Loran Smith told the story: Jesse Outlar had been shot while being robbed outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after a Falcons game in 1973, and the police wanted him to identify the gunman. He viewed the lineup and chose the wrong guy, prompting Smith to say, “Having read your picks on football games, I’m not surprised you couldn’t pick out the man who shot you.”
This made us laugh, even as we were standing by a grave in Peachtree City last week. And in that one tiny anecdote lay a road map to a life of 87 years: That Jesse Outlar was a writer whom folks made it a point to read; that he once took a bullet on assignment for this newspaper, where he worked for 41 years, and that he was a man who could take a bit of teasing. (Indeed, he incorporated Smith’s line and used it in his speeches.)
Jesse Outlar died at his Peachtree City home on April 10, the Sunday of the Masters. A couple of days earlier, I’d spoken to colleagues of my first Masters experience — it was in 1985 — and how we AJC staffers would know when Jesse had finished writing. He’d turn to the late Tom McCollister and say, “Tommy, is it the gray wire [of our infernal TRS-80 word processors] that goes into the phone, or is it the brown wire?”
And T-Mac would say: “It’s the gray wire, Jesse.”
I worked with Jesse for four years, and he treated me well. I always appreciated that. A big-timer — and he’d been a big man in Atlanta for a long, long time — might have dismissed me as some goober from Kentucky. I spent those years watching how the big-timers did it. I studied Jesse and Furman Bisher, the twin peaks of Atlanta sportswriting, and Dave Kindred, who’d just joined the AJC but whom I’d read every day growing up. (He’d worked at the Louisville Courier-Journal.)
There was no better place for a goober to learn. Kindred was my hero and Furman was the institution and Jesse … well, he was the courtly gentleman you wouldn’t think could have an unkind word for anyone — until you read his latest rip of Rankin Smith, then the Falcons’ owner. I’ve committed parts of them to memory.
If you were of a certain age and you followed sports in these parts, you grew up reading Jesse Outlar. He was the morning man, the Constitution columnist, the counterpoint to Furman in the afternoon Journal. When he was introduced as Georgia’s athletic director, Greg McGarity recalled his sworn mission as a student assistant in the Sanford Stadium press box: “To run stats for Jesse Outlar and Furman Bisher.”
Jesse covered everything. Long before the Braves arrived, he served as official scorer for the Crackers. He loved the Kentucky Derby, and his pre-race column — what the horses would tell us, if only they would consent to be interviewed — became a staple. His line regarding the length of the pro basketball season is an all-timer: “If the NBA was in charge of World War II, Japan and Germany would still be in the running.”
But it would be fair to say that Jesse had a special feeling for college football, and for his alma mater. He graduated from Georgia, and his son Barry lettered at end for Vince Dooley in the ’70s. (”Barry could really run,” Dooley told me last weekend.) Jesse didn’t mind when the Bulldogs won, and he wasn’t crazy about them losing. And on every autumn Saturday morning, he’d pick that week’s games in the Constitution. It was that column to which Loran Smith, long part of Georgia’s radio broadcasts and one of Jesse’s closest friends, referred in his eulogy.
Jesse retired from the AJC in 1988, and from writing as well. I saw him only twice, both times in passing, after his retirement party. He lived quietly in Peachtree City with his wife Johanna, who’d become known to Constitution readers as “The Icelandic Football Princess.” In recent years his daughter gave him a computer and suggested he could create his own blog, and his response was, “Nobody cares what a old man has to say.”
In that, the famous writer was surely wrong. A lot of folks would have loved to read Jesse Outlar on anything anytime. Smith’s jibe notwithstanding, Jesse got it right most of the time.
I sat next to him at the first Georgia game I covered for this paper: Southern Miss in Athens, Sept. 8, 1984. The visitors led at halftime, prompting this goober to start babbling about a what massive upset it would be.
“Oh,” Jesse said, “I expect Georgia will win.”
Final score: Georgia 26, Southern Miss 19. And afterward Jesse Outlar wrote about it, plugged the gray wire into the phone and headed out for the next ballgame. I can’t say I knew him well, but I’m proud to say I knew him.
By Mark Bradley