Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

For some reason, we tend the get excited, emotional or some other state of mind when an event in our lives reaches a certain plateau. It doesn’t have to be an event in our immediate lives, but some mark that makes certain things, times or events, just stand out more than others.

Recently we marked the 75th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy during WWII with all kinds of ceremonies and speeches, world leaders , remaining veterans of the event, etc. We didn’t do much for the 74th or 73rd, but we did put on a big show for the 40th and the 50th. It’s those certain years, usually on even years, that draw the most attention.

The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby is much more important than the 99th, and the 10th anniversary of 9-11 draws much more attention than the 11th or 13th.

It’s just one of those things I guess, and so I’m going to throw in a landmark of my own this time around. One night in the press box last year at a Livingston Academy football game, I was talking with my radio friend Craig Cantrell and, for some reason, the year 2018 was mentioned in the conversation and it was right then and there that it struck me.

“Craig,” I said, “if I make it to this press box on the first game of next season, it will mark my 50th year of being involved in writing sports. Back then I didn’t even think I would live 50 more years, let alone still be writing sports.”

Well, if I can make it back up those broken old cement steps to the press box at Tom Davis Memorial Stadium in a couple weeks, I will have been doing this 50 years. Time certainly flies.

Back in 1969, I returned from Vietnam, got married and saw Elvis Presley live in Las Vegas. Indeed those were pretty big events in my life, but the one that I remember as much as all of those was writing my first sports story for the local newspaper.

I needed to go back to school for a year, and in the meantime I needed a job. I had two wonderful parents, but they weren’t about to let me lay around the house waiting for January to come around and my return to Clemson.

Scanning the newspaper’s want ads one day, I saw my opportunity. There was a job for a sports editor at the Hickory Daily Record in North Carolina, where I was living at the time. I had carried the paper as a student 10 or 12 years earlier, so I was familiar with it. I went down to the paper and filled out the application. In my interview with the current editor, an older man named Floyd Powel asked me, “Could you type?”, and I replied, “Yes”. “We’ll start you out at $100 a week and you work five and a half days a week.”

After being in the Navy on a ship for the past three years, that sounded like a deal. I get off a day and a half a week and get $100 a week. That was more than double my military pay. I took the job.

Little did I know, and apparently the paper’s editor didn’t know either, but sports writing is not a 9 to 5 job, and before I knew it, I was putting in 70-80 hours a week, covering high school and other local sports like country club golf tournament, YMCA basketball, and covering college football (Lenoir Rhyne College was in Hickory) on that Saturday “off”. Sunday was for writing stories for the Monday edition. That was okay for a while, but when the editor couldn’t understand why I might be 10-15 minutes late in the morning, he never realized just how late I had been up the night before or how many hours I was putting in.

But I was learning. This was my “journalism school” and it taught a lot more than school ever would. Looking back, I have to laugh some when I would send a story over to be edited by the city editor and he would read it, mark all over it with a red pen, then throw it back, literally. Sometimes it reached my desk and sometimes it hit the floor. Many were the times he would tell me just how bad it was and “write it over”.

But while in Hickory, I got to know NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, and he gave me a job writing press releases at the Hickory Speedway. I wrote the first story ever about future NASCAR champ Dale Jarrett. It was a golf story. Dale was an exceptional golfer in high school and still is today.

After a year or so in Hickory, I returned to my beloved South Carolina where I was born and spent my youth. It was in Sumter that I became the sports editor of The Item, and for 12 or 13 years, I covered everything from the NCAA Final 4 to the Daytona 500, to The Masters and just about anything I felt like had a local interest. Clemson and South Carolina were weekly coverages, and I had the fortune of seeing Clemson win its first national championship back in 1981.

There were so many stories to write back then and so many famous sports personalities. Bobby Richardson was a Sumter native and lived on my paper route when I was a youngster. When he retired from playing all-star second base for the New York Yankees, I would go over to his house during the World Series and he would walk me through the entire game, just like we were sitting in the dugout.

And he was always having his former teammates down to go quail hunting and he sometimes invited me along. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, etc. If you saw Bobby and there was somebody else there, check it out – there might be a story.

He did invite me to sit down with Joe DiMaggio once for a one-on-one 30- minute interview. Didn’t get much better than that.

The editor there, Hubert Osteen, was wonderful to work with, and as a journalism graduate from the University of Missouri, he had a lot to offer. If I became any kind of a writer, Hubert gets most of the credit.

At one time, while I was in Sumter, I covered three NFL starters, including Freddie Solomon, Archie Reese with the Super Bowl champ 49ers, and Terry Kinard, defensive back for the New York Giants. All three had played their high school football in Sumter County and I spent many a Monday calling them and getting a story for later in the week. With a little help from them, I got to interview O.J. Simpson and Joe Montana, and more that I just can’t recall now.

College coaches were favorites of mine and South Carolina’s Frank McGuire was on top of the list. Frank brought in teams from all over the country and their coaches like Digger Phelps (Notre Dame) were every night interviews.

One that was on the top of my list was North Carolina’s Dean Smith. Dean was a “hoot” to talk to after a game. I didn’t like the Tar Heels, but I really liked their coach.

And I thought Bobby Knight was quite interesting to say the least. You never had to guess what he was saying and who or what it was about.

An interview with UCLA’s legendary John Wooden ranks right at the top, and two interviews with Bill Walton are unforgettable.

I played a round of golf with major league Hall of Famer Bob Feller. In the ‘50s, Feller pitched three no-hitters with the Cleveland Indians, a record that might just still stand.

And there was a day when lady golf pioneer Patty Berg stopped by Sumter to give a one-day clinic. I asked for a few minutes of her time and she graciously gave me much more, and a few golfing tips in the process. For the next eight or nine years, I got a Christmas card from the LPGA Hall of Famer.

Following NASCAR was probably my favorite sport because back in the day, drivers and writers were pretty close. We spent the days at the track talking cars or races or anything they wanted to talk about, then we played golf with them, hunted and fished together, went to parties, etc. The bottom line was we got to really know each other.

Junior Johnson was my first favorite and really interesting to talk with. Cale Yarborough is still a close friend to this day as is Ned Jarrett. And there were hours of shooting the bull with Dale Earnhardt – away from the track – and Jeff Gordon or Darrell Waltrip, and especially David Pearson. After a while, they were just the “other” guys, but they were great for giving us stories.

Working with CBS Sports twice in the press box as the “statistician” was really cool at Talladega and Charlotte. The money was great, but the work was long, hot and hard – yes, I would do it again.

And I was at NASCAR’s biggest moment, the 1979 Daytona 500 when local driver Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, got in the infamous fight in the third turn after a wreck on the final lap of that race. I have relived that moment a dozen times with Cale.

But in conclusion, I would be amiss if I didn’t tell my favorite sports story I’ve ever written. Actually, it wasn’t one story, but five, and it happened right here in Livingston. Covering LA sports is a passion with me, and although I didn’t go to the school, had no children who went to the school, LA is by far my favorite.

And the final five games of the 2005 football season were, without a doubt, the most rewarding, most fulfilling, and most exciting stories I’ve written in my 50 years. I don’t remember all the players’ names, so I wouldn’t name one, but it was a definite TEAM and it accomplished something that might not ever be accomplished again at LA.

Thanks LA, football, basketball, boys and girls, girls softball and all the other sports there, for all the wonderful night and games. They will always be special to me.

To say I have been lucky would be an understatement. As a young boy growing up on a dirt road and going to school barefooted in South Carolina to taking that $100 a week writing job in Hickory, I have been given a chance to see and record a lot of “stuff”. It was, to say the least, a life changer, and looking back, I’m sure glad the paper took a chance with me, and I tried to get better with every story I wrote.

Through the years I received several national awards along with numerous Associated Press and state awards, shook hands with three United States Presidents, addressed a special assembly of the South Carolina senate and house and testified before a congressional committee in Washington, but my biggest award was being allowed to relate events to readers through words. My elementary English teachers would be surprised, to say the least, but, hopefully, proud.

When I make that climb to the press box for the first game of this season, I’ll be carrying a lot of memories with me. Some stories are still fresh, and some I only vaguely remember, but I will not forget what my mission will be that night – write a story about the game so that 50 years from now, those players will have memories to share with their children and grandchildren.

Hubert taught me long ago, get those local names in the paper so their parents and grandparents will have scrap books. That was, and always has been, my job.