I remember thinking: "Good luck getting this old geezer to smile in this heat!"
Dad was 69 years old then and beginning to feel it. Though I did not recognize it during that week we spent together in Memphis, I should have seen then that his health was failing, that his breathing had become more labored as each day passed. But even so, he was still going hard at the writing game, which had commenced 43 years before at the Sun in Baltimore and came of age during the golden days at Sports Illustrated (1964-77), where he covered the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier trilogy and distinguished himself as one of the finest sports journalists of his generation. Some of his work from SI, and later Esquire, still lives on in anthologies, including his seminal account of the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. The Ali-Frazier wars became the subject of his controversial 2001 book, "Ghosts of Manila," which challenged the mythology that surrounded Ali and elevated Frazier to a place of dignity. I look back at some of his writing now and still wonder how he did it.
Going back over the years and years of articles, which I have stored in chronological order in boxes, I sit here as another Father's Day approaches and am reminded how I miss him. In some ways it was not an easy relationship - in truth, there were years of turmoil that stemmed from a scandal that ultimately led to his dismissal from SI. In that I have written exhaustively on that sad affair, let me just sum up in the space I have here that while some things in life are not what they seem, this is not one of them. Dad took a payment from boxing promoter Don King to develop a film treatment on the old Senegalese light heavyweight Battling Siki. Some lesser issues were involved, but this conflict of interest was a black cloud that followed Dad until the end of his days.
But there was more to Dad than this sorry episode, which he explained years later by saying that as a young man he had lived an "unexamined life." Out of the Canton section of East Baltimore, the oldest of three boys born to a plant worker at Chevrolet, he was a better athlete than a student in high school, where he excelled in baseball but graduated 134th in a class of 144. With just a few weeks of college, an Army hitch and an aborted stint in the Pirates organization behind him, he came back to Baltimore, got married and set out to become a writer the only way one can: by reading. Eventually, he applied for a job at the Sun, where the sports editor asked if he had any college. Dad said he did - 3 years - and proved it by doctoring a telegram of confirmation that he sent to himself from the University of Georgia. Given that those were somewhat less politically correct days, SI later found the charade to be charming in its ingenuity. By then he had become a fixture on the boxing beat and contributed an array of "bonus pieces," including an especially splendid one on the old Negro Leagues star Cool Papa Bell that began: "In the language of jazz, the word 'gig' is an evening of work; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be . . . "
Occasionally, someone will ask me where I went to college. Technically, the answer is the University of Maryland (albeit only 3 years). But truth is that I was educated by Dad, by hours upon hours of wide-ranging conversation, by reading the books he passed along to me and - yes - even by his misdeeds. Well aware of the challenges that were ahead, he did not encourage me to become a writer, nor did he lavish approval upon me when I happened to do a story that received some attention. Years passed and he never said a word, as if instead of becoming a journalist I had decided to run a hardware store. It was not until years later when I came into possession of his archives that the truth came out: Way down at the bottom of one of the boxes were dozens upon dozens of articles I had written through the years, and that he had removed in handfuls from my files whenever he visited.
That discovery gave me a glimpse into him that I always knew was there, that beneath his generally cranky exterior was a man who was oh-so human. Overwhelmed by panic attacks that used to cut his legs out from under him and a fear of flying that stemmed from a blown engine aboard a plane in London, he overcame both when he set aside drinking and began seeing a doctor for medication. As I grew older, I began taking delight in him as a man who had come to live an "examined life": how he would sit with me in the bleachers at a high school summer camp and watch my daughter Cory run the hurdles, or how he would sit on the porch as my youngest, Olivia, crawled up on his lap and scratched at his beard. Once he even poured some ashes from his pipe off our front porch, and the sparks set the foundation of the house on fire. As we sat at the dinner table that evening, his long-suffering daughter-in-law (my wife, Anne) said: "Do you smell something burning?" Anne summoned the fire brigade, whereupon Dad crept off to the anonymity of my office in the detached garage.
Dad died of a heart attack in Washington just after he got back from Memphis. Far removed by then from the man that had climbed so high and had fallen, he said goodbye to me in his hotel room, which was cluttered with odds and ends we had accumulated during our stops across Memphis. "Good job this week," he said. And he leaned forward to give me a hug. I asked him, "Are you going to be OK?" When he said he would be fine, I left, got up early and headed back to Philly on the same commercial flight as Joe Frazier. A 3 a.m. phone call came 4 days later with the news. It was too soon, I thought. But I guess it always is.