Furman Bisher's sports writing advice to me came from the original master himself, Red Smith. "Just open up a vein and let it flow." So here goes.
Everybody who was blessed to know Furman, who died Sunday of a heart attack at 93, has a story to tell. Or a hundred. Most of them are printable.
Mine do not involve walking alongside this sportswriter at Saint Andrews or sharing strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. But I'm sure of this much: If this newspaper could have somehow scrounged up the money to foot the bill, Furman would have welcomed me at his side. That is, if he weren't already dining with royalty.
Or, some would say, fellow royalty.
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Rather, my personal accounts are more modest, but just as treasured, I assure you. I must have been a sophomore in college the first time I walked into the Atlanta Journal sports department and asked to meet Mr. Bisher.
"Call me Furman," he graciously insisted.
By the way, yes, that was the Journal. The Constitution was to him what Auburn was to Bear Bryant. Imagine Alabama and Auburn merging, and you be
gin to understand Furman's disdain for that whole notion. We would meet a couple more times over the next couple of years. Finally, to the shock of many -- including myself -- and sheer relief of my parents, I graduated from Georgia State, armed with a degree in journalism and a portfolio of what are now some pretty embarrassing clips.
Furman still found something kind to say about them. Gary Caruso, then the executive sports editor of the Constitution, wasn't too impressed, not that I can blame him. After telling me to go get some experience, he called me back and offered me a job.
"I'll take it," I said. "What would I cover?"
"Answering the phones, sorting the mail, and doing whatever Furman needs you to do," Caruso said.
"I'll still take it."
The "whatever else" included, among other things just above cleaning toilets -- only because we didn't have any -- opening Furman's mail, proofreading his column and sending his Friday notes column to some of his buddies-- Edwin Pope in Miami and Blackie Sherrod in Dallas among them. To most college graduates, that would be grunt work. To me, it was opportunity.
I considered myself a pretty fair proofreader. In fact, a couple of the copy desk veterans started calling me Eagle Eye. But I vow to you on a stack of Sports Illustrateds: I never found a mistake in Furman's copy. Not even once.
But there was one time I thought I did. He made mention of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner. Having attended Kennesaw College, I was sure that Furman had misspelled it. I didn't know much, but I did at least know not to change anything, but rather to merely point it out.
"Furman, Kennesaw is spelled with two N's," I said.
He looked stunned as he grabbed a reference book.
"You're right about the college, but the old man spelled it with one N," he said, checking the book just for verification. "But good catch any way."
The sports department operated sort of like a baseball clubhouse. Rookies had to know their place. But Furman never treated me like a rookie. He lobbied for my promotion to the sports editor a few times. Just before Christmas, he asked me to stop by his house. He gave me a gift, wrapped and everything, and thanked me for my hard work. I opened it in the car and it was a shaving kit from the New York Yankees.
I hated the Yankees, being an Orioles fan. But you'd have thought I was a 5-year-old with his first bright red firetruck.
Later, despite Furman's efforts, I did move on -- coincidentally, back to my hometown of Columbus. We enjoyed many a press box meal over the years. This newspaper gained a Heisman vote -- first by me, then by Troy Johnson -- because Furman made a phone call to New York. He considered all of us scribes his press box equal, though we weren't any more so than Mike Lum was Hank Aaron's equal.
His Thanksgiving columns were particularly graceful, and I once told him such.
"Thank you, Guerry," he said. "They're not much journalistically, but they're from the heart."
You may file this in the same category.
-- Guerry Clegg is anindependent correspondent. Write to him at email@example.com