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Sports Desk: Becoming A Sportswriter

 

Growing up on a farm in Middle Georgia, in an austere environment, allowed for an exposure to the earth and the outdoors that I appreciate more now than I did back then. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment except for radio.

Radio was our connection to the outside world. You could have bowled me over with a feather if you had told me that some day I would find my way to Fenway Park to cover a Red Sox game. If a clairvoyant had suggested that would come about, I would have expired in short order from the anticipation of it all.

My daddy was a hard-working, God-fearing man, but times were hard. It was difficult for him to justify a subscription to the The Courier-Herald in Dublin, the closest daily paper to our family farm.

Eventually my persistence brought results, and I would devour the sports pages, which came two days after the big league games had been played. For me, it was breaking news. Going to college to study journalism wasn’t anything I thought about. Just like getting to Fenway Park. It would have been easier to scale Mt. Everest barefoot.

My outlet for pleasure was the county library, where I would check out countless books on baseball. Life has never been better – lying down under a pecan tree with a guano sack stuffed with pecan leaves to form a pillow and reading about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams.

I had a love of writing but didn’t really know it. When I enrolled at the University of Georgia, journalism seemed too sophisticated and too far out of my sphere.

Somewhat sheepishly, I decided to switch to journalism, and the most serendipitous experience ever in my life came about. I got to know UGA’s Sports Information Director Dan Magill, who became the most important influence in my life. I had joined The Red and Black staff while running the mile for the track team.

Dan hired me as his assistant. Soon, he was taking me to dinner with Atlanta sportswriters: Jim Minter, Jesse Outlar, Furman Bisher – the big names who were big time.

When those titans of sportswriting became my friends, I thought I had arrived. Jesse’s best line was a classic. He once said of the long NBA season, which then was about a month less than it is now, that “if the NBA had had anything to do with World War II, Germany and Japan would still be in it.”

I loved Jesse. He loved Georgia and Coach Wally Butts. Later, I began covering the British Open and spent many nights in quaint pubs across the United Kingdom, eating fish and chips and spending long evenings with Furman, one of the most talented writers ever.

Jim Minter, one of my closest and most valued friends, and our wives get together several times a year. Jim is a clever and insightful writer.

Writers became my friends. I often think about compiling a book of reminiscences of press box lore in which a country boy not only was fulfilled in life but became the beneficiary of a valued learning experience.

Today when I am with Dan Jenkins, the accomplished author who wrote for Sports Illustrated for years, I sometimes wish I could sit down with my late parents and tell them about my friendship with this gifted writer – which brings to mind an unforgettable moment from my college days.

In the summer of 1960, I was hired by the Associated Press for the rewrite desk. When I explained to my mother I would be working for the AP, she really didn’t know much about the wire service and was given to telling her friends I was spending the summer in Atlanta with the A&P. I used to explain in frustration, “Mama, please, I am a journalist. I’m not in Atlanta toting groceries.”

Not only have I gotten into a lot of sporting events over the years with my Athens Banner-Herald press card, I have also been granted entry into the biggest museums in Europe – the British Museum and The Louvre, for example. Those are not sports venues, but I love museums and often put my good fortune in this perspective.

When I walk past the long lines at the Louvre, show my press card, and am waved through the checkpoint, I think to myself: For a redneck from Middle Georgia, that’s a big deal.

Editor’s Note: Legendary University of Georgia sportswriter and broadcaster Loran Smith writes occasional columns for Georgia Trend. 

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