The man who hired me to be a sportswriter at the Deseret News back in 1976 has gone to meet his maker. He died Friday, Jan. 26, at the age of 94.
George Ferguson had no business taking me on. I was untested, skittish, often unfocused, but Ferg gave me a shot. And, as Robert Frost would say, “that has made all the difference.”
Back then, just one look at Fergie was enough to tell you he was old school. He looked like a coach sent down from central casting. He came of age as a sportswriter when Red Smith ruled the East Coast and Jim Murray ruled the West. And Ferg fit right in. He may have been the last guy around who could use salty old sports expressions without sounding sappy or like an ESPN pretty boy.
I learned early that a well-worn expression is really not a "cliche." It's a "hackneyed phrase." Yet nothing that fell from Ferg’s lips ever sounded hackneyed. Things I’d heard him say a dozen times always carried a tang and tartness. I loved hearing him describe a team that choked as “folding like a homemade canoe,” or labeling two dudes walking together as “a pair to draw to.”
In Ferg’s world, high school male athletes were “flat bellies” and guys like me — flakey, unpredictable — belonged in the “laughing academy.”
But where Fergie shined brightest was in his talent for “sportswriter shorthand.” The trick to writing sports headlines was to cram as much information as possible onto one thin line. And Ferg was a “sports speak” poet.
For him, football players were always “gridders,” basketball players “cagers” and wrestlers “grapplers.” Track stars were “thin clads,” coaches were “skippers” and so on and so on.
Good headline writers back then hoarded letters and spaces the way Scrooge hoarded coins. And the effect was punchy and quick.
Author John Updike aped the style for his piece about the retirement of Ted Williams. He titled it: “Hub fans bid kid adieu.”
Writing like that felt like code talking. It was playful, invigorating. But now, along with hat blocking and sock mending, it is a lost art.
And one of the last masters just left us.
Fergie’s last few years at the paper were not the best of times for him. After carrying so much water for the company, he’d hoped for a better reward at the end. But instead, in a staff shakeup, he was transferred to the business desk to work under the new business editor.
There was no guesswork in knowing Ferg's feelings about the move. But he soon settled in and went to work. Early on, I remember, he was asked to put a headline on a story about an oil company naming a new CEO. When I saw the story in print, I knew only one guy could have penned the head. It read: “Texaco tabs new chief.”
And so today, Ferg, the kid here is bidding you adieu.
I needed to weigh in. I owe you.
Because you took a flyer on me, you changed my life, my world and my family’s fate.
For that, I’ll never forget you.
Keep the fellahs loose up there, skip.
I'll be seeing you soon enough.