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No Trespassing

Here’s another good one from our man, Dexter. The following originally appeared in Inside Sports (September 30, 1981).

No Trespassing

By Pete Dexter

The old lion is still a bad mother,” he said. “He just wants to roam. Leave him alone. He’s fading, but he’s still a lion.”

St. Simons Island lies four miles off the coast of southern Georgia, connected to the mainland by a two-lane road, separated by saw grass and swamp.

It’s a quiet place with miles of hard-sand beaches, a place the big developers and the resort hotels somehow missed, where people work for a living and nobody has decided yet that you and your dog can’t drink beer on the beach.

For the first nine years of his life, Jim Brown lived on the island in the care of his grandmother and great-grandmother. He still calls the great-grandmother the love of my life. “She would say, ‘I love you forever,’” he said, “and for as long as I was on St. Simons, there was always the ocean and the white sand, and there was never a question of belonging.”

Jim Brown is 45 years old now. It hasn’t been like that for him since.

The island is a town. There is a main street, a couple of small shopping centers, churches, bars. A few rich neighborhoods, a few dirt poor. The poorest is Gordon Retreat, a dead-end mud road three blocks past the firehouse. Two-room houses, falling down, porches filled with old women and flowers. A long-armed girl stops jumping rope in the road when she sees the car. She stands, as still as the sun, and watches. The rope rests in her hair.

The address is on the right, halfway to the end. An old man sits on the porch in front of a television set, eating watermelon with a pocket knife, watching soap operas. Inside an old woman is dying of cancer.

She is on a hospital bed in the front room, staring at the ceiling. Her arms are as thin as the rails that keep her from falling into the night. There is a fan in the corner, the room is still hot. But it is her room, it is her home, her island. She has almost lived her life here now, and she would not move and have it finished somewhere else.

The old woman struggles up to shake hands, then drops back into her pillow. “Simple things,” she says. She catches her breath. A line of sweat shines on the bones of her chest, then tears and runs off into her nightclothes. From where she lies, she can look up and see the wall behind her. There is a picture there, freshly dusted, of a football player.

The football player is Jim Brown, the woman is his last connection with the white sands and a time when there was no question he belonged. The woman is his grandmother.

The house sits in the mountains over Hollywood, a couple of hundred feet off Sunset Plaza Drive. It’s a clear day and from the living room you can look out over the swimming pool and see Los Angeles County all the way to the ocean. At night, the lights could be your carpet.

“The house is worth a million-two, a million-four; and there’s the view and the pool and all that, but that’s not why he lives there. It’s the privacy.”

The man who said that is George Hughley, who is in the room off the kitchen with Brown now, playing backgammon. They play a loud game—a lot of standing up and shouting. The birds have left the tree outside the window until it’s over. Hughley was a fullback, too, a couple of years in Canada and one season with the Redskins. He is one of a handful of people Brown allows in close. “With George,” he says, “you don’t have to be more than you are.” There is Hughley and Bill Russell and maybe the girl who lives with him.

Her name is Kim, he met her at a roller-skating rink. She is 19 or 20, so pretty you could just stick a fork in your leg. She comes out of the bedroom to answer the phone with a pencil in her mouth, wearing Brown’s slippers and carrying an open book. The phone rings every five minutes. It is always for Brown.

“You’ve been around long enough to see that people come by all the time,” George said later. “They come and go—only a few matter to him—but it gives him the chance to choose who he’s around. As long as he lives, he’s going to be Jim Brown, the football player. He went to a place in human activity where he was all alone, where no one else was, and he’s one of the few human beings to achieve that singular status who didn’t insulate himself with flunkies. Up here, he’s got some control over who he sees.”

And they come by all the time, these people who don’t matter.

Just now, though, it’s only George and Jim and the backgammon board. They are playing for $50. A mason jar filled with vodka and apple juice is next to Brown on the table. George drinks from a glass, and he is winning. You can tell because he is making most of the noise. When the game turns, Brown does the talking.

George rolls the dice. “I’m the lawn mower now,” he says, “and your ass is the grass.”

“Where is it?” Brown says. “Where is your move?”

“Where you think it is, turkey butt?” George moves. “I don’t hear you now, do I?”

“I’m watchin’ your chubby-ass hand, Rufus.”

“I don’t care what you watch. Gammon….”

Brown takes the gammon, doubling the stakes. He rolls. George rolls. They accuse each other of rolling too fast, then too slow.

Brown looks across the table. George says, “C’mon, man, move.”

Brown says, “Go slow, Negro.”

They play for two hours and then, toward the end, in the middle of all the shouting and insults, something changes. George rolls before Brown has finished his moves—they have both done it 20 times—but this time Brown makes him take it over. George argues but finally gives in. The new roll beats him.

“Who was wrong?” Brown says.

George argues, points. Brown sits still, asking, “Who was wrong?” over and over.

And George gives in again. “I was wrong.”

Brown nods, it relaxes. It seems like a strange thing to want from a friend.

They play out the game and then George writes a check. The house is suddenly quiet, the birds come back to the tree outside the window.

Brown makes a new drink and sits down at the table. No matter how much he drinks, it never shows. “You got scared, George,” he says. “When you’re scared you don’t get nothin’. From the dice or nothin’ else.”

“Scared of what? Fifty dollars?”

“You went blind in your anxiety.” Brown is preoccupied with why people lose; it means as much as the winning or losing itself. A couple of days later, playing golf with Bill Russell, he will watch a man in the foursome ahead top a wood off the tee. The ball skips into some trees and the man screams and throws the club after it. Brown smiles. “I always wonder about those cats,” he says.

“Is that the first time that’s happened? I mean, is he surprised? The man’s a 22 handicap, how did he get to be a 22?”

Now he says to George, “Anything you do, if you lose, don’t let it be because you give it up.”

Later, George says, “People who don’t know us, they think somebody is about to die on the kitchen table. Of course, that what it sounds like, but it’s also Jim’s reputation. Smoldering violence. People want to believe that he won’t argue with them. He isn’t going to sit around explaining himself.


From Ali to Xena: 30

The Wrong Fit

By John Schulian

I had come up in the newspaper game and I had succeeded in it, even if I was in the penalty box. I thought I had to be a sports columnist again, if I was doing any thinking at all that summer. But I was so numb that I couldn’t even get angry when my phone didn’t ring with offers. I just climbed on my bike and pedaled away, numb to a business that would take its own sweet time to acknowledge my existence again.

Finally, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called to ask what I’d think about working there. I actually liked the town, but not well enough to make it the next place I rolled the dice with my career. The Philadelphia Daily News was a different story. I’d considered jumping to the News in ’81 or ’82, when a beguiling character named Gil Spencer was running the paper. Gil was the kind of free spirit you don’t find in an editor’s office anymore-–a Main Line kid who hadn’t bothered going to college, an ex-marine, a devout horseplayer, a Pultzer prize-winning editorial writer, and a tabloid guy in the best sense of the word. Here’s how smart he was: he gave Pete Dexter a column when Pete was a reporter best known for getting himself in bizarre situations. The first time I met Gil, he was driving me to lunch. “While we’re fucking around,” he said, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?” How could I not like an editor like that?

By the time I was on the market again, Zach Stalberg had replaced Gil. Zach was someone to like, too, a Philly guy who wore cowboy boots, an ex-City Hall reporter, a bit of a swashbuckler. But it wasn’t Zach who came after me. It was the paper’s executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, who had been an Associated Press sportswriter and a Miami Dolphins PR man. And I still don’t know why.

Sometimes I think it was because Rathet liked the way I wrote. Other times I think it was because he wanted to say he’d tamed John Schulian. He made a point of telling me my column could be edited, and he made sure I knew that he was making more money than I was.

I took a 25 percent pay cut when I went to the Daily News, although I’m not sure anyone at the paper except the brass knew it. I always had the feeling that everybody, in and out of sports, thought I was still pulling down six figures. It probably didn’t help that I bought a little restored farmhouse out in Bryn Mawr when most everybody else on the paper seemed to live either in the city or in the South Jersey suburbs. The way it turned out, though, I traveled so much while I was at the Daily News that I should have just rented a motel room by the airport. Between work and vacation, I was gone 195 days in 1985. I get tired just looking at that number now, but back then, I was glad to be on the move.

It quickly dawned on me that Philadelphia was going to be a hard city to embrace. Chicago still owned my heart, and the only two cities in the country that could compete with it in my mind were L.A. and New York. If Philly had any charms, they eluded me. The cheesesteaks were borderline inedible, the drivers were second only to Boston’s when it came to apparent homicidal urges, and the city’s general disposition seemed to flow from those same drivers.

It wasn’t much better at the Daily News. Once I got past Zach Stalberg and his secretary, the only people outside of the sports department who engaged me in real conversations were Maria Gallagher, a reporter who later married Ray Didinger, and Gene Seymour, who went on to write about movies and pop culture at Newsday. And Pete Dexter, of course. He was already on his way to becoming a great novelist when he told me with a straight face that he really wanted to write an episode of Bob Newhart’s TV show. Pete could always make me laugh, but something in his eyes said he knew how it felt to be an orphan in the storm, too.

That solitary feeling followed me into the sports department. I’d invaded territory to which the Daily News’ other columnists had long ago staked claim. Only the unfailingly gracious Didinger refused to let that stop him from treating me like a friend. Stan Hochman, who had always been so amiable when I was an out-of-towner, warily kept his distance, and Mark Whicker left the impression that he’d rather talk about me than to me. Not surprisingly, Bill Conlin proved harder to read than any of them. I assumed hated me – what can I say, he just has that way about him – but we bonded over our antipathy toward Whitey Herzog at the 1985 World Series.

Even if we’d all been singing “Kumbaya,” however, it would have been hard to get the sports staff together because we were always racing somewhere to cover the next big story. I had dinner a couple of times with Rathet and his delightful wife, Lois, who would die much too young, but that was about it. The one person I truly connected with was a woman who didn’t even read newspapers. She was very artsy, very stylish, and brave enough ultimately to live through four years with me.

True to form, my career butted in line ahead of my personal life as I set about re-living what I had gone through as a columnist in Chicago. But the first time was a thrill: to discover that I was good at it, to be anointed a star, to be covering the sports events that every writer dreamed of. The second time, in Philly, was borderline torture. It wasn’t because of the chilly reception I received at the Daily News, either. I’d been the new kid in school more times that I cared to count. I could deal with that, even though it was a bit disconcerting to think that I was getting along better with editors than I was with my fellow troops. What I hadn’t counted on was the toxic reaction I found myself having to the job itself. I’d long ago tired of airplanes and hotel rooms and room service meals that were guaranteed to shorten my life, but now the dread with which I faced them was spreading. I couldn’t generate any excitement for the crowds, the bright lights, or even the biggest games and fights and horse races. The stories all felt like I’d written them before. Worse, I could barely stand to read my own prose.

I needed a new challenge, not one I’d already conquered. I needed something to save me from a future as a grumpy, overweight sports columnist who was odds on to keel over dead while running to catch a plane. Shortly before dawn on the day I turned 40, I discovered what my ticket out was. It had been in my head nearly all my life.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

From Ali to Xena: 29

The Road to Philly

By John Schulian 

I know how I ended up in Philadelphia: I drove.

What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.

The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.

None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.

The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.

No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.

But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.

I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.

Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.

I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.

I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb

Another sure shot from Pete Dexter. From the May 31, 181 issue of Inside Sports.

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb: The Late-Booming Karate Fighter From Abilene Wants to Be The Baddest Ass In Boxing

By Pete Dexter

The face suggests more than 21 fights, but that’s how many there have been. Counting the two as an amateur. There is a scar over the left eye, a missing tooth. The nose is flat and soft, without cartilage.

Apart from that, it’s a face that’s been hurt.

On March 22, a 26-year-old fighter named Randall Cobb lost a majority decision on national television to Michael Dokes. Two of the judges gave the fight to Dokes, one called it a draw.

Dokes was supposed to win. He is the fastest fighter in the division, maybe the most talented. He was schooled through a long amateur career and brought carefully through 20 fights as a professional. The only problem Dokes ever had was a lack of size, and in the last year he has grown two inches to 6-2 and filled out to 218 pounds, and there is a feeling among some people that after Larry Holmes retires, Dokes doesn’t have any problems at all.

Given all that, there are people who like the other guy’s chances.

At 22 years old—a long time after most professionals were polished fighters—Randall Cobb had his first amateur fight. He had a second and then turned professional, saying he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was the champion then. Cobb would have had trouble naming five other men in the division.

He spent three years knocking out people like Chebo Hernandez (the former heavyweight champion of Mexico) and then, with 18 lifetime fights and 18 days to get ready, he crawled into the ring with Earnie Shavers and won on a TKO in the eighth.

He lost a split decision to Ken Norton and then dropped the fight to Dokes. In each of the fights he got better, and he is still just learning. He has the best chin in boxing and in the Dokes fight—when he caught much of what Dokes threw on his gloves and arms—the people who have watched Cobb got their first sign that he wasn’t going to be proving it the rest of his life.

After the fight Cobb sat with ABC’s Keith Jackson, who asked if he had been surprised Dokes hadn’t run more. Cobb said, “I don’t know how it looked from here, but to me it looked like I was running my ass all over the ring trying to catch him.”

As he said that Dokes dropped into the chair next to him. Cobb smiled. “We’ll have to do this again, Mike.”

Dokes shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to go back and start all over,” Cobb said later. “I’ll do whatever I got to do and I’m going to keep doin’ it until it’s right.”

His mother heard that and nodded. “Some day that dog’s going to lie in the sun,” she said.

Randall Cobb is my friend. I know him, he won’t cheat himself. And after it’s over—it doesn’t matter how many times he’s hit in the face—he’ll be able to look in the mirror and not be afraid of what he sees.


The Old Man and the River

Here’s another gem from Pete Dexter.

The Old Man and the River

By Pete Dexter

Early morning, Seeley Lake, Montana. The sun has touched the lake, but the air is dead still and cooler than the water, and the fog comes off the surface in curtains, hiding some of the Swan Range three miles to the east. And in doing that, it frames the rest. It is the design here, I think, that nothing is taken without compensation, except by men and fires. They leave all the holes.

On the lake a cutthroat trout breaks the surface; pieces of it follow him into the air. He breaks it again, falling back. The water mends itself in circles; the circles disappear. You could never say exactly where, but that’s how things mend; it’s how you get old, too. Not that they are necessarily different things. The place is quiet again. The sun has touched the lake, but the lake still belongs to the night. To the night and to the old man.

He is in the main room of the cabin putting wood on the fire. I hear him humming—a long, flat note, more electric than musical. I think it is a sound he makes without hearing it. He moves from the fireplace to the kitchen wearing a fishing hat, runs lake water out of the spigot into a dented two-quart pan, puts that on the stove to heat. He starts a pot of coffee, leaves it on a counter, and pushes out the door to urinate in the yard. He and his father built the cabin in 1922 as a retreat from whatever civilization there was in Missoula, and they didn’t do it to come down off the mountains and have to look at an indoor toilet.

He comes back in, humming, and surveys the kitchen. He scratches his cheek, remembering where he is. He locates the coffeepot, checks to see what is inside. Part of him is somewhere else. Probably not so much of him that he’d piss in the fireplace and throw the wood out the door, but it isn’t impossible.

The guess is that the part of the old man that’s not in the kitchen is someplace tangent to August of 1949, Mann Gulch, Montana, where thirteen of sixteen smoke jumpers were killed in the first hours of a wildfire that got into the crowns of the trees there. He is in the last chapter of that story now—the jumpers have become his jumpers, he looks at tall trees and imagines fire in their tops, sucking the oxygen out of the air, and feels how helpless a man is in its presence—and while it’s still three hours until he sits down and puts himself back in Mann Gulch to confront it, he is headed there already, feeling his way over what has already been done, measuring what is left.

As far as I know, that’s the only pleasure there is in writing—until something’s finished, anyway. And the old man works carefully and is entitled to his time alone with what he’s done. I stay in bed looking out the window, waiting for him to call me for breakfast.


Two for Toozday: Pete Dexter Meets John Matuszak

Here’s another vintage bonus piece by our man Pete Dexter. This one appeared in the October 31, 1981 edition of Inside Sports.

If This is Wednesday, It Must Be Toozday

By Pete Dexter

At three in the morning, coming east across the Bay Bridge in a limousine the size of a cattle truck, a quiet falls over the back seat. It is the last day before John Matuszak goes to Santa Rosa for training camp. More to the point, it is Wednesday. There are three of us in the back—John and me and Donna, the girl he cares for above all others—and suddenly, as if by unspoken agreement, it is time for some quiet thinking and assessment.

We have run out of flaming arrows—matches, Southern Comfort, shot glasses. “Jeez, that’s too bad,” the driver says. He doesn’t sound like it’s too bad.

I’m not the first person to wonder what John Matuszak was thinking. Since he came into the National Football League as the first draft pick of 1973—ahead of people like Bert Jones and John Hannah—that question has been on a lot of minds at one time or another.

Matuszak went to Houston in that draft, then to the World Football League, where he played one series of downs before he was handed an injunction returning him to the NFL, then to Kansas City. He was traded from there to Washington where George Allen, whose idea of temptation is a quart of ice cream, cut him in two weeks. Matuszak was on the way to the Canadian Football League when Al Davis flew out from Oakland and offered him a chance to play for the Raiders in 1976.

He has been there since. “It’s the only place I could play,” he said once. “I know my reputation around the league.” The reputation, briefly, is that he still belongs in the straitjacket they used on him when he overdosed on depressants and alcohol in Kansas City. The truth, though, unless you happen to look at it from a very tight-ass point of view, say, that of most of the coaches in the National Football League, is that while Matuszak has had his share of scrapes, most of them can be put down to growing pains. That and things found hidden in his automobiles. A machete, a .44 magnum, a little dope.

Anyway, all that was before he mellowed….


Sometimes you go in and it’s like you’re Edward R. Murrow. You let go of the doorbell and hear the footsteps. You feel it coming and there’s no place to hide.

The kids are going to be lined up on the couch, youngest to oldest. The little girls will have ribbons in their hair, Skipper the mongrel will be there on the floor and mom will be sitting at the end with an arm around Dale Jr. Trophies over the fireplace and dad is out in the shop, finishing up some woodwork. Why don’t we go see how he’s doing?

You wait at the door, dead certain that unless a sociable way to pass a quart of 151 up and down that couch presents itself, you’re doomed.

But the door opens and it’s Audrey Matuszak, still in the skirt she’d worn to work, talking on the phone. Somebody she has never heard of in New York wants to know if she’s big.

She holds the door while I come in. “Big?” she says. “Why, I never thought of it. I’m 6-5 and 265…no, that’s about average in the family….” Some days you’re doomed, some days you’re not.

She says the sweetest goodbye you ever heard and cradles the phone against her ear a minute longer. “I shouldn’t have done that, I suppose,” she says, “but sometimes you wonder about New York, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am, you do.” She smiles and gets me a beer out of the refrigerator. There is an autographed picture of her son on the door. BEST WISHES TO MOM AND DAD, YOU’RE THE GREATEST. JOHN. It is the only evidence on the main floor of the house that he is different from the other children. The trophies, the movie posters are upstairs in the bedrooms.

“I think you’re going to enjoy John,” she says. “He’s just so much fun to be with. He’s out in back if you want to see what’s he’s doing.”

Picture old Ed now, sitting back in a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke, watching the camera roll through the doorway to the backyard where John Matuszak, massive and naked except for bikini swimwear, is sitting on an old blanket, tearing the big toenail off his right foot.

He holds it up to the sun, checking both sides.

He looks at the nail, then at the toe. “Toes are tender,” he says.

I take a look at the toenail, then give it back. “That looks like it was a real nice one.”

He nods. “It’s been getting on my nerves, though.”

Matuszak puts the nail next to him on the blanket and leans back to find a new station on the portable radio. “I’ve been on a hot streak,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. I was driving into town Wednesday and suddenly I said ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and half a minute later that’s what they played. The same thing happened with ‘Déjà Vu.’ Yeah, that’s a song. You know what I mean, when you’re just tuned with things?”

I think that over. “I always know it just before a dog bites me.”

At the work “dog,” he looks around to make sure his mother is gone. He lowers his voice and points to a pile of freshly turned dirt over by the garden. “They just buried Skipper,” he says. “It really broke them up, they’d had him for years.”

I swear. Skipper. A hot streak of my own. The radio cracks and suddenly Brenda Lee is singing “All Alone Am I.” Matuszak closes his eyes and runs a hand through his hair. “Look at me,” he says, pointing to his arm and shoulder. “Goose bumps. Brenda Lee, 1962. That’s what music does to me. I couldn’t live without music.”

He sings along with Brenda. He tests the toe. He reasons with it. “Well, there’s always a hump out there you’ve got to get over, right?”

The hump is an asphalt hill on the other side of the two-lane highway that runs in front of his parents’ house. The hill angles like a swan’s beak about a quarter of a mile down, then flattens into a dirt road and disappears into a railroad tunnel. The radio has just said it is three o’clock and 105° at Gen. Billy Mitchell airport. The heat off the asphalt makes the tunnel seem to float.

The Tooz is wearing sweat pants now, two plastic jackets, a towel around his neck and a wool stocking cap with the insignia of the Oakland Raiders pulled down over his ears.

“Just sit over there on the fence, stud, and I’ll be right back.” He jogs down the hill, getting smaller and smaller, his body waving in the heat until, at the bottom, he could almost be of this earth. He comes back up, spitting and pounding, growing like a bad dream.

At the top he walks it off, blowing his nose.

He will run the hill three more times before he quits, each time coming up harder than the time before. He is big, even for a pro football player—6-8, 300 pounds and none of it is fat—but you don’t really feel it until you see him tired, and he can feel it, too. Walking back to the house he says, “Well, I kicked the hill’s ass today.”


For Pete’s Sake

A few months ago, Mulhholland Books ran a good two-part interview with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter (part one and part two).

It’s worth checking out:

Hamill: When I first became a newspaperman—June 1st, 1960—it was the beginning of my real life—it really was. When I first got a presscard with my name on it I wore it to bed like dogtags for a month. It said, “Hey, okay, do it. Leave your game on the floor,” you know? And I think there were a whole bunch of us like that, including you, Pete. So we’re going to lose things now. Just the transition from newspapers into websites means that journalism will stay alive, but not the feeling that came with going into a city room, and having guys bounce ideas, and wisecracks, and rotten jokes, and everything else off you before you ever got to write the first sentence of your piece. I mean, that sense of serendipity that comes from being among people who know things you don’t know, and who help educate you every night or every day that you show up, I think that’s going to get lost if you just park in front of a computer somewhere.

But with all that, I don’t have any regrets about it. I feel sad, and melancholy from time to time, but I never think, Gee, I wish I’d gone to work for Goldman Sachs instead.

Dexter: There’s something there that you said that’s really true. A lot of the best things you write come out of, somebody will say something, and it’ll make you think of something else, and bang, people are calling you smart, and…

Hamill: When it’s all about chance.

Dexter: [laughs] You have the chance. And I’m sad about it, and I regret that there’s nobody—you’re not passing along to people now. There’s nobody who’s going to wake up tomorrow and put a press card around his neck, I mean—that just doesn’t happen anymore. And to me, I don’t know any other kind of job I could’ve done.

Hamill: The same with me—that I could have done and be happy at the same time. I mean I could’ve done other jobs I guess—you know, lifting orange crates into trucks or something—but to be happy, to feel like I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day and do it again, that feeling—I don’t think a lot of people have that anymore, including young people going into the business to become journalists.

Hamill’s latest novel, Tabloid City, is about the newspaper business.

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More

We’re proud to reprint this story by Pete Dexter which originally appeared in Inside Sports (May 31, 1980).

By Pete Dexter

The child in the child is somehow faded. She is eight years old but there is nothing in her manner to say she isn’t nineteen, with a house full of screaming babies and a high school sweetheart who doesn’t always come home at night anymore.

She walks the front yard like walking is already a chore, collecting the mongrel puppies. There are nine of them and her fingers disappear into the long coats as she picks them up, then puts them in a cardboard box next to the front door.

The house is a shack, about a block from the abandoned half-mile dirt track where LeeRoy Yarbrough, the most famous man ever to come out of west Jacksonville, Florida, got his start racing automobiles. About three blocks from the place where, a month before, cold sober, he tried to strangle his own mother.

“He live right up that road there,” she says, pointing a puppy. “Him and Miz Yarbrough, but they ain’t there now. Everybody knows LeeRoy, sometime he come by and sit on the steps, but now he wrung Miz Yarbrough’s neck, he ain’t home no more.”

The screen door opens and a woman in white socks steps halfway out the door. Missing teeth and a face as narrow as the phone book. “You git them puppies up yet? You know what your daddy tol’ you.”

The door slams shut, but the woman stays there, behind it in the shadows. In west Jacksonville it always feels like there’s somebody watching behind the screen door.

“We got to take the puppies down to the lake,” the girl says. “Daddy got back from the country [farm] and says so. He goin’ take them out to the lake with him tonight.”

I ask her why she just didn’t give the puppies away. She shakes her head. “I tol’ you,” she says. “Daddy got back from the country.”

I’m going to tell you right here that I don’t know what picked LeeRoy Yarbrough off the top of his world in 1969 and delivered him, eleven years later, to the night when he would get up off a living room chair and tell his mother, “I hate to do this to you,” and then try to kill her. I can tell you some of how it happened, I can tell you what the doctors said, what his people said. But I don’t know why.

It has business with that little girl and her puppies, though. With not looking at what you don’t want to see, putting it off until you are face-to-face with something unspeakable.

And tonight those nine puppies go to the bottom of the lake.

A Short History

“They ain’t ever been no fits on neither side of the family. That’s how the doctors knowed it was them licks on the head that made LeeRoy how he is.” Minnie Yarbrough is LeeRoy’s mother. She is seventy-six years old, and she’s sitting on the couch in her living room, as far away from the yellow chair in the corner as she can get. That is where it happened.

It’s an old house on Plymouth Street, in west Jacksonville, brown shingles, a bad roof, the porch gives when you step on it. An empty trailer sits rusting in the backyard. Inside it’s dark. The windows are closed off and Minnie Yarbrough keeps the door to her room locked any time she isn’t in it.

“I was born and partial raised in Clay County, Florida. Mr. Yarbrough was partial raised in Baker County. Both of us come from Florida families, Baptists, and there was never no fits on either side. Mr. Yarbrough died in 1974, but he’d of mentioned it if it was. We was together forty-three years…”

Lonnie LeeRoy Yarbrough was one of six children. He was the first son, born September 17, 1938, and named after his father, who ran a roadside vegetable stand.

Lonnie Yarbrough hauled the vegetables in an old truck and played penny poker with his friends to pass the time.

LeeRoy passed his time at Moon’s Garage. He put his first car together when he was twelve—dropping a Chrysler engine into a 1934 Ford coupe—and wore the police out stopping him along the back roads of west Jacksonville. He quit Paxon High School after the tenth grade, and he won the first race he was ever in at Jacksonville Speedway when he was sixteen.

Even now, sitting in the Duval County Jail, waiting to be processed out to a state hospital, he can tell you exactly what he was running that day. A 1940 flat-head Ford, bored out 81/1,000ths of an inch, with high-compression heads.

He can tell you that, but he can’t tell you who is president.


Gun Smoke

Ah, now Grantland has something here that really smokes. They are running a “Director’s Cut” series reprinting old pieces of sports writing. First up, is Tony Kornheiser’s profile of Nolan Ryan from the debut issue of Inside Sports.  Kornheiser was a wonderful long-form writer, first at Newsday, then the New York Times, where he covered basketball and wrote, “That Damned Yankees,” which stands as one the finest stories on George Steinbrenner.

For the first year-and-a-half of its run, Inside Sports was terrific. It was run by John Walsh. Tom Boswell was their baseball guy, Pete Axthelm contributed a column. Diane K. Shah was there. Gary Smith got his start as a magazine writer there and once wrote a wonderful basketball story called “Tinkerbell and Sweet Lou.”  Kornheiser did several bonus pieces, including a classic one on Joe Nameth, and the great Pete Dexter also did takeouts for them–on Jim Brown, Randy White, Daryl Dawkins, and the Tooz. Len Shapiro wrote about Bill James, John Schulian about Mark Aguirre and Gary Fencik, George Kimball on George Brett, and Dick Young wrote a fine piece on Duke Snider. Oh, yeah, Leonard Gardner, who wrote perhaps the finest boxing novel of them all, covered Duran Leonard.

Pat Jordan wrote the most celebrated story in the magazine’s history, a profile of Steve and Cyndi Garvey. The Garvey’s sued Inside Sports’ parent company (The Washington Post) and the ordeal put Jordan’s career on hold for more than a year (though he wrote two more pieces for them: a spring training story on the Yankees, and a profile of Steve Dalkowski). The suit, however, kept the magazine going longer than expected, according to Jay Lovinger, one of its editors. The case was eventually settled, the Garveys got divorced, and the Post sold the magazine. It was never the same.

I’m looking forward to this series. It’s a real mitzvah when you consider that the majority of the greatest sports writing is not available on-line.

From Ali to Xena: 18

Remembering Royko 

By John Schulian

I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of  the Alamo.

I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the  years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.

Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.

It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego,  Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.

And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of  an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.

When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point:  “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”

He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.

The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.

Royko with Studs Terkel

Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call  Murdoch “The Alien” in print.

Mike was the best.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

I met Pete Dexter last fall when he was in New York promoting his seventh novel, Spooner. Dexter was a wonderful newspaper columnist and is now one of our greatest novelists. First thing I noticed about him was that he was wearing a pink Yankees cap. So when I had a chance to interview him the Yankees were the first thing we talked about.

Here is our chat, which covers a lot more than the Bombers.


Bronx Banter: I had no idea you were a Yankees fan.

Pete Dexter: No, it’s true. I’m a big Yankee fan. It started out as a way to irritate Mrs. Dexter who is a Yankee fan from way back. And so when they’d win I’d get into it just because it irritated her so damn bad, but then I started to look at them and–

BB: When was this, during the ’90s?

PD: Yeah. So when I found out that it irritated Mrs. Dexter I did it more and more. There have been a lot of teams in my life that I’ve rooted against, but I have never rooted for a team in my life before I rooted for the Yankees, including teams I played on.

BB: And the Yankees of all teams.

PD: Yeah, strangely enough. I didn’t even like baseball until the mid-’90s. And I enjoy it more every year. We get all the games on the cable. It’s the only thing that’s worth all the money I spend on cable.

BB: So can you deal with Michael Kay?

PD: Is he the “See Ya” guy?

BB: Yup.

PD: He’s okay, it’s the other two guys from ESPN that drive me crazy.

BB: Joe Morgan and Jon Miller.

PD: Jesus, the go on for hours and hours. Morgan was one of the most exciting players I ever saw and just absolutely the most boring human being on the face of the earth.

BB: Just goes to show there’s no correlation.

PD: Yeah, none at all.

BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?

PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can’t bullshit my way through that then I don’t deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn’t read anything until…it’s a true story than when I wrote Deadwood [Dexter’s second novel], my brother Tom called me up and said, “You’ve now written a book longer than any book you’ve ever read.” And that was absolutely true. I stumbled into a newspaper office in Fort Lauderdale. I was 26 or 27 years old and in those days you could actually stumble into a newspaper office and get hired as a reporter. But I don’t have to tell you what it’s like now.

BB: Did you take to reporting pretty quickly or was it just another job?

PD: I hated it. They had me doing–I thought it was a joke actually at first–they came over the first day and gave me a list of seven or eight things and said, “These are your beats.” And I thought it was some kind of initiation rite. You know, juvenile court, the hospital district, poverty programs and tomatoes. There was agricultural products—tomatoes was a separate category. But there were literally seven or eight of them, none of which interested me even remotely. Hell, they gave me a county health thing and there was a doctor who ran the county health department. He was a nice guy and I’d call him up every Sunday night when I came in and ask him if he could stretch something into an epidemic. And he’d say, “Well, we’ve got four cases of measles…you could call that an epidemic.” So every Monday I’d have a story in the paper about a new epidemic. The bigger paper down there was the Fort Lauderdale News. It got the big guy there fired because I kept coming up with new epidemics and he couldn’t come up with any.


Book Excerpt: Spooner


We’re proud to present the following excerpt from Pete Dexter’s new book–his seventh novel–Spooner. This section picks up the story when Spooner is in high school. We just got through Spooner’s adventures on the football team where a sadistic coach named Tinker terrorized a fat kid, Lemonkatz. Spooner’s mother, Lily, is furious with the coach, as she is with many things in life, especially those things that are Republican. Then, young Spooner turns to baseball.

From Spooner:

By Pete Dexter.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Later that year Spooner began his career in organized baseball. The coach of the baseball team was Evelyn Tinker, who in addition to being held almost blameless in the Lemonkatz boy’s injury was now rumored to be collecting sixty bucks a week for the newspaper column, this in spite of Lily’s public campaign to have him fired, and being as Spooner was not old enough yet to have voted for Richard Nixon, this joining of Tinker’s team constituted the single most disloyal thing a child of Lily Whitlowe Ottosson’s had ever done.

How could he?

The question hung in the air at 308 Shabbona Drive, unspoken, like another dead father.

The answer—not that the answer mattered—was that Spooner had stopped at the baseball diamond on the way to the shopping center after school, and watched through the fence as Russell Hodge pitched four innings of a practice game against Crete-Monee, striking out twelve of the thirteen batters he faced. It was a tiny school, Crete-Monee, six hundred students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and two of the players were only thirteen years old. The smallest one—who wore number thirteen, and was the only batter Russell Hodge did not strike out—was plunked between the shoulder blades as he turned away from an inside fastball, and cried.

Half a dozen times Spooner started to leave but couldn’t, waitingaround to see one more pitch, and in the end hung on the wire fence more than an hour, leaving diamond-shaped imprints on the underside of his forearms, wrists to elbows, taking the measure of Russell Hodge’s throws.

It came to him as he watched that Russell Hodge pitched in much the way he played linebacker, which is to say blind with rage. But it was more difficult in baseball, a game that had very little maiming, to sustain a murderous rage than it was in football, even for Russell Hodge, and after an inning or two Spooner thought he saw him working to conjure it up, sucking from the air every bit of resentment he could find. Giving Russell Hodge his due, even in a practice game against little Crete-Monee, he brought himself again and again to a state just short of foaming at the mouth—furious at the batter, at his own catcher, the umpire, who, behind the mask and protective vest was only Mr. Kopex the math teacher, furious even at the ball itself—and by the end appeared to have lost all his stuff.



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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver