My column, syndicated through the Mississippi Press Association, which ran about in two dozen newspapers this week follows:
Get the score in the first paragraph. Spell folks’ names correctly. Write in short direct sentences. The sooner you finish, the better.
When I started writing sports for newspapers almost half a century ago now, those were my instructions. The Hattiesburg American was hiring stringers. I was but 13, but I could type, spell a little, and breathe.
In other words, I qualified.
As the years and press boxes and games went by, I learned sports writing could be more. I read Red Smith in the New York Times and Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times. I read Frank Deford and Tex Maule in Sports Illustrated.
And then I started working with Orley Hood at the Jackson newspapers. Orley was Mississippi’s sports poet laureate. The little man, with the gigantic soul, could ever more write.
You should know he was also one of my best friends, ever.
Orley died last week due to the complications of a stem cell transplant to treat acute leukemia. In sports terms, leukemia won a knockdown drag out. Orley was courageous in defeat.
I thought I knew so much about Orley before he was diagnosed with the deadliest form of blood cancer on 11/11/2011. I mean, we traveled the highways of the South together for more than 30 years. We covered Super Bowls and Masters together. He once saved my job at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum. It’s a story worth recounting.
Dave Whitney’s Alcorn State Braves and Mississippi State were at each other’s basketball throats in a December tournament game. It was a doozy and the packed house was into it. I was writing on deadline, and the newfangled, temperamental computers we used back then were noise sensitive. Every time the crowd roared, which was every few seconds, my computer quit recording what I typed and start spewing all sorts of nonsensical gibberish. It was maddening.
Deadline and game’s end approached. (Alcorn and Whitney won.) I finally could take it no more. During a time out with the Alcorn fans chanting: “Who Dat think Dey Gonna Beat Dem Braves,” I picked up that machine, lifted it over my head and was about to heave it to mid-court. I mean, I was really going to do it. And then suddenly, nothing was in my hands. Orley swiped it, saved my job and probably kept me from being arrested.
With that impish grin of his, he said, “Sorry, Pards, that damned thing deserved it, but you’ll thank me later.”
We once shared an apartment between marriages. We were the odd couple, I the messy Oscar, he the neat Felix. For a time he worked the early mornings for the afternoon newspaper. I worked late at night for the morning paper. Many times, he headed to work before I finished a nightcap.
Nevertheless, we adjusted our schedules to be golf partners and won several four-ball trophies. We shot 65, the day’s best score, one Sunday at the Brookwood Memorial Day Tournament. Orley shot 68 on his own ball with an hour’s sleep the night before, a story for another day.
We were both reformed smokers. One year, on the way to The Masters, just before Orley left sports for news, he said, “Rickey, I’ve got a proposition, let’s smoke on this trip. Just this trip. This might be my last Masters. I don’t want to do it without cigarettes.”
I was a pushover. We pulled over for a carton of Winston, Reds, mind you. Long story short: I quit again, a year later. I think it was three years for Orley.
Good writing is hard work. Orley made it look easy. He always seemed to have the right touch, the perfect word. He edited me once when I was describing a dark and threatening sky. Try “evil” Orley said of the sky. I did. It was shorter, simpler, much more telling. Perfect.
Much of Orley’s writing was perfect or nearly so. He was not above dashing off a column in 20 minutes so he could make a tee time. But when he deeply cared about something or someone — someone like Bailey Howell or Archie Manning — no one was better.
So, as I was saying, I thought I knew so much about Orley before he was diagnosed on 11/11/11. But here’s what I did not know: That he was courageous beyond even his own words. That he would fight a truly evil disease for 27 months. That he would remain Orley through all that hell on earth. He did. And, as much as we all hate to lose him, he deserves this rest.
Link: Orley on Bum and Archie.
Link: Orley on Bailey Howell.