Pillars of the FWAA: Jack Hairston (1928-2010), Gainesville Sun

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the stories of the members of the organization, we will publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders — all Bert McGrane Award winners.

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.

For a list of all the winners go to:  http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the 19th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Jack Hairston was the 1990 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey
Jack Hairson, 1990 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Jack Hairson, 1990 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Jack Hairston worked for the Jacksonville Journal in January 1968 when he attempted to interview Joe Namath. The New York Jets quarterback was in town for the American Football League All-Star Game. Hairston met Namath at 10 a.m. in the hotel lobby.

“He was nice as could be,” said Hairston. “I walked around with him for 15 minutes. He introduced me to other players. Then I asked him to sit down for an interview.”

“I don’t have time for no (bleeping) sports writers,” replied Namath.

Hairston went to the East team’s practice that day and received the same type of rejection from Namath after practice. Later, Hairston attempted to call Namath at the hotel, but the operator told him that all calls to Namath’s room were blocked.

“I went back to the paper and blistered the son of a bitch,” said Hairston, who joined the FWAA in 1954. “I must have gotten 250 letters. Most of them were pro Namath.”

Of course, it didn’t help Hairston’s cause that Namath threw for 249 yards in the game, scored the winning touchdown on a sneak with 58 seconds left and shared Offensive MVP honors with receiver and Jets teammate Don Maynard.

Hairston started out as “a wannabe athlete” at Indianola High School in Mississippi. He began stringing for the Memphis Commercial Appeal at 16. By age 18 he was working full time for the Morning Star in Greenwood, Miss.

“I was sports editor, city editor, managing editor,” he said. “That was a pretty good education. The paper was on the verge of going broke, and I got a break getting to do everything.”

He also attended Sunflower Junior College in Moorhead, Miss., for a year. After almost four years at the newspaper, he joined the Army in 1951 during the Korean War, but his service was stateside.

Hairston returned in 1952 to become assistant sports editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News. He switched to the new Jackson State Times in 1955 and became sports editor in 1956. He actually worked with Jimmie McDowell, the 2000 Bert McGrane winner, at the Daily News.

After the Jackson State Times folded, Hairston then moved to the New Orleans Item covering LSU in 1956.  His next stop was Jacksonville, Florida. Hairston became sports editor and, in addition to his run in with Namath, covered the University of Florida and wrote columns.

He covered many big-time events while working for the Jacksonville Journal, including the World Series and the Super Bowl.  

Hairston had a brief stint as the Atlanta Constitution executive sports editor before landing in Gainesville in 1971.

“I remember Casey Stengel would sit in the press room and tell stories until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” Hairston said of the 1957 World Series. Hairston covered the New York Mets’ upset of Baltimore in 1969 and 13 Super Bowls.

Jacksonville was the Triple A baseball affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals in those days. Branch Rickey, previously the Dodgers’ general manager who signed Jackie Robinson and broke baseball’s color barrier in the major leagues, served as an adviser to the Cardinals late in his professional career. Hairston, as a result, finally got the chance to meet him.

“I had been an admirer of his from a distance for years,” said Hairston. “He was a brilliant man. A lot of people told me he was the smartest baseball man they knew.”

While Hairston was in Jacksonville, perhaps the biggest event of the era was the Gator Bowl.

“There was always a battle to find out who the Gator Bowl teams would be,” said Hairston. “I prided myself in getting them before they released it.”

In 1968, Gator Bowl officials were determined not to let the story leak out ahead of time, particularly to Hairston. He was in the press room one day and picked up the phone. Somehow he ended up on a conference call among Gator Bowl and Missouri officials about the Tigers’ soon-to-be matchup with Alabama in the Gator Bowl.  Gator Bowl officials were completely befuddled when the story appeared in the paper the next day.

After leaving the Gainesville Sun in 1991, Hairston started his own weekly newsletter devoted to Florida football.  Gator Pipeline was published during the football season through 2006.