Jeff that very thing years ago when I saw him during a Florida-Georgia weekend, when some of his friends met at a local Jax Beach bar to throw back a few beers and tell old stories.
      At one point that night, when it was just he and I at the table, I told him, “Freezy, you haven’t changed at all.”
      He said, “You have; I don’t even know it’s you with these coke bottle glasses.”
      And then, I couldn’t resist.
      “It’s not me,” I said, “It’s Garry!”
       I'll miss that laugh.

      Garry Smits: In the summer of 1990, I was given a great opportunity at the Florida Times-Union: Get off the high school beat and go live in Tallahassee, to cover Florida State.
      There was a caveat. I would cover the nuts and bolts of the beat, such as covering practices and writing injury reports. When it came to a big takeout or huge game on deadline, Jeff Fries would come out and serve as a designated hitter of sorts.
      I  had no problem with that. My respect and admiration for Jeff over-rode any ego on my part, which other friends would assure you was no small miracle.
      It was only about four months later that Jeff had his first stroke and that effectively ended his career, which was headed for great things. I'm talking destination Sports Illustrated. Or The Sporting News, Dallas Times-Herald, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago ... I'm sure Jeff was holding out hope one day that he'd land back in his hometown and work at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
      On a sports staff loaded with guys who went on to become lead columnists and national writers, Jeff was among the best. He wrote concisely, with an economy in words but a wealth of impact. And he did it all, college and pro football and basketball, golf, baseball, whatever was needed.
       In looking up his last work on our microfilm files from the fall of 1990, I discovered that Jeff's final assignment was a 3-on-3 basketball tournament called "Hoop It Up." I'm sure in the height of football season some guys of his stature might have seen it as beneath him -- especially since in the weeks before, he had covered a Miami Dolphins game and the Notre Dame-Tennessee game.
       Jeff attacked it with relish and turned in four days of entertaining writing.
       In one of life's cruel jokes, one of his last stories was about a wheelchair basketball team.
       Jeff was a better person than he was a writer. I never heard a single person say a bad thing about him. He had the respect of his colleagues, and the coaches, athletes and front-office people he covered.
        There there's his courage. My God, who among us would have handled his fate without bitterness or self-pity? He never displayed either when around his friends and family.
       About that master plan for me in Tallahassee in the fall of 1990, for Jeff to come out of the bullpen at 1 Riverside Avenue to do the big stories and write the big gamers? Well, what Jeff said to me gave me the confidence to know I could go from high school sports to a major beat.
      "Don't worry," he said. "They won't need me out there. You'll do great."
      God bless you my friend. God bless you a million times over.

      Chris Smith: I was truly saddened to hear about the passing of Jeff. Although it's been years since seeing him and beingwith him on that memorable sports staff at the Times-Union, I'll always remember him as a wonderful, down-to-earth guy with an easy personality ... in thinking back, Jeff was a perfect counterbalance to some of those "bigger" personalities in the newsroom. He will be missed. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family.

     John Oehser: “Today was Gary Darnell’s birthday. Yesterday was cake.” That was Jeff Fries’ lede from a University of Florida football game -- in the late 1980s, obviously. Akron may have been the opponent and the occasion may have been homecoming. Doesn’t matter. But I still remember the lede 25 years or so later. I don’t remember ledes of my own from the last week anymore, but I remember that one.
       When I started at the Times-Union in the late 1980s, the staff was good. Really, really good. And deep. And a bunch of good guys. With a lot of Fs, oddly enough -- Fabrizio. Frenette. Frangie. The non-Fs included Prisco and Smits and Smith and names such as Larson and some others I’m unintentionally omitting. I won’t insult these guys who I respected and admired 2 1/2 decades ago by saying Fries was clearly the best, but I think those same guys would agree he was in the conversation.
       He was as good a guy as any of them, too. I’m pretty sure that would be unanimous. As a writer, though, as good as he was -- and he was damned good -- I have to think he would have kept getting better. He had a gift for takeouts, and a gift for a turn of phrase, and mostly I remember him really giving a damn about the craft of it, and I remember as a young writer who wanted to get better that there was little cooler than a slightly older writer who gave a damn about the craft of it.
      I don’t know where Fries’ career would have taken him. I am pretty sure it would have been some damned good gigs and there would have been some damned good ledes. I didn’t know Fries as well as a lot of the guys at the T-U back then did. I think I’d been there about 2 1/2 years when what happened to him happened. We hadn’t traveled together, and hadn’t gone out drinking much together, so we hadn’t had the heartfelt conversations such occasions bring. A lot of the guys I’ve already mentioned probably had those. What I have is a few years of having worked with a damned good writer, and as me and Prisco were discussing at the Jaguars the other day, about as nice a guy as you want to meet in this business. He was one of the first writers at the T-U to reach out and accept me as something close to an equal.
      Maybe my most vivid memory of Fries was coming into the T-U on a February morning. I forget the year but I had covered the Rolex 24 in Daytona the day before. I remember the lede I wrote after Jaguar won the event to break some sort of drought: “Jaguar … there is no substitute.” I don’t know how good it was, but I thought it was OK then, and when I walked past Fries’ cubicle, he poked his head up and said, “Hey, somebody wrote a pretty good lead and put your name on it.”
     That meant a hell of a lot to me. As I said, he was a damned nice guy.

     Joe Adams: I was fortunate in the sense I had left Florida when Jeff had his problems so my memories are of the Jeff I knew when we were at the T-U in the 1980s. Just a good, good guy -- sharp, funny and a good writer. We had a good crew then and had a lot of good times. Jeff was always a part of them. Jeff is gone way too soon, but I'm sure he's in a better place and he's the Jeff we all want to remember. The pain is gone now but our fond memories remain.

     Gene Frenette: In my lifetime, there's never been anybody I've known in our sports writing industry that has endured tougher health issues at a young age like Jeff. Nobody can possibly fathom why some people end up suffering to a much greater extent than others. But one undeniable fact about Jeff is he handled a completely unfair medical circumstance with a fantastic attitude and a grace to be admired.
     Really, who does anyone know that has a stroke at age 29 or 30 that pretty much ends their working career? And puts them in such a tough rehabilitating situation that it also impedes so many qualities of life that most of us just take for granted?
      In the 23 years that Jeff had to endure all that rehabilitation, all the surgeries, all the dependency on family and friends to help him perform simple tasks, I had the privilege of being married to a wonderful woman and raising four kids. That hardly seems fair. How did I get so lucky and Jeff so brutally unlucky? There's no answer for that. For whatever reason, God asks us to make the most of whatever adversities that come our way, and some of us do it better than others.
      For about three years, Jeff's working cubicle at the Times-Union was right behind mine, so it was impossible not to hear all the conversations he might have with people who came by or were on the phone. I can tell you this: no working colleague in the course of a normal day laughed as much as Jeff. He just had that way about him. He was always smiling, or joking, or busting a friend about something. Some people make coming to work a bit of a drudgery, others make it a fun experience, and Jeff was definitely the latter. He was almost always upbeat. He was fun to debate with because he didn't try to outscream you. He actually listened and if there was still disagreement about something, he could leave it at that and not get offended if you didn't see a point of view the same way.
     When I visited him at his parents' home in Pennsylvania after covering a Florida-Syracuse football game, following his first stroke, it was as if nothing was different. He was still the same jovial guy, still kidding me about my sweet tooth when his mother brought out dessert.
     Looking back, everyone probably knows somebody that life has kicked in the teeth and handled whatever suffering or adversity amazingly well. Jeff was that guy for a lot of us. Maybe God puts him in front of us to show what is truly possible with a positive attitude and sense of humor. All I know is Jeff is in a better place now. No more pain, no more suffering, no more wondering if there's a reward for all those medical and emotional setbacks.
      Rest in peace, Jeff. You're in the heaven that you richly deserve.

      Mark Wollemann: I worked with Jeff in the late '80s and always thought of him as one of the kindest people I'd ever met. Hard-working, tough and determined, for sure. But just a nice, and good-natured guy. My fondest memories revolved around playing hoops with him and some of the gang of young bucks in Jacksonville at the time. Also, his spot-on Vince Dooley impersonation.
       I had left Jacksonville before his first stroke and recovery but he was always in my thoughts. And I was able to reconnect via social media in the past few years. I'm glad he was surrounded by good friends and loving family all these years.
       We make strong emotional connections to those we encounter early in our careers and the memories of them stay with us forever. I'll long remember Jeff as the gentle and kind spirit he was.

        Frank Frangie: What I’ll remember most is the smile. More than the quick wit, the insanely good writing skills, I’ll remember most the never-ending smile.
        The first time I met Jeff, he was walking into the newsroom to meet his new newspaper family at the Times-Union. He was just beaming. You could tell this was a guy so happy to be here, in town, happy for this beginning. And he truly loved it. Loved writing, hanging with the guys, going to games, having a cold one. A sportswriter, truly one of the guys. One of the really good guys.
        We all had tons of memories together. None will ever trump, for me, the legendary East Coast baseball trip. Ray McNulty, Tony Fabrizio, Jeff and me. Games in Baltimore, Philly, both New York stadiums, and Boston. Ray and Jeff had family in the Northeast who put us up. Tony and I were the freeloaders. We watched baseball. And more baseball. Went to bars from near Inner Harbor to the Boston Harbor, in pubs in Philly and Manhattan. Laughed, told stories, played wiffle ball in the same backyard in Eastern Pennsylvania where Jeff grew up.
        Just four single sportswriters, with no money and no real responsibilities, having the time of our lives. We all smiled the whole time. Laughs and one-liners. Oh, the one-liners. And the Jeff Fries wit.
        A full week of fun. Including the 24-hour straight drive back home from Boston in the rented Ford Taurus. I can remember leaving Fenway that night knowing we were headed home. Leaving Fenway and heading for the I-95 ramp.
        Someone (Tony I think): “How do we get back?”
        Jeff: “Right on 95. Left on Riverside."
        (Riverside Drive, home of the newspaper in Jacksonville.)
        I think we laughed all the way to Virginia.
        That’s where Fabrizio got the speeding ticket. We were afraid to laugh. But we did anyway.
        And about that writing ability. I think among our group, it was a roundly held opinion that Jeff was the one with the ridiculous talent. He was that good. Sports Illustrated good. It was just a matter of time.
        That time never arrived. Yet, despite life dealing him a cruel blow, Jeff never seemed defeated. At least not the times I was around him. I remember the times he told me, “It could have been worse.” I”ve never forgotten that.
        I remember his 50th birthday get-together on the Aqua Grill patio. Grinning the whole time, around family and friends, one-liners as if it were the old days.
        Sometimes when we memorialize someone, they become better in memory. Kinder, nicer, more friendly. Didn’t need that with Jeff. Truly, he was one of the most genuinely good, genuinely kind people most of us ever knew, and was that way the entire time we knew him. The guy with the really quick wit. The wonderful friend. The wonderfully talented writer.
        With the never-ending smile.  

        Tony Fabrizio: Seriously, was the guy ever not smiling? My enduring memories of Jeff from working together at the Florida Times-Union in the 1980s are his quick wit, his boundless knowledge of sports and bands you’d never heard of and, of course, that big toothy smile.

        Jeff was such a good guy he had about six best friends, all the while making each of us feel like the most important person in his life. He was a great listener and loyal to the point of blindness, always taking your side in matters of the heart, family and speeding tickets (the cop was always a jerk!) He had this way of making you feel better about yourself while still laughing at your quirks.
        No one should have to suffer like a fan of the Philly sports teams, but Jeff endured without ever taking Prozac. He eased his struggle somewhat by claiming Syracuse basketball and seizing upon any small success of his alma mater Arizona State Sun Devils.
       Jeff was gentle and non-confrontational and, at least during the T-U days, pretty darn allergic to the gym. That’s why we all still laugh about that Quarter Beer Night at CJ’s when he caught a would-be thief breaking into his Oldsmobile Calais and punched him out.
       Sportswriting was a blast in the ‘80s, and that was doubly the case at the T-U because several of us were close in age and spent a lot of time together away from work. The summer car trip that Jeff, Ray McNulty, Frank Frangie and I took to visit several East Coast baseball stadiums still ranks as one my most memorable vacations. A highlight for sure was visiting Jeff’s family in Landsdale, Pa., and playing a fiercely competitive game of wiffle ball in the backyard. Jeff would rib me for years to come for complaining that “Frank always has to pitch, always has to play quarterback.” In retrospect, Frank, you were pretty good.
       Our group also included Dan Macdonald, Pete Prisco, Michael Howe, Mark Basch and Garry Smits, and I remember Dawn Rodriguez and Bev Keneagy hanging out from time to time. I’m probably forgetting someone, but no matter who was involved, Jeff was the glue that pulled everyone together.
      Jeff was in my wedding party in 1988, along with Ray and Frank, and of course I had to pull out the photo album this week and go through the old photos. There was Jeff in every group shot with that big, shick-eating grin. Over the years, Jeff got to know my family and strike up a friendship with my sister Amber and I got to know his parents, Richard and Sonia, and siblings, Eric and Susan. Jeff adored his family, which was hardly a chore, and he had a special place in his heart for then-little nieces Callie and Amy.
      I moved to Atlanta after getting married, and Jeff came to visit us right after my daughter Erin was born and just before his first stroke in November 1990. He stayed at the house, and though I couldn’t find it this week, I have a picture of him sitting on the arm chair, grinning ear to ear. I, in turn, was able him visit twice in Lansdale in the early '90s while covering games in Philadelphia. My then-wife Ann came along on one of those trips and recalled this week how Jeff’s parents made her feel like family. She, too, is saddened by Jeff’s passing.
     Jeff was dealt a bad lot in life, and yet he dealt with his predicament with grace and determination. Instead of getting angry, he became more spiritual, and he never gave up on life or trying to get better. Jeff made his mark in journalism, and we can only wonder how impactful his career would have been had he stayed healthy. He easily could have become a lead columnist, broadcaster, analyst or, with his people skills, a communications executive with a pro team or league.
     But I do think Jeff did something in his life even more important than reach the pinnacle of journalism. He left us all better off from having known him.


  1. From Bob Tompkins: I didn’t know Fries, but all indications are he was a wonderful guy. Sorry he died so young.

  2. From Tom Marshall: Man, oh, man, Nico. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know Jeff Fries (although there are many things in my life these days that I’ve somehow forgotten). But reading all of these remembrances sure makes me wish I had known the guy. What a life! His outlook seems to have been heroic in a Gehrig kind of way. It’s certainly my loss for never knowing Jeff. Thanks for putting together this grand tribute.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Most people are lucky to have one real friend. It looks like this gentleman had many.

  4. From Pete Foley: Amazing tributes, all. Godspeed, Jeff ...

  5. From Joe Adams: ... Jeff touched a lot of lives and will be missed.

  6. From Beverly Keneagy: Wow! What a great tribute to Jeff. Thank you, Nico, and everyone else for contributing. Jeff was the kindest soul and will be missed.

  7. From Ed Gefen: Thanks for putting this together. I arrived at the T-U after Jeff was stricken, so I never met him. It's nice to learn a little about someone who was held in such high regard by so many people.

  8. From Maxie Hays: "Somebody wrote a pretty good story and put your name on it." Loved it. Your friend was an awesome person. Isn't it wonderful to have friends like that.

  9. From Vince Langford: Loved the blog piece about your former Jacksonville colleague. Great tributes by those writers. Quite a staff, my gosh, although I guess I only know Matt Hayes and Prisco, know the names, I mean. That piece made me feel better about what newspaper sports journalism used to be.

  10. From Susan Fries Sullivan: I thank each and every one of Jeff's friends for your kind words. Jeff said to me once, "Yeah, I've lost some big things, but not -- thank you, dear God -- not my memories." I'm so very glad neither have you guys.

  11. From Dave Moormann: Tremendous tribute to someone who obviously deserved it.

  12. From Liz Oehser: What wonderful tributes to a fellow reporter that all were lucky to work with and even luckier to know. Words may not take away the sorrow of the loss, but it gives us insight to a remarkable person who left his mark on each and every person his life touched. I'm grateful my son (John) knew such a man.

  13. From Alan Schmadtke: One of the nicest sportswriters ever to walk the earth. He had a big heart, a lot of courage and an enormous amount of persistence and endurance. Beers up.

  14. From Melanie McCullough: Sounds like a terrific guy. I'm sorry our paths never crossed. Thanks for sharing these moving tributes.

  15. From Toby Srebnik: Agree with Melanie. I read the tributes and, while I don't remember him, he sounds like a truly special person who truly impacted every person he ever met.

  16. From Bonnie Phillips Upright: I came to the T- U sports department a couple of years after Jeff left and never had the pleasure of meeting him. However, his legacy was felt in the newsroom even then.

  17. From Chuck Baker: The memorials from your writer friends regarding the Jacksonville writer who passed away were a great read. Even in those short messages, some quality writing.