Maybe if I were a 19th-century Russian novelist with liters of ink for blood and my own forest to produce scads of paper, my publisher would give me enough freedom of space to do this column justice.
It’s long as it is.
A half-century on this newspaper? Seems impossible, given I’m 49, but I’ve been handed this nutshell and asked to put my professional life into it.
Yes, as of Sept. 7, I will be 50 years with this company, which some of you will find 51 years too long.
But that’s a shame.
I started in 1971 as a copy kid, then a clerk, then hired in sports in 1974 as prep writer, then Aztecs beat man (1977-81), then Clippers beat man (incredibly memorable 1981-82, what with Donald T. Sterling), then Air Coryell Chargers beat man (1982-83) before getting this column in 1984, thanks to my boss, Tom Cushman.
This isn’t a retirement column, I don’t think. But Jeff Light, our editor and publisher — another of my savior/champions — asked for it, and I always have recognized the difference between employer and employee, a big reason why, as the great Jerry Magee would say, “I’m still walkin’ around.”
Besides, I’m getting paid. I’ve now been doing this column seven years longer than Jack Murphy memorably did his.
I don’t know how many people have lived the impossible dream. But I have, born and bred here, the son of a fisherman and fisherman’s wife, miraculously getting what he wanted to do from childhood in his hometown.
A secular miracle, anyway.
My senior year at San Diego High, I joined the school newspaper, the Russ, and the editor was Rob Ortman, son of Bob, eventually a great mentor who was given this very column that year in the Evening Tribune.
In my annual, Rob wrote: “Here’s hoping you take Rick Smith’s place one day.”
Rick, a friend, legend and memory bank, covered prep sports on the Tribune when I was at San Diego (he later would become publicist for the Warriors, Chargers and Rams). Ten years after graduation, I got Rick’s old job. Ten years after that, I had Bob’s old job.
If that is not living out a dream, fortunate to do the only thing you aspired to, live where you were born with your wife and guardian angel, Teresa, and three sons and eight grandchildren (soon to be nine), saved eight years ago by great doctors and nurses and science so many people now are fighting, then nothing is. How many newspaper people in this country can say that?
The Evening Tribune became The Tribune, then our PM paper merged with the morning Union in 1992, and I managed to keep on keeping on. I’ve never worked anywhere else. And I have been allowed to express my views, even though my superiors didn’t always agree with me.
But then, newspaper people are not like anyone else.
This is a job for love, not money. The business has changed dramatically, but a newspaper remains a living, breathing thing that never will die without a fight. We have published every day I’ve been on this one. And every day is something new.
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When I began on the Evening Tribune, I was surrounded by terribly bright and tough men and women, characters, many who had been in the newspaper game a long time. The newsroom was a controlled out-of-control train, loud, smoky, noisy, vulgar, hilarious, fast, frantic, brilliant.
It was a great place to learn if you listened and paid attention. And I did. I didn’t pretend to know it all then and I still don’t know it all now. A whole lot of people with whom I’ve worked no longer are among the living, but they live in me.
If I named all the people and friends I met along the way, this column would be running into Christmas. I can speak of editors, Fred Kinne (who hired me), Neil Morgan, George Dissinger, Bill Osborne, Lora Cicalo, Kay Jarvis, Bedel Mack, Jeff, who wanted me back after my 2013 brush with death, Karin Winner, who rescued me, and the big man, Herb Klein, who somehow saw something in a Little Italy wharf rat. Joe Stein, aided by deputy Jack Reber, was the sports editor who hired me. Tom Cushman and Bud Poliquin elevated me. By my count, I have survived 11 sports editors (one, Jay Posner, my current boss, twice). Harry Hache, who had been with the company since the Great Depression, hired me to freelance covering North County preps, and hours later on the same day Fred asked me to work full-time.
I was incredibly fortunate.
So this all enabled me to cover 30 Super Bowls, 33 Rose Bowls (with ubiquitous Bill Center driving me to most of them), three World Series, Padres games in Monterrey and Honolulu, three Olympics, Final Fours, national college football championships, World Cups (men’s in Italy, women’s final in Pasadena), Breeders’ Cups, numerous NBA Finals, two Masters (my favorite event), baseball’s All-Star Game in Montreal, U.S. Open golf and tennis, basically every major fight (the most electric events) in the 1980s into the 1990s, X Games, great indoor and outdoor track meets, marathons, Evel Knievel jumping the fountains at Caesars, even the 1988 Democratic and Republican national conventions (my editors wanted somebody who didn’t take things too seriously).
At the Republican Convention in New Orleans, I interviewed Walter Cronkite, the eyes of my age, in his hotel room.
I spent an hour interviewing Bob Hope on the putting green at Torrey Pines, where I previously had walked the course during the Pro-Am with Alex Spanos, who was rumored to be buying the NFL team his son would move out of town (Alex purchased it a year later).
That day he introduced me to his playing partners, Hope, Billy Casper (a kind man who many years later would allow Tod Leonard and myself into the hallowed Augusta Champions locker room), and, yes, Gerald Ford (who sent a line drive off of Hope’s cart down a fairway, prompting Bob to jump out of the vehicle and holler: “It’s like Dunkirk playing with this guy!”).
I can’t begin to name every great athlete or coach I’ve met or interviewed, but I’ll mention a few. Muhammad Ali would have been enough. Jim Brown told me he liked my questions. Oscar Robertson, my favorite athlete, was memorable.
Lance Alworth. Junior Seau. Bobby Ross. Reggie Bush. Al Franken. Kawhi Leonard. Scotty Harris. The Chicken. Al Davis (who liked me for some reason). Brian Sipe. Ted Podleski. Ron Mix. Steve Garvey. Duane Maley. Wilt Chamberlain. Willie Buchanon.
Ted Williams was tough. The first time I met him, thanks to Bob Breitbard, I told him I’d been angry with him my whole life. He asked why. I told him I’d always heard he went to Hoover High because he didn’t think he was good enough to go to San Diego, my alma mater.” He made it worse by saying: “That’s true.”
I met Don Coryell while attending SDSU. He was football coach and, 15 years later, when I was covering his Air Coryell unit day-to-day, we were the only two people on a Seattle elevator one game day morning. I got on the glass outdoor lift alone, it stopped a few floors down, Don got on, stared over my shoulder at the view, and got off without acknowledging my existence.
After my first UCSD training camp practice, I introduced myself to Dan Fouts, who asked me to go for a ride in his little Mercedes, and we drove around campus for a half-hour. He was tough, a pain in the ass, but we always got along, and still do. A groundbreaking leader of men.
I was with Terry Monahan, a frequent contributor to this section, at Mesa College the night Lincoln High’s Marcus Allen debuted his junior year as a safety/rover vs. Madison. He had over 30 tackles, sent one kid crying off the field, and I wrote he would be an NFL defensive back. A lot I knew. Great family, the Allens.
Steve Bisheff, another mentor, introduced me to John Wooden. I was fortunate to cover the 1975 Final Four here, when UCLA beat Kentucky (following the remarkable semi vs. Louisville), Coach retired and Steve broke the story.
I broke the national story on Bo Jackson’s injury. Nobody believed it but doctors.
The first World Series game here, in 1984, I was sitting in the press box beside columnist/long-suffering baseball fan Wayne Lockwood. Wayne held out his arms: “Nick, we’re in the World Series!”
Along with the late Frank Brady, I was at Marshall Faulk’s final scrimmage his freshman year at SDSU. By the time it ended, I told Frank: “This is the best running back in the United States.” He said there must be something wrong with me. There wasn’t (not that day). I was right. He was a first-team All-American. I love running backs, point guards and center fielders.
Helix’s Bill Walton remains the greatest high school basketball player in history (how could anyone be better?), and that also goes for college ball.
Bill, (one question asked, one-hour answer) also is on my all-interview team.
I talked to Tony Gwynn too many times to count, starting with his first day on SDSU’s basketball team. Always something new to say.
The talkers. Buzzie Bavasi (the greatest storyteller; never forgot a thing). Beth Burns. Tommy Nettles (one of our greatest all-around athletes/storytellers). John McEnroe. Billie Jean King. Philip Rivers. Juli Veee. Dwight Stones. Kellen Winslow. Phil Mickelson. John McKay. John Robinson. Dorothy Hamill. Kevin Towers. A.J. Smith. Jake Peavy. Martina Navratilova. Dr. J (the most accessible superstar). Bob Baffert. Gail Devers. Ted Tollner. Paul Silas. Phil Nevin. Ken Stabler. Don King. Bob Arum. Ted Leitner. Jerry Coleman and Dave Campbell (always learned something new from them). Jim Laslavic. Ron Reina. Gene Klein (he could enter a room). Davey Lopes. Ron Newman (hilarious). Fred Miller (could sell oil to Kuwait). Smokey Gaines. Chuck Muncie (so many demons, but so nice; ditto Ken Caminiti).
I’ve had great relationships with so many players and coaches, even team doctors (Dick Gilbert is one of my favorite people). Steve Fisher, the kindest of men, and certainly among the most important people in San Diego sports history. His protege, Brian Dutcher, is a prince.
Last year, shortly after the pandemic began, I got calls from Fisher and Bobby Beathard a few hours apart, wondering how I was doing. I asked my wife: “Am I OK?”
Rocky Long. Goodness, what an amazing person. Claude Gilbert, excellent coach and a real man’s man. Ernie Zampese, one of my favorite people ever, called “The best coach I know” by Coryell.
Bruce Bochy. Wonderful guy and manager. Always thought volatile Larry Bowa the best Padres game manager, but, man, he was human Sterno.
Peter Seidler, the kindest of owners.
Trevor Hoffman, the nicest reliever.
Tank Younger, story upon story.
I spent a game sitting next to Willie Mays in the Giants’ press box.
I went two years without speaking to Jack McKeon. Still proud of that.
Loved talking football with Sid Gillman.
Charlie Joiner, the professional. Sidekick Wes Chandler, magnificent. Ed White, one of the good guys.
Rolf Benirschke, an inspiration (was there for that Steelers game, with Louie Kelcher walking him to the coin toss).
I had lunch with Oscar De La Hoya a few hours after he won the gold medal in Barcelona.
There are more, of course. I’m missing names — especially colleagues and mentors — and PR people such as Rick Schloss, Bill Johnston. Rodney Knox, Scott Yoffe, Dick Christman, Dan Smith and Mac McBride, John Maffei and Mike May, Pat Rodgers and Jen Rojas to whom I owe so much — but they know who they are, and this thing is getting too long.
Best football game I’ve seen in person: Holiday Bowl III, BYU’s remarkable comeback over SMU.
Best football game not seen in person: The NFL Team That Used to Be Here’s 1981 playoff win at Miami.
Best SDSU football team: 1977, loaded with NFL players, blasted Florida State.
I covered the Holy Roller Game.
Yes, I worked the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird NCAA final in Salt Lake City.
Eamonn Coghlan’s miracle indoor mile at the Sports Arena, the crowd going nuts — San Diego was a great track and field town then — remains one of the more exciting moments of my career.
I saw Cigar get beat.
I saw Pele play.
I survived Tom Werner’s Padres fire sale.
I watched USC’s relay team featuring O.J. Simpson in Balboa Stadium, which was torn down (another remarkably idiotic decision by the Ham & Eggers). I miss Balboa, and Navy Field, and what San Diego High once looked like.
I talked to Carl Lewis more than once before he got full of himself.
The key for me was being able to scrape the coop and make chicken salad out of it. A lot of people had a lot to say. A lot of people had little to say. Fortunately I didn’t always have to rely on people.
A former boss told me: “The best thing about your job as a columnist is that you don’t have to be fair.” I’ve tried to be.
Don “Maestro” Freeman, a great man and one of the best columnists without a Pulitzer and pal of Murphy, called me “Pro,” the ultimate compliment.
When I covered preps, getting some kids to talk was like squeezing wine out of an anvil. Today I find them much more mature and willing to speak.
Just too much stuff.
Hubert Vogelsinger, Sockers coach before Newman, did not have an affinity for the game as played by the Brits, and told Bill Center: “English soccer is not worth the time I don’t spend watching it. If they had fought World War II the way they play soccer, it would have ended in a 0-0 tie.”
It’s hard, but I still think my favorite quote came from Mike Riley after I asked him if he’d heard from Ryan Leaf, who had been sidelined with a shoulder injury. “Yeah, I talked to him on the phone this morning,” Mike said, deadpan. “But I couldn’t hear him over the slot machines.”
Chris Jenkins, friend and former colleague, called Beth Burns after she got the job as Aztecs women’s basketball coach and told the quote machine he was assigned to do an extensive story on her. To which Beth said: “Better bring a change of clothes.”
The worst of it? Dean Spanos (I’ll always say he married well), getting no satisfaction from the Ham & Eggers, moving his NFL team to where they don’t exist and turning them into Judases. I’ll never let it slide.
This has been a 50-year-long thrill ride. Actually, the only thrill ride I’ve ever enjoyed. I’ll get back to you on my 100th.