I was 19 when I began. I am 66 as I finish. What's that -- 47 years? Enough not to wonder whether I'm quitting too soon.
This New Year's Day is the most significant of my adult life -- my first day of retirement. Forty-seven years were plenty, to make enough money and memories, and keep enough dreams.
All those years of writing for other people -- editors and the public -- are over. Now I can write for myself. Probably novels, for and about baby boomers, who are still as spirited as we were in the streets in the 1960s and '70s, who are the richest generation ever to retire, who have never grown up, and who, most importantly, still read.
Maybe I'll move home to my beloved Gulf of Mexico and run a boat wide-open between Mobile Bay and Louisiana. Maybe I'll keep my house in the North Georgia mountains. Maybe I'll do both.
But that is now. This was then ...
My hero growing up was the great David Brinkley, then of NBC News. Every word he wrote and spoke mattered. Still poignant is a review he wrote in a magazine of the film "The Graduate" when I was an undergraduate, Vietnam-vulnerable.
"I didn't like it very much," he wrote of the film. And of its broadside condemnation of mature America, "These are harsh judgments. I wonder how often they are true."
Brinkley could adjust your thinking like that. Just like that. Simply. Gently. Profoundly.
I wanted to do that.
But that same year, my sophomore year, I realized that covering general news for the college newspaper amounted to student government resolutions. Who cared? I wasn't patient enough to climb the tedious mountain road to Brinkley's realm, nor daring enough to take the dangerous shortcut through covering the Mississippi civil rights movement.
Covering sports, I could mingle right away with real, professional journalists covering events the public really cared about. By 20 I was walking the same sidelines as Bear Bryant and Johnny Vaught.
In sports I have remained all these years, save a handful of brief and miserable digressions early on.
I leave known mainly as a motorsports writer. I regret that. I was more than that, for a lot of years. My favorite stories and memories are from other realms:
• Bryant gazing resignedly out a window with just me there, on a bleak Monday morning in 1982, saying, "I can't coach 'em anymore," and my knowing, walking down that crimson cavern away from his office, that soon he would quit, and therefore soon would surely die.
• Mickey Mantle drinking hard at Roger Maris' wake on a frozen December night in Fargo, North Dakota, 59 below outside, Christmastime in 1985, tears streaming down his face, glad they'd brought Roger home, knowing, "I want to go home to Commerce, Oklahoma."
• Muhammad Ali slurring his words so terribly, obsessed with one little magic trick with a silk scarf, doing it over and over, my trying gently to stop him, saying, "Champ you shouldn't --" and his saying to me, "You wanna hear it? You wanna hear it?" And then his voice ringing out across the ballroom, as if he were 25 again: "I am the greatest of ALL TIME! I'm still so PRETTY! No glove has ever cut this face!" And then turning the tape recorder off in his mind and slurring to me, "Y-y-ou see? I caaaan st-still do it. When I w-want to."
• The incredulous voice of an editor on the phone after Bo Jackson had lofted a towering home run, with a golf swing at a pitch almost in the dirt, in his first at-bat ever in the All-Star Game: "How did you KNOW?" I had left a column in the computer system, to run in the next morning's paper, about the eerie exploits of Mr. Vincent Edward Jackson, whom I'd known since his freshman year at Auburn. After the first paragraph, I'd left a space and a note, "INSERT FROM ALL-STAR GAME TO COME HERE." Then I'd written out Bo's résumé of superhumanity. And so the editor gleefully asked again, "How did you KNOW?" And I answered, "I just know Bo. I knew he would do something. I just didn't know what, when I left the office this afternoon."
• Aleksandr Gomelsky, coach of the Soviet Olympic basketball team, speaking freely in English to me, sitting on the bench during practice, then jumping up and going onto the court to scold or instruct in Russian, then back to continue the marvelous interview in English, back and forth, back and forth ... My later remarking to a TASS reporter that "It was amazing -- no KGB interpreter to monitor him or anything." And the TASS guy laughing, saying, "No worries. Gomelsky himself is KGB colonel." ... Then returning to the media village and telling my roommate, Roy S. Johnson, that I felt sorry for him. Here I was, with the open, free-wheeling coach and team, while Roy had to suffer with the closed practices and secretive, surly behavior of John Thompson, the U.S. basketball coach.
Most sports writers have grown up on baseball, football, basketball, maybe hockey, and so they cover what they know -- what they played and watched in youth. I had one more in my background: auto racing. I'd started going to dirt tracks at age 10.
I lied in 1974, to get out of one of my miserable digressions from sports. I was on the copy desk at the Orlando Sentinel. I told the sports editor that I followed NASCAR. I did not. I could have cared less. But I knew how racing worked, and covering NASCAR meant a writing job, getting out of the office, rather than sitting at a desk watching the datelines from the world pass in front of me.
Steve Vaughn, the sports editor, bless his heart, thought I wrote NASCAR well enough that he soon put me on football. Then I got the Florida State beat with a new head coach, Bobby Bowden, who came in with the notion that success breeds success, and that worked for me, too.
By '77 I was off to Atlanta, where I encountered another mentor, the great -- and I use the word very advisedly -- Van McKenzie, who sent me around the world, and into some pretty podunk places too, nearly always with the instructions "bring me back an award winner," and I often did.
When Van left for New York and The National Sports Daily in '89, he wasn't too keen on taking his "problem child" -- we'd fought a lot -- with him, but the great -- again, I use the word advisedly -- Frank Deford overruled him and became another mentor and encouraged me even more.
And after The National blew $150 million in 17 months and folded in 1991, I worried for only 20 minutes before Frank phoned and said the lifeboat that was going to pick me up was an aircraft carrier called Sports Illustrated.
And all the while, at all those places, I was just the guy who could cover auto racing when needed. And it wasn't needed much. At SI, for the first five years, 75 percent of my time was spent on the NFL, MLB and college football and 25 percent on motor racing.
And the racing coverage at SI was global, covering the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Grand Prix of Monaco, a feature story on the rising Formula One star Michael Schumacher ... the champagne flowed on the overnight flights to Europe and Asia ...
Not until 1996, when SI decided to devote special issues to NASCAR -- because NASCAR was peaking in popularity -- did I become a full-time auto racing writer.
In 2000, the Tribune Co. newspaper chain, with the Chicago Tribune as its flagship, pooled its salary resources and bought me away from SI for an eight-year stint writing motorsports for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel and other papers.
But early on in that marriage, I began a sort of flirtation with ESPN, and in 2008 we tied the knot. This would be all motor racing, and that was fine, for ESPN was more devoted to the subject than any media organization ever.
For those of you who care about motor racing -- and I am more than aware that a lot of you don't -- I have documented, over the past several months, my memories from that world.
Further, coming in January, is a sort of mini-memoir of 40 years, spanning five decades, of motor racing as seen and heard by one man.
So no need going into that here, now.
This departure is a perfect storm of good timing. I am full retirement age, weary of deadlines, sick to death of writing about motor racing in all its forms. ESPN is ending its telecast rights agreement with NASCAR. NASCAR no longer seems to need nor want the in-depth, soulful coverage from old boys like me -- just the quick-hit information for the short attention span.
See you, perhaps, in the years to come on Amazon, and in whatever bookstores are left.
It is without a single tear of nostalgia, without a sniff of bitterness, just with a free and easy sigh of relief, that I say goodbye.