Henning: 45 years covering sports provide endless memories
That first day as a full-time journalist and sports writer was Aug. 5, 1974, a hot, bright Monday, three days before President Richard Nixon resigned, and with a 7 a.m. start at the Battle Creek Enquirer.
A guy two months after grabbing his journalism degree from Michigan State had secured that most aspired of all prizes: work at a daily newspaper.
I walked into the office and joined two sports-staff partners, Dick Lovell and sports editor Bill Frank. First task: write a cutline (photo caption) for an Associated Press photo of Jack Nicklaus from the Pleasant Valley Classic's final round.
Four decades and many million words later, it ends, formally anyway, today at The Detroit News, a wondrous employer for nearly all of the past 40 years.
There have been moments and minutes so magical, and so frequent, as to defy any orderly account.
But here goes on some of the most special and extraordinary frames from a life that has been an endlessly sweet vocation:
Most bizarre story
Five months into that first job at Battle Creek Enquirer, it was decided a rare free Saturday would be spent in the press box at Jenison Fieldhouse. I wanted to see what the Spartans might do against Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers.
Standing in a corner of that high-in-the-sky, wonderfully cramped gondola of a press box at Jenison, a friend who ran one of MSU’s dormitories, Ron Smith, slid over before the game and said: “You won’t believe this. But State’s players just walked out. They’re not playing.”
The varsity lads hadn’t appreciated that a freshman, Jeff Tropf, was starting against Knight's warriors. They decided this was a promotion that had about it a racial tinge and one they couldn’t accept from coach Gus Ganakas. They walked out of the locker room and out of Jenison as an early crowd jeered.
The mutiny meant junior-varsity players (they had jayvee teams in those days) had to be pulled from dorms and apartments and libraries (one or two, anyway) for what became the most bizarre sports event I ever covered, even if plans that day hadn’t included working.
The rag-tag JV corps of course perished, 107-55, against a Knight team that was about to go 18-0 in the Big Ten and 31-1 overall.
I typed a hot news story, dictated it by phone to our guy in the office that evening (computers hadn’t yet arrived at newspapers and the Internet was 20 years away), and was glowing on Monday when the managing editor thumb-tacked my piece onto a newsroom bulletin board.
“A good job above and beyond the call of duty,” he had written, probably in part because the kid hadn’t hit them for overtime.
I didn’t need the extra pay — not as much as it was important that afternoon to have been on hand for an event, strange and volatile and incredibly gratifying for its reporting challenges that for a 22-year-old were happily met.
The Nick Saban saga
Saturday afternoon, Nov. 5, 1994: The date is precise because it was my son’s seventh birthday and there was a party downstairs with a dozen kids making clatter common to 7-year-olds filling themselves with sugar.
We were still using landlines and wall phones 25 years ago, which given the noise, wasn’t going to make this call easy.
I grabbed a kitchen wall-phone and tucked into our soundproof pantry to dial the Cleveland Browns.
A few days earlier I had returned to The Detroit News following a few years in the magazine business. Michigan State was about to fire George Perles as football coach and it seemed strange no one in considering potential hires had mentioned one man’s name:
I had known Saban during his days as a Perles assistant and defensive coordinator in the mid-‘80s. He was going to be a head coach soon, and a fireball of a head coach. That much was clear.
The Browns receptionist rang Saban’s voice mail. A message was left, delicately. Perles hadn’t yet been fired. But this axing was imminent and I needed to know, as much as Saban could say, if he had interest in MSU. In my mind he was East Lansing’s perfect answer.
There was one problem. He and his Browns boss, Bill Belichick, were about to march into the NFL playoffs. MSU would be hiring him late, if the bosses could be enticed, which was no guarantee, given MSU’s past hiring faux pas.
Two days later, while pecking away on a story, the office phone rang. It was Saban.
We talked on background for a half hour. Yes, of course, he was interested. He and wife Terry had always said East Lansing was their favorite place.
But … Perles hadn’t been fired.
Saban gave an on-the-record quote that doubled as a tightwire walk. It spoke of his respect for Perles, his situation as Browns defensive coordinator, and it acknowledged his ardor for MSU.
This candidacy was going to set the campus aflame.
And it did — everywhere but in the mind of then-MSU president M. Peter McPherson, who had been told by Joe Paterno that his offensive coordinator, Fran Ganter, was the guy MSU should hire.
McPherson tried but the Ganter romance, fortunately for MSU, collapsed. Saban soon was named Spartans coach.
It seemed a home run. I had been at plenty of practices and had seen Saban coach. His high-RPM motor and passion for detail was impressive. I had sat with him in his office as a man then 34 years old diagrammed for a story I was doing the Stunt 4-3 defense Perles loved.
This was a different coach, with transcendent skills. And had he stuck at MSU and not essentially been driven out by McPherson and by McPherson’s inability to see him as the rare football steward he was, some of those national championships that have accumulated at LSU and at Alabama could, very possibly, have been owned by Michigan State.
Reggie, the regal one
Driving home from an Ann Arbor golf course on Aug. 20, 1986, I flipped on that night’s Tigers game against the California Angels at Tiger Stadium.
Wow. It was the seventh inning and Walt Terrell had a no-hitter going.
Problem was, we likely had just one writer covering the game. I called the office and headed for the ballpark.
Terrell’s jewel held throughout that drive from Northville to Michigan and Trumbull.
It was still going, deep into the ninth, when I stepped off the press-box elevator.
And then, at that moment, with two out, Wally Joyner raked a double down the right-field line.
Sorry, Walt. But it was still quite the story. I headed for the Angels dressing room to speak with Joyner.
Just before that Angels-Tigers series, I had written as part of a multi-subject baseball column in The News something of a brief aside about Reggie Jackson arriving for what might be his last trip to Detroit.
He was pushing 40 and there had been thoughts this could be his last season. I wrote that during his years he had been a terrific return on the entertainment dollar. I mentioned the colossal good fortune some of us had known when we were at Tiger Stadium for the 1971 All-Star Game and Jackson had hit that screaming missile that tore into the right-center field light tower atop Tiger Stadium.
I had said that, not only was it the sight of that ball “rocketing toward the heavens,” but that for those of us there that evening it was as much the sound of that artillery shell from Reggie that we all would remember.
Now, in the Angels dressing room a few days later, standing amid a media crowd debriefing Joyner, there was a tap on my shoulder.
It was Reggie.
“Come here a minute,” he said.
He stepped behind a big red beverage cooler that would offer some privacy and said:
“I just want you to know how much I appreciated what you wrote the other day.”
Well … This was a moment that didn’t, and wouldn’t, happen often in a sports scribe’s life. A player, a celebrity player at that, saying with genuine sincerity he liked something you wrote?
It’s 33 years later and it’s back at you, Reggie:
You’ll never know how much that gesture meant to a guy who had been writing words he thought were merely routine.
Magglio, Carlos — and last call
It was late on a Friday night in September 2009, and misery again had been on the menu at Minneapolis. The Tigers might as well have played at the Tower of London as at the Twins’ home torture chamber, which is the way it had gone this evening as the Tigers, who were four games up on the Twins and in first place, lost, 3-0, at the Metrodome.
A personal policy on road trips is to stay at the team hotel. It offers round-the-clock coverage. You bump into someone at the coffee shop and learn about an injury. You get into a random chat in the lobby and, suddenly, you’re not just the guy crowding a clubhouse locker with your notebook in hand. You, like the player, become a human being rather than getting caught again in the player-reporter web.
Sometime after 11 on this Friday evening, I finished writing and cabbed to the hotel. I wanted a beer and headed for the Hyatt Regency’s bar.
Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez were at a back table having a post-game splash. The guy still carrying his computer bag on a shoulder offered a wave en route to a bar seat and to winding down for an hour or so while eyeing ESPN on the overhead TV.
A waitress pulled into the nearby drink station.
“Take those gentlemen at the back table one on me,” I said, returning to draining a draft and reading ESPN’s crawling updates.
Ordonez and I had been having issues, which wasn’t fun, because he was, and is, one of the best men I’ve known in baseball.
But this had been a complicated year.
He had contract riders that would trigger at a certain number of at-bats and vest him for a potential $27 million during the next two years. It was mid-May and Ordonez, then 35, wasn’t hitting. He was making $18.9 million and his OPS was still in the .600s.
These were realities that had to be addressed.
It was wearing on him. During a road game against the White Sox earlier that month, Ordonez confided to me that his wife had cancer. It was crushing news.
But the contract reality wasn’t going away even if Magglio didn’t see it that way. He viewed writing about it as a betrayal when there had been trust in disclosing his wife’s crisis.
Following the All-Star break, during a pregame clubhouse stop, I had skipped by his locker, and as men often do after they haven’t seen each other in a while, I’d offered a handshake.
“Go shake someone else’s hand,” he said, brusquely.
This was going to be a rough stretch.
Now it was September and things hadn’t been any better, which is how it often is in this business. You deal with it and do your job.
You also buy two guys a drink following a Friday night game in which you’ve probably asked one or more of them for thoughts on what just happened on the Metrodome field. And you do it for one overarching reason: It is, in most circumstances, routine civility.
Five minutes later, the waitress reappeared.
“The two men would like you to join them.”
I approached the table, having no idea where this might go. Ordonez stood up, wearing a red-checkered shirt, and said, hotly:
“Why are you always killing me?”
We sat. I explained journalism and reporting obligations.
Guillen, an eternally splendid gent who had, in only minutes, brokered this get-together, nodded and said:
“You’re kind of like a referee.”
Bingo, Carlos. That can be part of the job.
Ordonez, initially, wasn’t buying into the journalism seminar.
“You broke my heart,” he said, and the words would have made anyone wince.
His wife’s ills. A husband’s and father’s endless anxiety. Ordonez’s contract and early batting issues (they had since been repaired) had to be a newspaper’s focus?
We talked, the three of us, Magglio sipping vodka and Red Bull, Guillen working on some white wine, the scribe quaffing his draft.
The chat began to turn comfortable and even warm as lights came on at 1 a.m. We had talked it out.
We rose from the table and Ordonez and I hugged, spontaneously. It was a matter of appreciating feelings and responsibilities. It was about respect. It was about a lot of things, all good.
Post script: The professional relationship stayed strong. A few years later, after he had retired from the Tigers, I was with a friend at Streetside Seafood in Birmingham, trying to decide if we wanted to wait a half-hour for a table.
We decided we’d try elsewhere.
A hundred feet down the sidewalk, there was the sound of my name being called.
I turned around. It was Ordonez. He had returned from Venezuela for his yearly physical at Henry Ford hospital and was having dinner with his wife at Streetside when he saw me come in.
Now he was standing on Pierce Street’s sidewalk hailing a scribe he hadn’t seen in a couple of years.
I looked, disbelievingly. Magglio? No way. He’s a mayor in Venezuela.
We had your standard embrace and he hauled me inside to join him and his wife. We ate, drank, had a bat rack full of laughs, and traded stories for an hour or more.
Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen — those two exquisite gentlemen, alone, were worth 45 years in this business.
A night not to be believed
On a Wednesday night at Comerica Park in 2010 a baseball game pitched by Armando Galarraga was nearly as immaculate as that evening’s June weather in Detroit.
Galarraga was not a guy you would have tabbed your Perfect Game Pick. He had made three starts for the Tigers in 2010 and had a 4.50 ERA.
But on this pretty June evening at Comerica Park, Galarraga, uniformly, methodically, was putting away Cleveland Indians batters inning by inning — 1, 2, 3.
This could not be happening. A perfect game?
Justin Verlander, yes. Armando Galarraga, no.
Now it was the ninth and the first two batters were gone. A baseball world had been alerted. A live gamecast was booming across networks as a 28-year-old pitcher’s fantasy came within one batter of reality.
Jason Donald rapped a grounder wide of the bag at first. Miguel Cabrera got to it. He tossed to Galarraga covering.
Out. Clearly out.
Until someone threw mud on the Mona Lisa.
Jim Joyce, a very good umpire, was working at first. Joyce got crossed up on the play. He stretched his arms and called Donald safe — all as Galarraga, his history demolished, flashed an eyes-rolling “oh, c’mon” grin rather than bolting for Joyce in a blast of in-your-face fury.
Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager, jumped from Detroit’s dugout like a greyhound, flinging hot words at Joyce who had just cost Galarraga pitching-mound immortality.
I headed for the umpire’s clubhouse afterward. There, in this room, would be an epic night’s story, in the person of Joyce.
He was distraught — like someone you might encounter at a bad accident scene. Pacing back and forth, his big arms folded, red-faced and in tears, Joyce was tearing himself to pieces.
“I blew it,” he kept saying, his words like grinding gears. “That kid had a perfect game and I kicked it.”
This went on for long, long minutes. Joyce kept pacing from one end of the tight umpire’s clubhouse to the opposite end. A few strides, a pivot, a few more strides, another pivot as Joyce wailed about the perfect moment that had been “taken from that kid.”
I went back to the Tigers clubhouse where Leyland was still in his office talking about a night of devastation.
“Jim,” I said, darkly, “Joyce is in bad shape. He’s in pieces.”
Leyland hollered to Brian Britten, then the Tigers media relations man on hand: “Britten, let’s get down there.”
Now the manager who a half-hour earlier had been torching Joyce, properly supporting his pitcher, was to become the healer in chief.
Leyland knocked on the door and saw Joyce as we had seen him.
He calmed him, to the extent possible.
Jim — you’re a human being, Leyland said. This was a mistake. In a game. It happens. It just happened at a horrible time.
“This guy was a mess — I mean a frickin’ mess,” Leyland said later, explaining how, at one moment, desperate to ease Joyce, he had said, “Let’s have a beer.”
“And,” Leyland added, in Leyland fashion, “I don’t even drink beer.”
Leyland looked at that moment as if the Tigers skipper, too, was going to cry:
“My heart goes out to him.”
The next day, with the Indians and Tigers set to play again, and with baseball’s cosmos still chattering about the Imperfect Perfect Game, Leyland had a thought.
How about if he had Galarraga take the lineup card to home plate, where Joyce would be working that night’s game?
Would that be “corny,” he wondered?
No, he was told. It would be just about … perfect.
The plan went through.
A manager had delivered something greater than a lovely baseball moment. He had, in the span of Wednesday night’s visit with Joyce and the next day’s lineup-card peace plan, wrought a Gospel story.
It was an epilogue, pure and pristine, to the most incredible night and event I had ever known as a sports writer.
Whatever day, it's an airport
You get into this business for all kinds of wonderful reasons. Travel is one of them. At least, it was always part of my attraction. Always.
Sometimes you wonder what you were thinking.
There might have been a second thought or two even as a 29-year-old in the spring of 1982.
I was covering tons of hoops back then: Michigan, Michigan State, and for the final six weeks of the season, the Pistons.
It remains the only exclusive pro-team beat work from these 45 years. It happened in a pinch, taking over the Pistons job, just as I was about to cover the NCAA basketball tournament’s various rounds, which in 1982 was a major newspaper’s typical March routine.
It got interesting at what was then the Mideast Regional at Birmingham, Alabama.
I got to Birmingham on Wednesday for Thursday evening’s game between Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia.
Friday morning: flight from Birmingham to Houston to cover that night’s Pistons-Rockets duel.
Saturday morning, early: flight back to Birmingham for Saturday afternoon’s Louisville-UAB regional final game. And then on Sunday it was on to Atlanta for a Pistons-Hawks date.
This Travelocity Tour continued a week later at New Orleans and the NCAA Final Four. After the championship game Monday night, which Michael Jordan had nailed with his jumper from the left wing, I finished writing at 2 a.m. and caught a wink ahead of a 6 a.m. cab to the airport for a Tuesday standby flight to Washington, D.C.
The Pistons, you see, were to play the Bullets that Tuesday evening in Landover, Maryland. It was rather essential to get there by tip-off.
Not until 3 p.m. did a flight finally clear. I got to Landover in time to do a NCAA tourney wrap-up as the Pistons warmed on the pregame court, then covered the game.
A reasonable night of rest followed, but this was D.C. and for a guy, 29, there were too many places never seen. I got to Arlington National Cemetery early and stayed late, barely making a flight home, stressed but exhilarated by weeks of trips and experiences so colorful and dramatic they seemed hallucinogenic.
Fabulous Final Fours
Early on, there was basketball. Lots and lots of college basketball.
Michigan State. Michigan. And then the NCAA tournament, where I caught more than any guy’s fair share of classic Final Fours.
The first was in 1979, during those Lansing State Journal days, when Magic Johnson pushed Michigan State to Salt Lake City and to the showdown with Indiana State and Larry Bird. That game, a month before I joined The Detroit News, to this day has the highest TV ratings of any NCAA championship game in history.
It was drama on a supreme scale. And a prelude to what was coming.
I was at New Orleans at courtside in 1982 when Michael Jordan hit his jumper from the left wing to beat Georgetown, with the help of a horrible pass tossed into North Carolina’s hands on the Hoyas’ last-seconds possession.
A year later, it was Albuquerque, sitting no more than 10 feet from Jim Valvano (the press was courtside in those days) when Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg’s shot and rammed it through for a 54-52 toppling of mighty Houston and its Phi Slamma Jama gang.
Two years later, Lexingon, Kentucky. Georgetown was supposed to clean up on Villanova. A certain guy from The Detroit News, covering the game, took a chance, saying in a banner headline over Monday's sports section that ‘Nova could upset the Hoyas. It would mean, the guy wrote, Villanova would need to get the ball low and shoot an ungodly percentage. Something about this crazy pick seemed right, even if basketball’s rational world had the Hoyas winning in a rout.
Final score: Villanova 66, Georgetown, 64.
The Wildcats made 22 of 28 shots from the floor — 78.6 percent.
I had covered at that point five Final Fours. Four of them were classics.
Yes. The Tigers’ downtown home.
It has a beautiful exterior. It sits in the best of spots, central to Metro Detroit, convenient to expressways, with that surrounding weave of great saloons and restaurants.
It has an excellent concourse, airy, with the walk-around that allows a visit to those grand steel statues.
But the ballfield is bad.
It really is.
People forget what a mess it was until 15 years ago. They don’t always remember that the bullpens were in right field, where good seating now rests. They might not recall that except for the most immediate areas in left field you had to hit the ball 400 feet or more to knock one into the seats.
It’s still ridiculously distant from deep left-center to deep right-center. Worse, there is nothing that defines Comerica Park. Not in any romantic way. And don’t say: Detroit’s skyline. Across baseball, the Tigers’ home field is an afterthought of a ballpark.
This is what we built after having been treated to the glory of Tiger Stadium?
I remember the week it opened in 2000. Media were given a first full look ahead of Opening Day.
I saw it from the press box and my heart sank.
The ballfield was a monstrosity. It looked like two ballparks strung together, or like one of those old high-school fields where there’s no fencing — nothing but expanse in a never-ending outfield.
I had a moment later with Mike Ilitch in an adjacent suite.
“I didn’t know it would look this big,” I said.
Ilitch, irritated, said: “Neither did I.”
In fact, a certain scribe had been carping about the distances long before Comerica was completed. The place was absurdly sized — all in an effort, no kidding, to “attract free-agent pitchers.”
To the credit of Dave Dombrowski and his team, much of Comerica Park’s outfield wackiness was fixed in 2003. Left field was shortened to a more just yardage. The bullpens eventually were moved.
But that hasn’t changed the awful outfield depths in those extreme areas of left-center, center, and right-center.
Nor has it brought to the nation’s baseball eye a single, distinctive, pleasing visual that would make Detroit’s home park a baseball-world fixture.
There’s a way around this. In fact, I began working on a recommendation nearly 20 years when a landscape business in Oak Park was approached. The designers drew up color visuals of how the outfield could be tiered, beautifully, and indelibly.
And at a reasonable cost.
I dropped those plans with the late Gary Vitto, a Tigers executive who died not many months after he opened a shipping tube and unfurled some lovely architectural prints. What happened to those prints is today unknown.
I’ve since discussed with Michigan State’s landscape design school a potential plan that could make Comerica Park special and extraordinary. Something that would be recognized. Something a baseball lover from anywhere would want to see in the fashion of a fan intent on gazing at The Green Monster in Boston, the ivy at Wrigley Field — or that right-field upper deck to which people were drawn during Tiger Stadium’s hallowed era.
Possibilities exist. I hope, soon, there’s a corresponding will. Detroit’s baseball venue is too special to simply be accepted.
It should be celebrated.
Alex Avila had just powdered a sixth-inning Clay Buccholz fastball into those far-away right-field seats at Fenway Park. The Tigers were up, 5-0, in Game 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series.
In their dugout, the Red Sox were as dazed, as psychologically whipped as were Boston’s fans who in that wonderful hut of a ballpark in Back Bay sat, as broken as Red Sox rooters ever will be.
Max Scherzer was gunning down Boston batters mercilessly, as Anibal Sanchez had done the night before at Fenway. The Tigers were about to go up, two games to none.
Jim Leyland’s team was on its way to Detroit and to evicting Boston from October, and — this time — to getting Mike Ilitch his World Series.
I was writing a column on deadline and said the Tigers needed now to go for the throat. To channel all that fan fury that was about to electrify Comerica Park. They were required, by emotion alone, to finish the Red Sox ahead of finally winning that championship a town and Ilitch had been waiting for 29 years to savor.
And then that eighth inning. Cruel, sadistic, almost evil in what Boston’s batters and a Tigers bullpen were about to do to the Tigers firmament.
David Ortiz. His bases-loaded bomb falling into the bullpen in right. Tie game. The obligatory Red Sox winning run in the ninth.
Leyland, having to mount that interview dais afterward, his voice more ravaged with emotion than I had ever heard. Only he knew he was going to be retiring in a few days and this was his last shot.
“It’s playoff baseball,” he said, haltingly, trying to force a shard of sunlight into the deepest gloom he, or Tigers fans, have probably known the past 50 years.
“Looked like we had one in hand and we let one get away.”
The Red Sox had been slipped a key to death row's cell.
They beat the Tigers and won a World Series that should have been Detroit’s. The Tigers were better. Even if the bullpen and Miguel Cabrera’s sore groin had said differently.
It remains the gut-punch that rocked a sports writer who otherwise had to keep his distance in print. I knew what had happened that night. Detroit, and Ilitch, had lost a World Series that was all but in their pocket.
Argue all you want. That game ruined everything. Detroit’s dream. Ilitch’s life, in a sports sense, anyway. And if I told you seldom does a day pass when I don’t think about that cold evening in Boston, and that horrific eighth inning, a guy obliged to tell it straight would not be leveling.
Fishing the Great Outdoors: Beautiful and cruel
I grew up on a farm in mid-Michigan and had a passion for fishing from the time I can remember. There wasn’t a lot of water around, but my grandfather had the same bug, and eventually I would go with him to the Maple River, or to Rainbow Lake, and I can remember every hour of every fishing trip with him.
Then, poof. He’s gone. You’re in high school, in college, your buddies don’t fish. You get away from it.
Until one night, years later, in the Money Tree, a downtown Detroit personal second residence that remains the greatest bar in the history of saloons because of the incandescent people who gathered there, a new friend who fished asked if I wanted to join his group on a fly-in trip to northern Ontario.
A life was transformed in May of 1985. I’ve since been on 16 fly-in wilderness trips to Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and in 1995, to Alaska.
Kirk Gibson was supposed to have joined me on the ’95 Alaskan trek. Remember that there had been a strike during spring camp and it looked as if Gibson wasn’t coming back until, weeks later, he signed on. He and I had long talked fly-in fishing and he was in on the Alaska trip until he was out.
I went anyway to a lodge near Lake Clark National Park where there would be other folks to meet and enjoy. Each morning, we would hop a trio of float planes for hour-long flights to somewhere straight from a Field & Stream cover. Rainbow trout one day, King salmon the next, Arctic grayling in a stream framed by mountains — a different adventure every day.
Alaska, though, is unforgiving.
Midway through the week, on a rafting trip along a string of streams and rivers, we were portaging a short stretch when we saw a backpack on the river’s gravel bank. In it were Nikon cameras.
Then we saw big, aluminum boats with outboards roaring heading at us, cutting 90 degrees into a sluice that emptied into the river. The men in them were intent on something other than fishing.
We later learned two planes had collided the night before in the air overhead. There were four dead, including tourists from Europe. We had stumbled upon their possessions.
The trip otherwise was sublime. It ended in Katmai National Park, fishing for pink salmon, as my guide and pilot, Randy, who had earlier flown for the Alaska National Guard, took pictures of us and with us, in our waders, in waist-deep water not far from where in a few weeks brown bears would be doing their own fishing.
Randy was set to be married in three weeks. I had met his fiancée during a fly-in stopover a few nights earlier.
Ten days after making it home, a call came into the office. It was from a friend who had helped arrange the trip. Had I heard about the accident?
After tying up his plane along the west end of Lake Iliamna, with his party ready to fish for rainbows, just as he had done with us during our trip, a gravel bar washed away in a nanosecond. Randy was swept into the heavy water. There had been no chance against the current.
Several days later his body was recovered.
How do you process something so beautiful, Alaska, and at the same time so chilling in its fury?
It is 24 years later. I ask the question, still.
One lap around (it seemed) the world
This was nuts. So, of course the boss wanted me involved.
It was called One Lap of America. It was a road rally, founded by Brock Yates years earlier as something called the Cannonball Run, a race from New York to Los Angeles.
Now it was a promotional gig for people who drove conventional autos and who loved competing against precise time-and-distance goals.
One caveat: It would involve driving 9,000 miles in eight days.
Got it, boss. Nice story — but it’s best when writing to be alive.
The 1985 One Lap of America, with 75 cars competing, was to leave from Atwater, near Cobo Hall and Joe Louis Arena. Chrysler was a sponsor and pushed the story to my editor and now I was to join a brother and sister in a Dodge Lancer for the whole grueling shooting match.
It would travel the contiguous 48 states: Detroit to Copper Harbor, across Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and back to Michigan.
I had caught an unenviable second-day stretch. A blizzard was rolling east from the Rockies and it was my turn to drive. Lanes weren’t visible. The only way to navigate was to keep an eye on reflectors spanning the interstate and keep the car's hood ornament centered. After snow had stopped falling near Helena, we were behind on time and needed a Daytona 500-style driver for a steep, 45-mile jaunt along Flathead Lake’s twisting shores and bluffs into Kalispell.
No business, none, driving that fast, even for a guy who had learned his way on country gravel and farm terrain. The road was winding and treacherous. It was a hundred or more feet in some places down a bluff and into Flathead Lake’s ice and water if you missed. But the rally psyche overpowers you. We made it nearly on the mark.
We were entitled to one night of sleep — in Redondo Beach, California. And it probably saved Lord knows how many lives. Otherwise, it was drive, drive, drive, with two of the toughest stretches for me overnight shifts across endless Texas pavement and along 1-10 from Pensacola, Florida, to Jacksonville. How eyes stayed open I yet don’t know.
We pulled onto Atwater nearly eight days to the hour after leaving. So many cars had spun into the ditch in Montana, we finished seventh out of 75 entries. Amazing, given the number of professional drivers who were part of this mad dash across and around 48 states.
I went to that night’s celebration dinner. And then I went home and slept. For about a month.
Bo and some early battles
A first taste of Bo Schembechler’s style and persona came on Sept., 28, 1974 following a game against Navy at Michigan Stadium. Michigan had won a 52-0 squeaker and afterward the media gang, including a 22-year-old rookie, gathered in a tight room for a debriefing of the Wolverines head coach.
Schembechler railed about things that hadn’t been up to Schembechler standards. You would have thought he was assessing a bad Sunday for the Lions.
The kid began to ask his question:
“What exactly — ”
Schembechler saw that it was some baby scribe and chopped me off. He continued with his own commentary.
Joe Falls piped up:
“You just beat Navy, 52 to nothing,” Joe said in his Bronx brogue. “Where were there all these problems you saw?”
It was funny if it hadn’t been mildly irksome. Falls was asking Schembechler precisely the same question that the kid had wanted answered. Schembechler now was responding to Falls in detail. You learned early with Bo: Rank has its privileges.
In later years, we had the kind of relationship he had with most media members (Falls was an exception — Schembechler meshed with him entirely, and vice versa).
When it was good with the head coach, it was very good — in terms of conversation, quips, the bonhomie he so often could display. Bo could be as compelling as anyone in sports.
When it was bad, oh boy. It was nuclear.
The darkest moment happened during press day, 1984, in Ann Arbor.
I had written that day a small item about a Wolverines running back, Rick Rogers, being cleared academically to play following a minor issue.
I had even confirmed it with the UM sports information office. It was a second-page item — routine information that went into the day’s sports notes.
The coach didn’t see it that way. He thought it was presumptive and a matter still in flux and that the academic council could drop a hammer.
And he lit me up as the rest of the media stepped through a buffet and got ready for his preseason take on Michigan football.
It was a hot, furious, ugly, profane verbal strafing — within complete earshot of the media crowd — and it was thoroughly undeserved. I had done everything right. It was a small item affirmed by UM sports information. It had been a 10-minute task.
I held my ground but that never made any difference with Bo. He was right. You were wrong. Period.
Later, on the field, as the session began to end, I approached him:
“Look, I didn’t go after that info surreptitiously,” and those are the exact words used. “I got that straight and reported it small.”
He already was nodding and half-smiling, basically letting me know: Hey, I know I went overboard. It’s cool.
But it took a few years for that wound to heal.
And when it did, it healed fully.
We had great interactions thereafter. Unfailingly excellent. And properly personal.
Don Canham, a man I quite honestly loved, had been helpful during some raw times. Canham was an athletic director who understood media, and reporting, and getting stories straight. I suspect the ever-good Lloyd Carr, then a Schembechler assistant, might have run some deft interference there, as well.
Deep inside, when he could separate controlling his team from controlling writers, Bo got it, too. It was why we had such a cordial run the last 20 years.
At the memorial service for Canham, in May 2005, at Michigan Stadium, I had just gotten out of my car when who walks by.
Bo, with wife Cathy.
We walked in together, having the best of chats along the way.
It was the last time I saw him. The warmth endures.
Yes, a favorite team
The nightly routine in autumn, 1978, went like this:
Leave the Lansing State Journal newsroom about 4:30. Head for Michigan State football practice on the field across Shaw Lane from Spartan Stadium.
Practices were open to legit media. I covered a team on which Kirk Gibson was finishing his MSU seasons of athletic disbelief and Eddie Smith was the dart-throwing quarterback who fired passes for big gains and a slew of touchdowns and points.
It was the doggonedest football bunch I ever saw — averaging more than 40 points a game against Big Ten teams, good for a conference co-championship with Michigan.
Darryl Rogers was head coach and often he would close practice with sprints. Gibson sprinting was like Secretariat galloping down the stretch. If a guy who was 6-foot-3, 220 pounds were running on the outside near your sideline spot you literally would be sprayed with dirt from his churning spikes.
Then, after practice, it was into the Spartans locker room to talk with whichever players you needed to chat. After the players had been quizzed or kibitzed with, it was time to cross the tunnel, head into the coaches’ dressing room, and extract updates from the assistants and from Rogers, who died last summer, and whose decency remains one of a blessed life’s great gifts.
Things then were different. There was no cable TV presence. No talk-radio. No Internet. Newspapers were a daily staple. And that meant access, lovely access, all the time.
A year later, Gibson and I were rookies in Detroit.
I loved covering that ’78 gang — as much for the humanity of kids and coaches as for football scoring skills I’ve never seen duplicated.
Summer skywriting in the Big Ten
Oh, colleagues from today don’t know what they missed.
The Big Ten once had an August tradition known as the Skywriters.
It was a week-long, football-writing travel-fest in which Big Ten football writers were hauled conference-wide from campus to campus during the early days of practice.
The red carpet would be unfurled at each stop, most of which we reached by way of a chartered DC-3 that might as well have been named Air Cirrhosis.
The Big Ten school’s athletic director and staff would greet you. There would be a long, expansive session with the head coach. And there would be food, and booze, and booze, and food, and more booze at just about every stop, especially if it was an overnight stay, throughout the entire calorie-packed, liver-endangering parade of teams and towns.
Somehow, work was accomplished. Lots of it. Every day, we would file our stories and columns, which back in the typewriter era of the ‘70s meant they had to be sent, painstakingly, page by page, by way of an often-infuriatingly inept invention known as the telecopier.
A decade later, early computers — plenty of copy was, nightmarishly, lost in the ether of computer space — were in service. But the Skywriters trip was fading. What had been 40, 50, or more writers during the heyday had dwindled to 20 or so.
But what a chapter in Big Ten lore. There are memories that are more like a star-scape.
Woody Hayes alternatingly bellowing at us and offering history lessons about General Patton relieving himself in the Rhine. Schembechler putting on his patented oratorical show as we landed in Ann Arbor. Dennis Green railing about poor facilities at Northwestern, which a few cocktails into the evening had his athletic director, Doug Single, saying: “Then maybe we need a new football coach.”
Lee Corso regaling us with his coach’s stand-up act at Indiana. Roy Damer of the Chicago Tribune, many beers into a Friday evening at Champaign, Illinois, with the chancellor and all the powdered-wig execs on hand, standing on wobbly legs to ask then-Illini coach Gary Moeller, why his team had been so “horse(bleep) the season before.”
Every day, every stop: Stories. Moments. Laughs. Information. Relationships. Contacts. And such precious insight into how college football’s galaxy is forever rich in people and in characters.
I was lucky to have made five of those trips. I was luckier yet to have survived all five glorious Skywriter bacchanals.
Reveling in the Red Wings
A lot like basketball disappeared from the assignment sheet in recent years, so did hockey and the Red Wings.
It was a loss, for sure.
In the autumn of 2000, amid Detroit’s Stanley Cup string, the order was to forgo football and help with Wings double-duty. They were too good and too big with the audience. There were all these celebs on skates and they needed attention.
No resistance here. Brendan Shanahan was a guy you could talk with about movies, books, you name it. Brett Hull had a Gatling gun for a tongue as he spit bullets and entertained anyone non-stop with candor soaked in color. Chris Chelios was a trip — smart, fun, and alien to his Snidely Whiplash reputation, a terrific guy.
One day after practice at Joe Louis Arena, Shanahan was doing an interview in front of his locker as cameras, microphones, notebooks, and media holding them crowded around.
Suddenly, Shanahan’s face went blank. He stopped mid-sentence. He blurted a bluer version of something like, oh boy.
Scotty Bowman had walked in on the session.
“Look at this, look at this, look at this,” the Wings coach said, like a school principal marching into a classroom full of miscreants.
The interview was over.
A day later, I asked Shanahan, off the record, what had happened.
He pulled me behind a curtain that separated Detroit's dressing room from the Wings’ exercise and medical quarters.
Shanahan explained that Bowman didn’t like guys assuming the spotlight. It would be seen by the coach as self-promotional. And in that case, Shanahan said, “there goes your ice time.”
The next day, it was Bowman’s turn for a lights-and-cameras interview in the dressing room. I stood on the outside of a media scrum where I caught, on the opposite line of lockers, Shanahan, wrapped in a towel, heading for a quick summit with Paul Boyer, the longtime Wings equipment maestro.
Out of Bowman’s ear, just loud enough for my benefit, Shanahan bleated, with a Bart Simpson grin: “Look at this, look at this, look at this.”
Shanahan disappeared around the corner. I’m sure, from 30 feet away, he heard a sports writer breaking up.
Most blessed of all days and times
No runners-up on this winner’s heels.
Spring training at Lakeland, Florida.
I spent more than two years of my life, cumulatively, in Lakeland. And never was this job more heavenly.
It had begun in 1979, as a first assignment, when I was with the State Journal and Kirk Gibson was a rookie we needed to cover. I milked it for 18 days as he, in his inimitable way, splashed across Tigertown news and his usual array of athletic feats.
It was on one of those final days of camp that I thought the Garden of Eden had at last been replicated.
It was at Winter Haven, 20 minutes from Lakeland, where the Red Sox then trained.
The scene at spring camp is so pastoral and informal you can, as a media person, often times sit on the field, in foul territory. So it was on this day nestled in grass outside the left-field line. Behind the right-field fence were orange groves.
I never wanted to leave. Each year as I’ve departed the press box at Lakeland for a final time, there has been a custom of stopping for long moments, simply gazing across the emerald grass, at the outfield berm and at the palm trees, and at ospreys winging their way into light-tower nests.
Simply to appreciate fully, to say thanks minimally.
I’m not there, physically, this year. Spiritually, I’ll never leave Lakeland. I’ll never leave spring training. It’s as permanent as my soul.
Golf: More than a game
There were two stints detached from newspapers the past 45 years: a five-year sabbatical as editor of the PGA’s national golf magazine; and a second stint with Golfweek during the 1995-and-beyond Detroit newspaper strike, which knocked me out for 34 months.
Never mind the deeply personal gains, and convictions, which were part of those complicated times.
There were professional blessings, as well.
There was some amazing travel thanks to golf: Bali, Indonesia; Japan, Ireland, Aruba, British Columbia; six Masters, PGA Championships, U.S. Opens, and the best-ever Ryder Cup, the 1991 War on the Shore at Kiawah Island.
Golf always had been in the blood. It fueled a 1986 honeymoon trip to Scotland, where playing St. Andrews had been a lifelong mission.
There were no tee times available at St. Andrews, but I had been told to report to the caddie shack at 5 a.m. and there was a chance at getting on early.
It worked — for what then was the going tee-time price of about $30. I didn’t have clubs, but one of the caddies said I could rent his MacGregors (nice, bladed irons) for “eight quid” — the U.S. equivalent of $12.
Anyone who submits St. Andrews is overrated, that it would be less spiritual than a golfer imagines, has not played it — or probably played golf.
The scorecard is tucked somewhere within a basement box. What I remember, on the plus scoring side, is a nice run of six holes with all 5s and 4s. And, of course, most indelible are the Road Hole 17th, and the 18th as you cross the Valley of Sin to a green, and then to a clubhouse tucked within St. Andrews’ downtown.
The Road Hole resulted in a happy 5. A drive, 9-iron, chip from the fringe and the most lusted-for 3-foot putt in a golfer’s life got the consummating par at 18.
And then I returned the MacGregors. My generous lender was on the course caddying but had trusted me to bring his sticks back unharmed. The honor of golf prevails, if anywhere, at St. Andrews. And that July morning along the Firth of Clyde remains fixed in mind, heart, and soul.
It has only one rival as golf experience.
It came in 1992 at a celestial place, Bali Handara Golf Club, carved by the great Peter Thomson from a dormant Indonesian volcano within Bali’s mountains and rain forests.
It was warm and still that morning, with light rain tumbling like a skyward curtain against the surrounding mountains. Walking these holes was ethereal, a realm of experience that made time away from my abiding love, newspapers, somehow worthwhile for the grandeur a world endlessly offers.
A few do-overs, sure
Regrets? There have been a few. Fortunately, very few.
There was an evening at Michigan State in June 2010, a week after the Galarraga imperfect bid, that could have been re-worked.
It was the night Tom Izzo formally said no to the NBA and Cleveland and re-upped as Spartans basketball coach. It had been a brutal nine-day vigil, no one knowing how this drama would turn out, as one of America’s top two college coaches was debating and debating and debating.
We covered it dutifully. Which is to say 24/7. All of us. This was what happens when you have a coach and a program as ascendant as MSU’s had become under Izzo.
And the MSU bosses didn’t much like it, which, when you think about it, is either ironic or hypocritical.
President Lou Anna Simon decided the Welcome Back Izzo news conference was going to be a media bludgeoning. It was to be repeated by Mark Hollis, the athletic director, and then by Izzo.
How dare we cover this matter non-stop. Why, there were “Tweets from Cleveland” and a host of indiscretions that had turned the bosses livid.
The story had been covered everywhere precisely in the manner a coaching story this big was mandated to be reported. There had been nothing in the way of media irresponsibility, not on any felonious or even misdemeanor scale, during the vigil.
MSU’s hierarchy simply didn’t appreciate the irritation.
After having sat through three rounds of media cudgeling, at what was supposed to be a celebratory moment for MSU and for Izzo, I’d had enough. And I protested during the Q and A follow-up about what had clearly been orchestrated to be a piñata pummeling of reporters.
The mistake wasn’t defending my profession. The mistake, squarely my responsibility, was that it extended for way, way too long. Yes, there were three attempts to choke it off as Izzo and I dueled. Didn’t matter. It sucked the time and life from the follow-ups and that hadn’t been fair to colleagues or to the audience.
The crazy part, personally, was indeed laughable:
Izzo and I get along better than great. Did then. Do now (ask the coach). We talked a few days after, as cordially as ever. He knew what had happened. I knew what had happened. We’ve talked any number of times since, warmly, after an impromptu phone call from the coach over something I wrote or had said on Lansing radio. I've covered little basketball the past decade, but we see each other at functions and it’s as it’s always been, apart from one night’s debate: professionally and personally an excellent relationship.
On any list of favorite people in sports, Izzo has his proper place. I’m only sorry — not as sorry as I’d have remained forever had there been no rebuttal that night — Simon decided on a happy evening to unload grievances and that a reporter's response had extended for too long.
We did a story in 2006 about a whitetail fawn that had been orphaned in northern Michigan’s wilds. It had been cared for and supposedly was being reintroduced to the woods and water. But now it was domesticated, and DNR agents, who knew these deer-back-to-nature stories don’t often work and run afoul of agricultural laws designed to protect animals and herds, seized the deer and later dispatched it.
The response was predictable: In public minds, Bambi had been murdered.
The overarching issue, which wasn’t made clear in the story (my failing), was this:
Don’t interfere with the wild. In these circumstances, Mother Nature is the best custodian of fawns.
In the process, a very good DNR agent or two was subjected to misery, and for that I’ve always been sorry. These are terrific servants, the DNR staffers, with soulful respect for animals and nature. This story should have made clearer every citizen’s responsibility to not interfere — in this circumstance, anyway — with the animal world’s natural ways.
Not so much a regret as the other two events, but a feeling of inadequacy lingers over last autumn’s stories on the Mario Impemba-Rod Allen firings. They were the toughest reporting challenges in recent memory. They were acutely difficult because settling on blame, as it were, for a situation so bizarre and so high-profile was imprecise.
You could argue punishment didn’t fit the “crime” in either case. Two men lost jobs because of a split-second’s confrontation.
And the fact that what distinguished that incident — physical contact — was by witnesses’ accounts initiated by Allen has always, I know, left Impemba feeling not only unjustly fired, but unjustly viewed as a co-equal offender.
Allen’s camp argues that Impemba was just as accountable because of his words and dispositions.
It was a sad, bad, gut-kick of a moment that ravaged two men’s careers and left everyone, including a reporter, wishing an event so costly could have been wiped from reality.
Regrets (final chapter): That I neither did, nor could, answer all the e-mails, notes, letters, whatever, that readers steadily sent. I got to as many e-mails as possible, but never as many as I wanted. I got to too few notes and letters that not always were received or retrieved because of remote offices or missed transfers or because, as an administrator, I’m a definite sports writer.
I’m only sorry I missed too much correspondence, as I’m sorry — one final note here — that I can never fully thank two sports editors, Phil Laciura and Jim Russ, for their stewardship and for their care of a staff and one guy especially.
Most comical moment
Time to lighten up.
It was September of 1998 and we were doing what major papers all were doing during a wacky year in baseball: covering the Mark McGwire march to beating Roger Maris’ home-run mark.
After flying into St. Louis for a series, there was a hotel check-in and on one of those events stands it was noticed a “Henning Reunion” was happening spanning a couple of days in a second-floor suite.
Well, wasn’t this an Ancestry.com-pleasing moment. I’d sidle up to the party and meet some kin from another corner of the country.
I walked to the suite, knocked, stepped in, and the place was full of Hennings.
All of them African-American.
“Well,” I said to the startled folks, “guess we aren’t from the same part of Germany.”
We ended up having a hoot of a time.
Baseball had done what the world so often does in its magical way: It had brought a handful of God’s family together for some fun, kinship — and laughs.
In perfectly parallel ways, that’s what the past 45 years has been about. Chronicling life and events. Observing its people. Shaking and stirring this glorious concoction known as humanity and pouring it out, as evenly and as carefully as a journalist can manage.
When it’s finished, you don’t so much indulge in its flavors and sweetness. You give thanks. And in this man’s years, most of all you are grateful for the people, and for the readers, who filled one man’s life with perpetual gifts and grace.