Not long ago, I watched a couple of documentaries on ESPN about the Southeastern Conference called “SEC: Storied.”
In the tradition of admirable Southern storytelling, this series chronicles a specific game, rivalry or legendary SEC figures such as Archie Manning and his sons. It so happened that both of the documentaries I watched back-to-back included interviews with two sportswriters who I knew well and covered events with when I was a young sportswriter reporting on SEC football and NASCAR.
As I listened to Joe Biddle and Larry Woody, both sportswriters from Nashville, my admiration for them reared up mightily again after many years forgotten. Those guys are part of a generation of storytelling sportswriters that will never again be matched. Their stories were built with words of poetry where a quarterback sneak for a 40-yard touchdown was lyrical enough to rival Dylan or Kristofferson.
Now, Sports Illustrated has writers who can and still do write that way and for that, they are handsomely paid. But in the days of my youth, when sportswriting was my first job and I was green as the fresh spring grass, the press boxes across the Southeast were filled with men who, amidst the lung-choking smoke and the rattling of portable typewriters, tapped out sonnets, the equivalent to Shakespeare, detailing the game. Then they called back to the paper and dictated them over the phone. And for these gorgeous bouquets, they were paid barely enough to keep them stocked in cigarettes and whiskey.
Once — in a press box in Athens, after a Clemson-Georgia game — I watched a grizzled writer from South Carolina call in his story, eschewing any written word or premeditation. He made it up as he spoke, and it was pure genius. I was so wrapped up in his enthralling deliverance as he made a raggedy game sound like a grand parade of fabulousness that I forgot that I was on deadline with my own story.
I loved those guys. They were colorful. Brilliant at their craft. And each was kind to a young, prissy girl thrust into their midst in the days when it conjured forth a headache to think that times were changing and soon it wouldn’t be “for men only.” Their once-exclusive terrain was being threatened. The wind whispered of different days ahead.
Though my reporting of the SEC took me formally into their ranks, it was my coverage of NASCAR that really brought me into their family as a distant cousin. Some reporters like me covered both, so our paths crossed frequently. In Talladega, they told me the story of one of their own who had been recruited by NASCAR as a PR guy for that track. He drank. Today, we’d call him an “alcoholic,” but then, he was just a good ol’ boy living fast and having fun doing it. One night, drunk, he left the race track and had a bad accident. When he woke up in the hospital, there was a huge fire raging outside his window from a nearby burning building. He believed he had died and gone to hell. It scared him so bad that he straightened up. He never drank another drop and, when he died a few years ago, the lovable Jim Hunter was one of NASCAR’s highest, most-respected executives.
Clyde Bolton from Birmingham and Tom Higgins from Charlotte were terrific writers, great men and special to me. By the time I met him, Bill Robinson of Atlanta had waved a white flag to his better days, but he still penned eloquently what most could only dream of writing. He is said to have been the man who named Richard Petty “The King” and Dale Earnhardt “The Intimidator.”
Once, he had begun a story of another Petty win with the words, “Running flat out, belly to the ground, chasing a hurrying sundown.”
Redneck poetry, I guess. But beautiful to me.
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