I wouldn’t trade my now 39-year career as a sports writer for any other profession – except, perhaps, billionaire playboy.
Like many, my childhood dreams were to be a pro athlete and it was apparent early on that wasn’t happening. Small, but slow, that was me. But I had to find a way in, and sports writing was it.
I loved the numbers, the stats, and I could remember the most inconsequential of details thanks to a then razor-sharp memory. The writing part wasn’t easy. It came later but it all kind of fell into place.
There is great camaraderie in the profession, something I miss now that I’m freelancing my way through. Your best friends are often your fiercest competitors. You learn to love and respect the writers from other papers as you share another 2 a.m. meal or round of drinks, even knowing you have a 5 a.m. flight home.
But there’s no denying the fun, the untold stories, the funny quotes and situations, that spin out from this life.
National scribe Gene Wojciechowski realized this in 1990. His book “Pond Scum and Vultures” was a brilliantly simple concept. All he did was collect the best anecdotes from other writers and publish them.
Gee, why didn’t I think of that?
Here is my limited version, perfect for a column at a dead time of year. Enjoy
My first step into the profession was as a student sports information worker under Paul Mannaseh, who allowed me to learn from my mistakes, but always encouraged me with positive reinforcement.
My main job was statistician and PA announcer for the baseball team in 1979 and 1980. I was Bill Franques before there was a Bill Franques, not nearly as accomplished. LSU baseball wasn’t even a shadow of what it is now.
My two years in this role went smoothly for the most part. LSU got off to a hot start in 1979, climaxed by a 10-6 victory against Tulane in old Alex Box stadium. That night, then Green Wave coach Joe Brockhoff was ejected and as he walked toward the chain link gate to exit the field, someone threw a cabbage at him, and the pieces stayed on the ground for the remainder of the game. And no one was ejected from the stands, which had a pretty nice crowd of around 1,000.
Another Tulane story: in 1980 LSU was warming up in right field of Turchin Stadium for a midweek day game. A Tulane PE archery class was going on just beyond the right field fence. Slowly, one by one, an errant arrow would fly over landing in the space between the players and the fence.
After about 15 arrows, freshman pitcher Jon Soderberg had had enough. He collected them, broken them over his knee and flung them back over the fence.
My job during games was little more than announcing batters. Occasionally, I would come up with ideas for tapes to juice up the crowd. One night, Steve Dietzel, who worked in the promotions department, brought me a box of cassette tapes with baseball-style recordings of “Charge” and others to fire up the crowd.
One of the tapes was a ‘Three Blind Mice’ recording, which he mentioned I could play when an umpire blew a call – so I did. I hate to admit I didn’t know any better. Lamabe was quite angry, and although no one said anything to me directly, I got the message. Today, it’s unimaginable. It would warrant a reprimand from the SEC office and a loss of my job.
The 1978 team set a record for futility. I wasn’t there, but this story was related to me by a player and confirmed by Scooter Hobbs, who was statistician/PA that year. The team was returning from a season-ending sweep at Auburn, capping a 5-19 SEC record. Then coach Jim Smith was in his final season, three years removed from an SEC title.
In fairness to Smith, he was in an impossible situation as football team equipment manager. Head baseball coach was his secondary job and it showed, although only Skip Bertman and Paul Mainieri have won more games than Smith (238).
The team bus, loaded with players ready for the season to be over, pulled up to the campus police station so Smith could get a key to open up the stadium and unload. After he departed the bus and walked toward the police station, outfielder Robert Rhoden mused, “Is he going to turn himself in?” The bus erupted in laughter.
In 1995, I was assigned to cover LSU sports as Times Picayune beat writer and getting a good quote was a quest. Two of the best came from former LSU defensive lineman Chuck Wiley, who spoke from the heart more than any one I can remember.
One year after losing to Alabama 26-0, LSU beat the Tide, 27-0, in Tuscaloosa in 1997. Chuck’s first reaction was, “Payback is a female dog.” Brilliant.
Earlier that season, LSU escaped Vanderbilt, 7-6, on a missed PAT. After conducting all my interviews, I crossed paths with Chuck on my way back to the press box. He got up close to me and said, earnestly, “We won that game by the grace of God! Do you hear me, the grace of God!”
That jumped to the top of my quote list for my game story.
I once asked Tyrann Mathieu if it was hard to stay humble. “I have to work at it every day,” he replied, dead seriously.
Here’s one from a sports writer, Scooter Hobbs, who has a lifetime of funny lines. His best timed one came in the mid-80s shortly after he got married.
“Scooter, how was your honeymoon?” then LSU coach Bill Arnsparger asked.
“I don’t know, I’ll have to check the film,” he replied, turning around an old coaches dodge for assessing a team’s play back on Arnsparger.
One night I was playing Mr. Mom, waiting on a call from then Indiana Pacers general manager Billy Knight. Just as I picked up the phone, my four-year old son let out a blood-curdling scream directly into the mouthpiece. Somehow, I managed to go through with the short interview. I’m sure it’s a story Billy Knight likes to tell his friends.
I had my share of run-ins with former hoops coach John Brady. Once he called me at home to excoriate me over something I had written. He blasted away for 10 minutes from the time I answered the call then declared, “This conversation is over,” hanging up without me having uttered a word, other than “Hello.”
Finally, I’ll take a small jab at Nick Saban, which should please the readers. Saban held a Noon Basketball League (NBA) in which coaches and other staff members would play some hoops to break up their day and relieve stress.
I was interviewing John Brady after a practice in the PMAC underground gym when Saban and Co. entered and began playing. Brady and I watched for about 10 minutes, during which the participants played hard but missed every single shot, every single layup.
Later that year, Saban delivered LSU’s first national championship since 1958.