November 24, 1984: I did something I hadn’t done before and would never do again. I drove Furman Bisher to a college football game.
Clemson was playing South Carolina — the Gamecocks were very good that year — and we had only one parking pass. So we met somewhere off West Paces Ferry and he seated himself in my Corolla and off we went.
It was two hours to Clemson, plus another 30 because we got stuck in game traffic. (Being relatively new at the ol’ AJC, I hadn’t yet mastered the David Davidson Back Way — get off at Fair Play and take back roads through Seneca.) And we hadn’t passed Roswell Road before Furman said something that made me start doing a bit of math.
For reasons unknown, I’d mentioned Sandy Koufax. Said Furman: “I met Sandy when he was a rookie in Dodgers camp.” I thought to myself: OK, Koufax was a rookie in 1955; I’d been born in 1955.
I was new at the AJC in 1984 — I’d started in March — but I’d worked at the Lexington Herald-Leader for six years. I was 28, and I’d been around a little. But with that one throwaway line about the great Koufax the great Furman Bisher reminded me (without meaning to remind me of anything, I should stress) that he’d been covering sports longer than I’d been on this Earth. So I did something that, to this day, strikes me as maybe the only smart thing I’ve ever done:
I shut up and listened.
He told me stories, named names, retraced the steps of a life that was already in its 67th year. I said just enough to fill in the spaces, and I learned more in those 2 1/2 hours than I did in every journalism class I’d ever taken. He was complimentary of my early efforts at paper, and he noted that he liked the one column a week I’d settled into doing for the Tuesday Journal — yes, we had two papers back in those olden days — as his backup. And then he said something that I would have written down had my hands not been on the wheel.
“I’m going to take a couple of weeks off soon. You should get a bunch of column ideas together and be ready.”
I did, and I was. I wrote a column every day for the Journal for two weeks, and I guess I managed not to mess up too much. Because after two weeks Van McKenzie, the man who’d hired me, started finding reasons to have me write more than the one Tuesday column. It sounds overly dramatic to say those two weeks changed my vocational life, but they kind of did.
We got to Clemson. We covered the game. South Carolina drove 86 yards to win by a point and finish its regular season 10-1. On the way back we mostly talked about what we’d seen and the Georgia-Georgia Tech game upcoming the next week. (Furman thought Tech had a great chance to win, and by Jove it did.) We got back, and I let him out. I doubt Furman ever thought about the ride again in his life. I remember it still.
He and I would talk many more times over many more years at many different venues, but that day in the car I felt as if I’d tapped into something deeper than the usual sportswriter workspeak. I’d been given a crash course in a Hall of Famer’s personal history. I drove home feeling both edified and awed. Furman could have just treated me like some clod giving him a ride, but he didn’t.
I don’t think I ever thanked him properly — in my lame defense, we were technically colleagues, and it’s bad form for one colleague to gush over another — but I should have. He made me feel as if I were a peer, when we both knew good and well I was nothing of the sort.
By Mark Bradley