Legendary sportswriter returns to roots by covering local girls' basketball
On Dec. 6, 2015, Dave Kindred's world was upended. Cheryl, his wife of 53 years, suffered a catastrophic stroke and was left non-responsive and unable to communicate. The two had been high-school sweethearts and married before they graduated from college. She had followed him all over the country -- from Louisville, Kentucky, to Washington to Atlanta, on his way to becoming one of the most decorated and revered sportswriters in the country -- until five years prior, when the couple decided to return to Central Illinois, where they both had grown up. They built a spacious log home with a back porch overlooking a pond where they planned to sit and talk and watch the sunset.
All of that was gone now. For 12 days, Kindred barely left the hospital in Normal, Illinois, manning his post in the chair beside his wife's bed, wondering if she would ever respond to his voice, ever open her eyes and recognize his face. If she did come out of it, would she be the same? Would anything ever be the same again?
Meanwhile, family and friends from nearby Morton stopped in to bring snacks and emotional support. Several of the well-wishers were players on the Morton High School Lady Potters basketball team. In the five years since they had moved back, the Kindreds had missed only a handful of games. One of the players' mother wondered aloud if slipping back into that routine, returning to the Potterdome bleachers and escaping the helpless bedside seat might be a salve for Kindred's beleaguered spirit.
At wit's end, Kindred asked the mother, "Should I go to a game?"
"Yes," she said. "I think it'll be good for you."
Kindred hasn't missed a Lady Potters game since.
On Dec. 8, 2017, he sits alone two rows behind the Lady Potter bench in mud-splattered hiking boots, blue jeans and a green Masters Tournament wind breaker. What's left of his thinning gray hair sprays out from beneath a red 2017 Masters ball cap, the bill shading trained eyes that follow the ball up and down the court through wire-rimmed spectacles and occasionally glance down to scribble a basket or name or note in his handheld notebook.
The Lady Potters have been good to their fans. They've won 214 games over the past seven seasons, bringing home the past three Illinois High School Association Class 3A State Championships -- the smallest Illinois town (population 16,000) to ever win a 3A title in any sport. This year's team, led by junior forward Tenley Dowell and standout sophomore forward Lindsey Dullard, has won six of its first seven games, outscoring opponents by a combined 127 points. Tonight, they employ an up-tempo attack with frequent ball movement to disorient the hapless Limestone High School en route to an early 32-11 Morton lead, including an electric 19-0 run.
Unfortunately, few patrons take advantage of the hefty return on the free admission. The cozy Potterdome bleachers are only half-full on this frigid December Friday, and many of those parents and students have trickled in midway through this opening act to get good seats for the main event: The Potter varsity boys, whose lone banner is an Elite 8 showing back in 2011. The cheerleaders who bounce out onto the hardwood to try to keep folks engaged during intermissions are working their first Lady Potters game this year, as is the dance squad that will perform at halftime -- of the boys' game.
But the girls have one thing -- besides the monopoly on space in the trophy case out front -- that the boys don't; something that really any team in any sport, male or female, amateur or professional, would be lucky to have: David Kindred. He's not a player's parent or grandparent, uncle or cousin. He's not a teacher or administrator; not a coach or scout. He's not technically even a reporter. In fact, few outside of the tight-knit Lady Potters community know his name -- and most of them don't fully grasp who he is, and even they don't understand why he is here.
"This is David Kindred," says Joyce, 86 years old and a longtime Lady Potter fanatic, introducing the bespectacled man to her nephew, visiting from out of town. "He writes the website."
"I've read your stuff on Facebook," says the nephew, reaching out to shake hands with the man. "You're famous. Did I read ..." Then, struggling to pinpoint the source of fame, the nephew spots the hat and the jacket. "Did I read -- you've been to the Masters?"
The man in the jacket turns his bushy mustache up in a smile of amusement.
"Yeah," the man says. "I've done a little bit of everything."
Dave Byrne, a longtime Lady Potters fan, remembers a similar introduction to Kindred in 2010. Byrne's daughter was a freshman just coming into the program, and Byrne, a self-employed web designer, had started a blog to chronicle team stats, scores, schedules and player and coach bios along the way. In December, shortly after the season had started, Byrne spotted an older man helping his wife down from the bleachers after a game. The man, disheveled hair creeping from beneath a faded ball cap, approached Byrne on the court.
"Are you David Byrne?"
"Are you doing the website?"
"I'd like to help."
Byrne was taken aback. The site was bare bones, strictly a one-man job. Byrne's first thought was that the stranger, with no apparent ties to the school or community, wanted to take over the site.
"Are you a web designer?" Byrne asked.
"No, I'm a writer," said the man. "I'd like to write about the girls."
The man told Byrne his name was Dave Kindred, gave him his email address, shook hands, and then began to walk toward the exit with his wife. Then Kindred stopped and turned.
"You can Google me," he said, "to make sure I can type and spell."
Byrne went home and promptly did just that. And what he found was nothing short of astonishing. The first article that came up was the introduction of Kindred as a commencement speaker at a prestigious university in Pennsylvania. The university president said that if there was a Mount Rushmore for sports journalists, Kindred's face would be in the middle of the mountain.
Byrne discovered why as he scrolled down. He had been a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The National Sports Daily, Sporting News, Golf Digest and the Washington Post. He had covered the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, the NCAA men's and women's Final Fours and each of the PGA majors multiple times, including The Masters, where, after decades of walking the course, he had practically set up an office in the clubhouse. He had written books about star quarterback Joe Theismann, legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. Kindred, himself, was a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.
After an hour or two of reading, Byrne texted Lady Potters head coach Bob Becker: We need to talk.
Three days later, Byrne, Becker and Kindred met at the Morton Steak 'n Shake, where, over shoestring French fries and milkshakes, a deal was hammered out. Byrne would set up a separate blog on the Lady Potters website where he would post Kindred's write-ups of the games. In return, Kindred would be paid exactly nothing -- a compensation package that would soon be amended when, after Kindred had bummed a few Milk Duds from the 98-cent movie box Byrne would bring to every game, Byrne resolved to buy Kindred his very own box. "Things aren't so bad anymore," Kindred told Byrne a few games into the new arrangement. "I got a raise."
In the eight years since, Kindred has asked only for one more pay increase. After Cheryl, who would accompany Kindred to every game, lost a filling on one of the dense caramel candies, Kindred requested an additional box of easier-to-chew Junior Mints.
Kindred and Cheryl both grew up 40 miles south of Morton in Atlanta, Illinois, where they met while still in high school. She was a cheerleader; he played baseball and basketball. His sister, Sandy, made him take Cheryl on a date. They were married in 1962. He was 21 years old.
Kindred was always fascinated by sportswriters. As a kid, he ran to the train station every Sunday just to pick up Red Smith's sports column in the Chicago Tribune. He attended Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington on a journalism scholarship and covered sports for the local Daily Pantagraph. By the time Kindred made the jump to a major metro newspaper in Louisville at age 24, he had already started to develop a distinct voice that would endear him to readers and colleagues alike. "Something about his style is very simple," says Tom Callahan, longtime sportswriter who first met Kindred at the Louisville Courier-Journal. "A lot of guys have this big respect for him and it came from the words. When you're a daily newspaper columnist, you have to wear well. You could read him every day and never tire of him."
Kindred was part of a golden era of sports columnists, when every newspaper had at least one or two star writers whose mugshots graced the top left corner of the sports section and whose gray pillar of prose bolstered the entire side of the thick broadsheet five to seven days a week. Readers relied on those voices of authority to not only learn about their city's teams, athletes and coaches, but to help shape their opinions about everything even remotely sports-related. Columnists were king makers -- and breakers. Kindred set himself apart by looking beyond the obvious for the more obscure stories and characters. His mantra has always been: "If you pay attention, you'll see something you've never seen before -- write about that."
"He took chicken s--- and made it into chicken salad," says sportswriter John Feinstein, who met Kindred at the Washington Post in the late 1970s. "He goes out and finds out stuff about people. When you write about sports, you write about people. He's a great learner. His mind is always open to that."
No matter where he was, whether it was in Los Angeles covering the Final Four or in Barcelona with the Olympics, Kindred's thoughts drifted back to Cheryl. "He'd call home every night, some from places where we were lucky to even have a room," says Callahan.
"He'd always close the call with 'I love you,'" Feinstein says. "Without fail."
If they hadn't won 106 games over the past three years, I probably wouldn't be here.Dave Kindred
The trip wouldn't last. As 24-hour cable TV sports and then the Internet began delivering news and opinion at the speeds of light and sound, newspapers gradually thinned. Newspaper advertising declined, deepening the budget cuts into resources and personnel in newsrooms across the country. Sports columnists, many of whom had become local and even national celebrities, were some of the last holdouts, but the frequency with which their columns appeared shrank from seven to five to two times a week. Kindred finally jumped for the magazine world of The Sporting News and Golf Digest, but after the recession of 2008, even they decided not to employ a full-time columnist. Kindred decided to focus on writing books and freelance work. "I was done with staff jobs, and could do this from wherever I wanted," Kindred says. "We figured it was time to come back. Time to come home."
Kindred's mother and sister lived in Morton. In 2010, Kindred and Cheryl bought the large log cabin in the woods some 20 miles outside of town.
Later that year, the couple found themselves at the Potterdome watching the daughter of a family friend play. That's when Kindred felt the itch. "My professional observer instincts kicked in," he says. "And that included wanting to write about what I just saw." What he saw was simplicity. "There was nothing bad about it," he says. "Everything was good. I didn't care about the experience or the spectacle. I just watched the game. This is pure -- it's such a cliché -- but these games are for the kids." And why the girls? Sure, there's the tired answer that the girls game is more rooted in the fundamentals. But Kindred's answer goes deeper, back to a scene in his sister's kitchen where his sister, Cheryl, a family friend, and her 12-year-old daughter, Carly, were talking about cheerleading. All three of the women had stood on the sidelines, waving their pompoms. Kindred wondered if Carly wanted to follow suit.
"No," she said. "I'm going to be the one they cheer for."
"She had me at 'no,'" Kindred says.
Of course, there's another reason a writer would choose the Lady Potters over the plain old Potters. "They're the best," he says, only half-joking. "If they hadn't won 106 games over the past three years, I probably wouldn't be here."
If you ask Kindred, he is not taking the traditional columnist's viewpoint in his dispatches. He's not second-guessing the coach, not putting any grand, season-long meaning or narrative on this play or that game. He says he is just trying to find and accentuate the positive. But sometimes the seasoned sportswriter's view of balance is different from that of a small school unused to playing in front of an incisive pen. During Kindred's second season, the Lady Potters played a plainly outmatched team from Rock Island. Kindred wrote what he saw -- poor athleticism and lack of fundamental skills. Nothing personal. The next morning, Dave Byrne's cell phone rang. Morton coaches were irate. Kindred eventually softened his story.
Kindred isn't a member of the Lady Potters staff. He isn't a mascot or even a fan. He never breaks the cardinal rule of sportswriting: No cheering in press box. But he isn't exactly a reporter or columnist. He makes no secret of where his loyalties lie. He has followed this team for eight years, home and away, and written more than 200,000 words about them, including three yearbooks for the three state-title seasons, which he compiled and published at his own expense. He has watched many of these girls grow up from the bleachers. They, in turn, have gotten to know "Mr. Kindred." "At the end of the year, we have a banquet and he always has something to say," senior Kassidy Shurman says. "And when you hear your name, you're just waiting for what he's going to say. Usually it's a compliment, followed by something you did wrong or something embarrassing. He remembers a lot of little details."
In the spring of 2015, the Lady Potters won their first-ever 3A state title. Along with the trophy, each player and coach was awarded a medal. The coaching staff was also allowed to submit the names of other personnel deserving of a medal. The team voted to put Kindred on that list. At first, the veteran sportswriter balked. Another cardinal rule of reporting is not to accept gifts from the people you write about. The idea is for the writer to appear objective. In 1983, while Kindred was a columnist at the Washington Post, the Washington NFL team tried to give him a Super Bowl ring celebrating their win that year. He declined the jewelry without hesitation. But this time, he decided to accept the Lady Potters appreciation. "The Redskins were trying to give me a ring because they were trying to buy me," says Kindred. "The girls offered me a medal because they cared about me."
The final buzzer sounds. The Lady Potters rolled Limestone 60-34. Kindred stands for the first time since tip-off and makes his way to the scorer's table to iron out a discrepancy in his notebook, where he keeps score. Then, lost bucket now accounted for, Kindred heads toward the home locker room and waits outside, coat in his arms.
After a moment, coach Becker summons Kindred into the locker room, where the team sits in a circle of metal folding chairs, still in uniform. Kindred is not here to talk about the game, but rather to prepare the girls for what they will encounter tomorrow when they visit the local nursing home. "You may call BINGO or you might do something they call 'Coffee and Conversation,' just talk to people," he says. "There will be lunch, you might be there for that. If you are, just walk through the dining room and talk to folks. Most of those people don't have people that come very often. Most of them are old, even older than me. They're happy to see young people. They will love for you to stop and talk to them -- to just let them know that they're alive and that they mean something."
Kindred knows all this because he is at the home every day visiting Cheryl. She eventually awoke, but was still largely unresponsive, as she remains to this day. She can speak, but it's difficult to carry on a conversation. Looking deep into her eyes, he still can't be sure she even recognizes him. "Whoever I am to her is there every day from 10 until after lunch," he says. "She never speaks my name."
Many girls on the team know this. Their visit is part of their larger community outreach, something Coach Becker has always been keen on. But it's also, at least partially, a show of support for one of their own. "Our kids have stepped up," assistant coach Davis says. "When it first happened, our girls were there."
"I'll see you there tomorrow," Kindred says in closing. "I'll be there." Then Kindred leaves the locker room, turns down the hall, away from the boys' varsity game and walks to the practice gym to catch a few minutes of the JV girls. Then Kindred puts on his coat and makes for the exit. He walks alone through the cold December night, beneath the halos of the overhead lights in the parking lot where his car awaits. He's headed home. He's got a story to write.