Pillars of the FWAA: Blackie Sherrod (1919-), The Dallas Morning News

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 personal histories of those in the organization, we will, over the next few months, 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 seventh installment of the Pillars of the FWAA  series. Blackie Sherrod was  the 1985 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

When Blackie Sherrod finally retired at the age of 80, he put his life ahead of him in perspective for his readers. “Retirement is like a steam bath,” wrote the man of wonderful words. “Once you get to it, it’s not so hot.”

Sherrod did it all in the newspaper business. He wrote stories and he wrote columns. He worked as an editor. He wrote op-ed pieces and finished his marvelous journey by writing a notes column called “Scattershooting.”

Blackie Sherrod, president of the FWAA in 1963 and winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 1985.

Blackie Sherrod, president of the FWAA in 1963 and winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 1985.

“I always thought he was as great an all-around newspaperman as he was a columnist,” said Dan Jenkins, who Sherrod hired at the old Fort Worth Press and went on to become one of the top writers at Sports Illustrated and a noted author.

Sherrod worked as an assistant managing editor at the Dallas Times Herald, outside the sports department. He conducted writing seminars for the reporters. He was so well respected as a newspaperman that the paper sent him to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to cover the 1969 moon shot, although he had never been a science writer. He also covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

William Forrest Sherrod, the son of a barber in Central Texas, began his odyssey playing quarterback in high school, making the all-district team as a senior. He enrolled at Baylor on an academic scholarship in 1937, where he enjoyed much less success in football than in high school. He transferred to Howard Payne, in Brownwood, Texas, where he played wingback for a year to little acclaim. Wisely, he spent his last two years there studying journalism.

He graduated from Howard Payne in 1941 and served as a tail gunner and radio man on a torpedo bomber in the Pacific in World War II. He served on the USS Saratoga and USS Santee and was stationed on Guadalcanal.

He landed his first full-time newspaper job in 1946 with the Temple (Texas) Telegram. He didn’t stay there long before joining the Press, the afternoon paper in Fort Worth.

Sherrod covered only one beat in his life. That was the Fort Worth Cats baseball team, at the time part of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system. The Cats gave him an avenue to the Dodgers spring training camp, where he became friendly with some of the top sports writers from New York City, including Red Smith.

He joined the FWAA in 1950 and served as President in 1963.

When Sherrod became sports editor in Fort Worth, he built an outstanding staff of writers, including Jenkins and Edwin “Bud” Shrake. Jenkins and Shrake were students at TCU, Jenkins recommended his friend to Sherrod.

The writers often needed to be in the office by 6 a.m. to help put out the P.M. paper. And you better be on time.

“Blackie kept us all scared to death,” said Shrake. “We liked him, and we hung out with him, but it wasn’t (ever) considered that you’d be a minute late. And God forbid if you got something wrong.”

“I always thought I was a better editor than a writer,” he said. “I was never a very confident writer,” which is like Willie Mays saying he was a better hitter than an outfielder. He was pretty good at both.

After 12 years at the Press, Sherrod moved over to the Times Herald in Dallas, where he worked for 26 years.

In 1962 Sports Illustrated invited Sherrod and Jenkins to come up for a tryout. “I wasn’t going to audition for anybody,” said Sherrod.

He recognized the impact of television before most in the print industry. If there was a major sporting event on TV that night, Sherrod would put the time and channel in a box in the sports section. “My approach, even then, was that you’d better make it work for you,” he said of the fledgling TV business.

While many sports writers of his quality pen book after book, Sherrod wrote only two, one about Texas football coach Darrell Royal and the other with Longhorn Freddie Steinmark, a member of the Longhorns’ 1969 national championship team who died 18 months later of cancer.

Sherrod switched to the Dallas Morning News in 1984. He finally said goodbye in 2008.

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Barfknecht says FWAA’s 75th Anniversary All-American Team will be highlight of the off-season

ffaw_redesignFWAA President Lee Barfknecht writes that the FWAA’s 75th Anniversary All-America Team, to be released this summer,  will provide fresh argument-starters during college football’s downtime. Whether you are at the lake or a bar, at home or away or settling in after a Sunday school picnic, these teams should get you talking.

Click here to read Lee’s column at Omaha.com.

 

Pillars of the FWAA: Furman Bisher (1918-2012), Atlanta Journal-Constitution 1

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next few months, 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 sixth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA  series. Furman Bisher was the 1982 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Those were the days of newspapering, long before ESPN and the Internet, when sports writers enjoyed almost unlimited access to the coaches they covered.

Furman Bisher worked for The Charlotte News, covering Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, in the late 1940s. The News was a p.m. paper with no Sunday edition, so Bisher needed a fresh angle for his Monday story during college football season. It was easy enough to get. He would drive to Durham and meet legendary Duke coach Wallace Wade after the Sunday coaches’ meetings.

“He’d sit in my car and we’d talk for an hour,” said Bisher. “We had a different relationship in those days. That’s something that would never happen in this day.”

Furman Bisher, president of the FWAA in 1959 and winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 1982.

Furman Bisher, president of the FWAA in 1959 and winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 1982.

Bisher worked for three years as a general reporter and later as state editor at The News before World War II. He spent three years in the Navy Air Corps, splitting time between the Pacific and Pensacola Naval Air Station. He returned to Charlotte in January 1946 and joined the sports department.

In the summer he covered the Class B Charlotte Hornets in the Tri-State League, including spring training in Orlando.

“I wanted to go to the Major Leagues, travel with the team, ride the trains, see all the big cities,” he said. “I still haven’t done that. I rode the bus (with Charlotte), stayed in hotels. I was in the big time.”

James Furman Bisher was born in Denton, N.C., the third of four children. “They never pay attention to the third child,” he said. “I was sort of a nuisance.”

He played basketball and tennis in high school, but no one considered him a college prospect. He enrolled at Furman and worked as manager of the football team. But when Furman dropped its journalism program after Bisher’s first two years there he transferred to North Carolina.

Fortune fell upon Bisher in the form of a college roommate in Chapel Hill.

“He stayed up late, playing cards and drinking whisky,” said Bisher. “He married a girl with a little money, and they bought half interest in the Lumberton Voice.”

The Voice, with a circulation a little over 3,000, hired Furman as its editor.

“I thought I was pretty good,” he laughed. “I was about the whole damn staff. But I was a long way from being a sports writer. It was published in an old house. Every time they started the presses, the whole building would rumble.”

He stayed there nine months. His next stop was the High Point (North Carolina) Enterprise in 1939 as a general reporter. But the sports editor used Bisher  whenever he could. He moved to Charlotte next, where he became sports editor in 1948, and a year later he landed the first interview of Shoeless Joe Jackson since 1919, the year Jackson was banned from baseball because of the Black Sox scandal. Bisher then became sports editor/columnist of the Atlanta Journal in 1950.

“It was still a big, bush league town at the time,” Bisher said of the days before the Braves, Falcons and Hawks arrived. “Georgia Tech was hot at the time. They beat Georgia eight years in a row. (Georgia Tech coach) Bobby Dodd was a sports writer’s dream. He would give you the story and write the headline for you. (Georgia coach) Wally Butts, as cantankerous and hot headed as he was, was enjoyable to be around.”

Bisher served as President of the FWAA in 1959.

He fit well into the Atlanta landscape. The job and circumstances at home kept him there.

“I had chances to go to Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, the New York World-Telegram, Chicago Daily News, San Francisco Examiner,” he said. “I had a bad marriage and three young boys. I got custody of the three boys and raised them by myself. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t bad.”

That didn’t prevent Bisher from covering major events nearly everywhere they were played.

“I’ve traveled all over the world,” he said. “I’ve been on every continent but Antarctica.”

Tony Barnhart, the 2009 recipient of the Bert McGrane Award and the 1998 FWAA President, worked for the Atlanta newspaper for 25 years.

“He was a pussy cat when I met him,” said Barnhart, who started at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1984. “I understand in the old days he was all fire and brimstone. What a resource. He had the greatest filing system I’ve ever seen.”

Bisher worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 59 years before retiring in 2009. Still using the typewriter he started with at the paper in 1950, Bisher continued to write occasional columns and cover some big golf events such as The Masters into his 90s.

Pillars of the FWAA: Dick Cullum (1894-1982), Minneapolis Tribune

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next few months, 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 fifth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series.

Dick Cullum was the 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

 By Gene Duffey

Dick Cullum perfectly walked one of the finest lines in journalism. As a columnist, he knew how to criticize a coach, a player or a team without turning it into a hatchet job.

Being able to delicately maintain that balance, he gained great respect from his subjects in “Cullum’s Column.”

“He wrote with knowledge, with thought and with study,” said Murray Warmath, the successful University of Minnesota football coach. “He always wrote constructively. He was a man of ethics and character.”

Dick Cullum, 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Dick Cullum, 1977 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

“He was the best sports writer who ever hit a typewriter,” said Calvin Griffith, long-time owner of the Minnesota Twins. “He had wisdom, he was honest and he was a fair writer. But he was also very cunning. He could criticize you and yet not kill you.”

“When he ripped guys, he did it in a roundabout way,” added Sid Hartman, the legendary writer in the Twin Cities who Cullum first hired in 1944 at the old Minneapolis Times. “Dick Cullum was a beautiful man.”

Cullum and Hartman formed a unique team.

“He couldn’t report and I couldn’t write,” said Hartman. “(I told him) my spelling is bad and my grammar is worse.”

That didn’t bother Cullum. “Don’t worry about writing, give us the news,” he said to Hartman. “Writers are a dime a dozen. Reporters are impossible to find.”

Hartman turned into such an outstanding reporter that Cullum couldn’t get all his newsy items in the paper. He began running them as a column called “Hartman’s Roundup.”

Harold Keith, the sports information director at Oklahoma, wrote a book on Sooner football titled, “Forty-Seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma.” Keith called Cullum “perhaps the most knowledgeable football writer in the Big Ten area.”

Cullum was born in southeast in Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. His family moved and he went to Duluth Central High School before enrolling at the University of Minnesota, where he captained the school’s first golf team in 1915. He started law school, but World War I interrupted that pursuit. He signed up for the Marines and eventually obtained the rank of captain.

He joined the Minneapolis Journal in 1921. Cullum spent five years working for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press. He returned to the Journal and also worked for the Minneapolis Times-Tribune and became sports editor of the Minneapolis Times in 1944. When the Times folded in 1948, he and Hartman moved over to the Minneapolis Tribune.

Charley Johnson, sports editor of the Minneapolis Star, and Cullum were natural rivals.   

Dick Cullum (right) presents a scroll to Minnesota Coach Bernie Bierman at a meeting of the Touchdown Club.

Dick Cullum (right) presents a scroll to Minnesota Coach Bernie Bierman at a meeting of the Touchdown Club.

Bernie Bierman coached the University of Minnesota football teams to a 63-12-6 record from 1932-41, including undefeated seasons in 1934, ’35, ’40 and ’41. Bierman missed three seasons because of World War II and when he took over the Gophers again in 1945 he never regained his previous success, going 30-23. He retired after a 1-7-1 record in 1950.

“The different views on Bierman were part of the Cullum-Johnson rivalry that went back to the 1930s, when Cullum ran the more powerful Minneapolis Journal and Johnson ran the smaller Minneapolis Star,” said Hartman. “Cullum was a cheerleader. If you read the Times sports section, there was no question we wanted the Gophers to win.”

Even Johnson, the winner of the inaugural Bert McGrane Award in 1974, appreciated Cullum’s work.

“He was a very quiet, modest fellow, always in the background,” said Johnson. “He had a good sense of humor and in my opinion, from a writing standpoint, he was as good as anyone in the country.”

Cullum retired as a columnist in 1976, but he continued to cover boxing and write a weekly column until shortly before his death in 1982.

Joel Rippel of the Star Tribune  recalled working a boxing match with Cullum. Cullum wrote his story on an old typewriter and then Rippel typed it into a computer for him.

The last boxing match Dick Cullum covered on a deadline was a Larry Holmes heavyweight fight. He was 85.

Pillars of the FWAA: Wilfrid Smith (1899-1976), Chicago Tribune

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next few months, 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 fourth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series.  Wilfrid Smith was the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Wilfrid Smith was a giant among sports writers at 6-foot-4 and one time weighing 300 pounds.

Probably the best athlete of all the Bert McGrane Award winners, Smith played six years in the National Football League and on the Chicago Cardinals’ 1925 championship team.

He worked for the Chicago Tribune while still playing for the Cardinals. He retired as a player after the 1925 season, but continued to work as an official in the NFL. Some days he would referee a pro football game and then write about it for the next day’s paper.

Wilfrid Smith, first president of the FWAA and the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Wilfrid Smith, first president of the FWAA and the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Smith’s father was a minister, so the family moved around in Wilfrid’s younger days. He went to high school in Huntington, Indiana and then attended college at DePauw in Greencastle, Indiana. He served as sports editor of the student newspaper at DePauw and lettered in four sports, including baseball and football.

One summer he worked for the Chattanooga Times for $10 a week. He also worked for the Jacksonville Metropolis News and the Albany (New York) Knickerbocker Press.

Smith signed a baseball contract as a pitcher with a Class D team in Orlando. When he arrived, Orlando played him at first base instead of using him as a pitcher. Smith couldn’t hit as well as he pitched and the team released him.

 He began his pro football career with the Muncie (Indiana) Flyers. The Flyers played only one game, and lost, in 1920, the first official season of the NFL. Smith, who played center, guard, tackle and end, spent one more season with the Flyers and then joined the Louisville Brecks the following year. In 1923 he played for both the Hammond (Indiana) Pros and the Chicago Cardinals.

The NFL was loosely organized in those days.  It was composed of teams mostly from the Midwest and had neither divisions nor a championship game. The league wasn’t divided into Eastern and Western divisions until 1933, when the Bears beat the New York Giants in the first NFL title game.

The Cardinals finished 8-4 in 1923 and 5-4-1 in 1924. The Chicago Bears were the better team in town. But in 1925 the Cardinals went 11-2-1, finishing atop the 20-team league. They were declared champions based on their .846 winning percentage, ahead of the Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons, who went 10-2 (.833).

Smith was listed at 6-4 and 204 pounds during his playing days. The NFL incorrectly spelled his first name “Wilfred.”

Smith began with the Tribune as a night copy editor, hired by sports editor W.D. Maxwell, who had been his editor with the DePauw student newspaper. The job at the paper didn’t end his athletic career. In addition to refereeing in the NFL, he starred for Chicago’s Knights of Columbus basketball league.

While working nights at the newspaper, Smith taught and helped coach football at Harrison Technical High School. He also coached at Greencastle High in East Chicago (Indiana) and at Washington High in Chicago.

He had gone on to earn a master’s degree from DePauw while playing football.

Colleges and boxing were his favorite sports to cover.

The Big Ten Conference attempted to hire Smith as its commissioner in 1940, but he decided to stay with the newspaper.

By 1955 Maxwell had worked his way up to editor of the Tribune. When Arch Ward, the man credited with starting baseball’s All-Star Game and the now defunct College Football All-Star Game, passed away, Smith was promoted to sports editor.

Smith helped organize the FWAA with Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register and served as the organization’s first president from 1941-44.

Pillars of the FWAA: Murray Olderman (1922-), Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA)

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, 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 third installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Murray Olderman was the 1991 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch

By Gene Duffey

Murray Olderman learned how one headline can spoil a long-time relationship. In the early 1960s he wrote a story for Sport Magazine on Johnny Unitas, the talented quarterback of the Baltimore Colts who had won two NFL championships.

Olderman had always gotten along well with Unitas. He wrote 14 books, including a coffee table book titled “The Pro Quarterback” that featured Unitas on the cover.

But the headline on the story in Sport Magazine read: “Is Unitas Washed Up?”

Murray Olderman, 1960 FWAA president and 1991 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Murray Olderman, 1960 FWAA president and 1991 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

“He was 28 and played until he was 39,” said Olderman. “He didn’t talk to me much after that.”

Much like Unitas, Olderman was a cut above most people in his profession. In addition to being a fine writer, he drew cartoons as well. Cartoons were a staple of the sports pages in those days.

“There were 12 papers in New York City then and 10 had sports cartoonists,” Olderman said of his days growing up in Spring Valley, 30 miles northwest of New York City.

He never had any formal training as a cartoonist. He did take a couple of art classes while a student at the University of Missouri and began drawing for The Columbia Missourian, the paper in Columbia, Mo., that is manned by journalism students from the university.

“They’re both work,” Olderman said of his ability to write and draw. “It gave me a little bit of an edge because I could do both.”

In the past, Olderman’s drawing served as the masthead for the FWAA’s newsletter, “The Fifth Down.” It depicted a writer and a broadcaster, with a pin, pad and microphone in hand, respectively, appearing alongside a center hiking a football to a quarterback.

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Murray first stepped into the business while a senior at Spring Valley High School, working for the weekly Rockland County Leader. He covered high school sports and wrote a column.

Olderman headed off to North Carolina, but stayed only a year. “Ran out of money,” he said. A year later, he enrolled at Missouri, one of the top journalism schools in the country.

He graduated from there in 1943 and went right into the Army. He served as an intelligence officer in Gmunden, Austria, in the Third Army during World War II. He also earned a degree in humanities from Stanford while stationed at the university in a language program.

After military service Olderman enrolled at Northwestern, his fourth college, on the G.I. Bill. He received a master’s in journalism in Evanston.

He began drawing sports cartoons for the Chicago Daily News while at Northwestern.

He returned to the West Coast for his first full-time job after college, writing features and doing cartoons for the Sacramento Bee. After four years there it was off to the Minneapolis Star in 1951.

NEA, a Scripps-Howard syndicate, offered Olderman a job.

“Their headquarters were in Cleveland and their home office was in New York,” he said. “Guess where I wanted to work?”

Olderman returned to the Big Apple. He became sports editor of NEA in 1964 and executive editor in 1968.

Living in New York City gave him access to the NFL and NBA offices. In 1955, at Olderman’s urging, the NFL named its most valuable player award after Jim Thorpe. A year later, the NBA began presenting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named after the league’s first commissioner, to its MVP, with Olderman again being the idea man behind the award.

He actually did road work with heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, who was training at Grossinger’s, once a lively resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

“I went up to do a story on him and ran with him in the morning,” said Olderman. “He was 5-11 and I was 6-feet. I had longer legs. I was able to keep up with him. He was a very down to earth, nice guy. Not very polished.”

Most people credit the 1958 NFL Championship, when Unitas led his Colts to an overtime victory against the Giants in New York, for popularizing pro football.

Olderman also believes the 1956 title game, when the Giants routed the Chicago Bears in New York, played a significant part. “Madison Avenue caught on to the Giants (after that),” he said. “The 1958 game solidified it. That’s when football passed baseball as the national sport.”

Olderman, president of the FWAA in 1960, talked NEA into allowing him to move to the San Francisco area, where he met his wife in 1971. He officially retired from that job in 1987 and moved to Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs.

He has continued to write for various magazines, illustrating his own articles. “I retired from my job, but I never retired,” he said.

Pillars of the FWAA: John Mooney, Salt Lake City Tribune

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, 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 second installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series, on John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

The year was 1969 and Texas and Arkansas sat atop the college football world. ABC-TV had the foresight to ask the schools to move their traditional October game to the end of the season, a Dec. 6 showdown in Fayetteville that became know as “The Shootout.”

John Mooney was the FWAA President in 1969. He had the foresight to write a letter to President Richard Nixon, not only inviting him to the game, but also asking him to present the national championship plaque to the winning team.

John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

John Mooney, the 1983 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

President Nixon bit on the offer, made the trip to Arkansas and, after a memorable 15-14 Texas victory, presented the trophy to Coach Darrell Royal and his Longhorns.

Notre Dame nearly ruined the impact, leading Texas 17-14 in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl. Then James Street & Co. rallied to beat the Irish 21-17 and clinch the national title. Dick Rosetta, who worked for Mooney at the Salt Lake City Tribune for 27 years before succeeding him as sports editor in 1990, pointed out the true irony of Nixon being put on stage by the FWAA. “Mooney was a lifelong Democrat,” Rosetta said.

Mooney took greater pride in helping bring attention to college football in his part of the country. Players such at Utah State’s Merlin Olsen and Utah’s Larry Wilson achieved All-America status largely because of Mooney’s influence on the FWAA All-America Committee. In 1961, Olsen claimed the FWAA’s Outland Trophy, which annually has been awarded to the best lineman in college football since 1946, and went on to a stellar career with the Los Angeles Rams.

“Hopefully I had a part of bringing football respect to the Rockies,” he once said.

“He was more known outside this state than inside,” said Rosetta, citing Mooney’s relationships with many of the top sports writers and college football coaches across the country.

John James Mooney competed in nearly every sport in high school, football, basketball, baseball, swimming and track. He went off to the University of Iowa where he continued to play sports and was even a member of the boxing team, then an intercollegiate sport. But he achieved much less success in athletics in college than in high school and began concentrating on journalism. He became sports editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan.

He worked for the Chicago Tribune and briefly in New Orleans before moving to Salt Lake City to take a job with the Salt Lake Telegram. He served as sports editor of that paper from 1940-48 before switching to the Salt Lake Tribune, also as sports editor.

Mooney became famous for his notes column, “Disa and Data,” which was also the title of his book. “He probably got more names in the paper than anyone,” said Rosetta.

John Mooney wasn’t just part of the community in Salt Lake City. He was the community.

He donated generously to charities such as the United Way and the St. Vincent de Paul Center, where he volunteered in their soup kitchen. He was a member of the Elks, the Knights of Columbus and the Hibernian Society. The Elks named him Citizen of the Year. He served as grand marshal for the Salt Lake City St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Multiple Sclerosis Society honored him as its Sports Person of the Year at their annual Dinner of Champions.

He received more awards than most of the athletes he covered, including one from the county sheriff’s office in 1985. “John Mooney stayed at boxing events, when nobody else was there, often from 7 p.m. to 2 and 3 a.m., getting winner’s names for the newspaper,” said Sheriff Pete Hayward. “His efforts greatly aided fund-raising efforts for many sports programs.”

Rosetta said that none of the organizations that Mooney belonged to meant more to him than the FWAA. He was a regular at the annual meeting, often paying for the trip out of his own pocket. He knew people from all walks of life, but he liked the people in his own profession the best.

“There is no caste system in sports writing,” he once said. “(Big timers) will share a drink or a story with a guy from the Rockies.”

The press area in Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah was named after him.  He was named sportswriter of the year seven times in the state of Utah.

“He was my hero,” said Rosetta. “He was a pure joy to work for. We had our battles. Mooney was an icon and I was a grunt guy. He referred to me as his illegitimate son.”

Mooney’s last column appeared Dec. 31, 1990. “My greatest fear is to be one column ahead of time and die,” he once said.

Mooney signed his interoffice memos “P.O.J,” which stood for Poor Old John. “That’s how everybody knew him on the desk,” Rosetta said.

 

Pillars of the FWAA: Fred Russell (1906-2003), Nashville Banner

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 history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, 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 first installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series, on Fred Russell, the 1981 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

In 1940, Fred Russell’s influence and ability to judge talent was never more evident than when he suggested to Vanderbilt football coach Red Sanders that he should hire a young Bear Bryant.

Russell was then Sports Editor of the Nashville Banner, but had known Sanders from their college baseball playing days at Vanderbilt.  So he merely gave Sanders the heads up on this young assistant coach at Alabama. Sanders had wanted to hire a promising Mississippi State assistant named Murray Warmath. But Russell was pushing Bryant, whom he had first gotten to know as an Alabama player at the 1935 Rose Bowl (1934 season) and later as an assistant for Crimson Tide coach Frank Thomas.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Fred Russell, winner of the 1981 Bert McGrane Award.

Sanders stopped in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and interviewed Bryant on his way to Mississippi State. Sanders called Russell back in Nashville and told him, “I got my man” and passed the phone to his new assistant coach.

“Congratulations Murray,” Russell said in a welcoming tone. “You’re going to love Nashville.”

“Who the hell is Murray?” said the voice on the other end. “This is Paul Bryant.”

Sanders went on to coach UCLA to a national championship in 1954. Warmath eventually became the coach at Minnesota and led the Golden Gophers to back-to-back Rose Bowls. That young guy Bryant did pretty well for himself, too.

Russell was a man of influence. “He was a real mover and shaker,” said Doug Segrest, who worked for Russell at the Banner from 1984-91. “He was probably the second most powerful man in Vanderbilt athletics.”

Segrest recalled playing in Tennessee coach Johnny Majors’ annual Kickoff Classic golf tournament and being paired with Joe DiMaggio. Segrest said little to the baseball legend until the ninth hole when DiMaggio found out that Segrest worked at the Banner.

“If I worked with Freddie Russell I had to be a good guy (according to DiMaggio),” said Segrest. “I got a great interview with him. He took me back to his condo and talked for an hour and a half.”

Russell came from tiny Wartrace, Tenn., his family moving to Nashville when he was 6. He attended the Duncan School, Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Law School — not your normal path to a sports writing career.

His took his first job after law school with the Real Estate Title Company. He lost his job when the company merged with another. He started with the Banner in June 1929. He was offered the choice of selling ads for $25 a week or being a reporter for $6 a week. He took the reporter’s job, covering the police beat. He became sports editor a year later.

“Ever since I began reading the sports pages at seven or eight, I had envied the sports writers as much as the athletes,” Russell once said. “I’d always imagined that sports writing must be the greatest life in the world.”

He named his column “Sidelines.”

Russell covered the first Masters in 1934, the World Series and other major sporting events. He also covered the Tennessee State women’s track team, including Wilma Rudolph, at the 1960 Summer

Olympics in Rome. When he was honored at a dinner in 1953, the guests included Bobby Jones, Red Grange and Jack Dempsey.

He was president of the FWAA in 1965.

“He had a distinctive style,” said Segrest. “He was an easy read and always told you something you didn’t know.”

In a business that breeds familiarity, where copy boys call managing editors by their first names, many people called him “Mr. Russell.”

“The only people who called him Freddie were his peers and family,” said Segrest.

Russell was a practical joker. He pulled one of his best ones on his chief desk guy at the Banner, Bill Roberts. Roberts was from Brooklyn and broken hearted when his Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. In the days of teletype machines at newspapers, a bell would ring to alert the newsroom that a major story was about to move.

One day the Associated Press reported that after one year in Los Angeles, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was going to move the team back to Brooklyn. Roberts was ready to buy drinks for everyone in the newsroom, before being told that Russell had set up the whole thing and that the AP report was sent only to the Banner.

Russell wrote seven books in addition to the Pigskin Preview for the popular Saturday Evening Post from 1949-62.

He served as chairman of the Honors Court of the College Football Hall of Fame for 29 years from 1963-91 and Southern chairman of the Heisman Trophy selection committee for 46 years. He received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 1981. When Vanderbilt Stadium was rebuilt in 1982, the press box was named after him.

The Nashville Banner folded in 1998. Mr. Russell wrote a weekly column for The Tennessean until retiring in 1999.

Cancer survivor and 2011 FWAA Courage Award winner signs as free agent with Dolphins

By Chris Solari
Lansing State Journal

After beating cancer, Arthur Ray’s odds-defying journey back to football will finally take him to the NFL.

The former Michigan State offensive lineman agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins and will join the team’s rookie mini-camp that begins Friday in South Florida, his agent Paul Sheehy said Tuesday.

Ray, a Chicago native who is 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, is expected to be either a guard or center at the pro level. He started 14 games over the past two seasons at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., after being granted two extra seasons of eligibility by the NCAA in January 2013. He last played for MSU in 2011.

ffaw_redesignIn Miami this week, Ray will rejoin former Spartan teammate Tony Lippett, a cornerback/wide receiver taken by the Dolphins in Saturday’s fifth round. Former MSU tight end Dion Sims and punter Brandon Fields also are on the Dolphins’ active roster.

The camp will be a foot-in-the-door tryout for Ray, who went undrafted in the NFL draft over the weekend.

“I’m on the phone with my main man Dion Sims all the time. … Dion Sims is truly one of my best friends from Michigan State,” Ray said last week before the NFL draft. “We always talk about me and the process. We were just joking the other day about me possibly coming down to the Dolphins. I was just laughing with him, telling him, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind backing up (starting center Mike) Pouncy’ and going down there and playing with Dion.”

It’s been a long and sometimes rocky path to the NFL for Ray, who turns 26 next month.

Ranked as one of the nation’s top offensive guards as part of Mark Dantonio’s first full MSU recruiting class in 2007, he was diagnosed with cancer in his right tibia in April of his senior year at Mount Carmel High in Chicago.

Ray underwent nine surgeries on his lower right leg and chemotherapy, battling bone infections and countless hours of rehabilitation on his leg while spending more than two years on crutches. He deferred his enrollment and didn’t begin classes at MSU until 2008. Dantonio and his staff honored their scholarship commitment.

In the spring of 2011, Ray was finally cleared to practice. During the Spartans’ opening game that August against Youngstown State, a tearful Ray received the starting assignment at left guard. He went on to play against Florida Atlantic and Indiana and received his only varsity letter at MSU, receiving the team’s “Biggie” Munn Most Inspirational Player Award at the team banquet.

Conquering cancer also earned Ray the Discover Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America’s Courage Award and was the Most Courageous Performance by the Big Ten in 2011.

Dantonio left Ray off MSU’s 2012 roster. Ray received a medical disqualification and finished his degree in communications that December before transferring to Division II Fort Lewis College, where he was a two-time captain and tore his meniscus in his right knee during the 2013 season. He returned to the field last fall and was a second-team All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference selection at left tackle.