I have never been a sportswriter as such, although I seem to have danced around that occupation in a variety of ways.
I covered athletic events for my high school newspaper. As a student in Athens, I wrote sports columns for The Red and Black. I co-hosted (and, to the extent that advance preparation was involved, co-wrote) "The Dawg Show" on local cable television in Henry County for six seasons. Since July 2005, I have authored, in succession, Kyle on Football and Dawg Sports.
Nevertheless, I have never been a sportswriter in the strictest technical sense. My father didn't follow that career path, either, although he, too, covered sports as a student and he considered attending journalism school at the University of Georgia with the goal of becoming a sports reporter.
While Dad charted another course that did not lead through the Classic City, he almost found his way to the university his son would later attend . . . and, had he gone that way, he would have been there at the same time as another future sportswriter by the name of Lewis Grizzard.
As reported in The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Lewis McDonald Grizzard, Jr., was a native of Moreland, Ga., which previously had produced a famous author in the form of Erskine Caldwell. Lewis's father and namesake left the family when the future writer was a young boy and he was raised by his mother, a schoolteacher.
As a student at the University of Georgia, Lewis became the sports editor of the Athens Daily News and his newspaper career led him to become executive editor of the Atlanta Journal when he was 23 years old.
Lewis achieved nationwide fame as a syndicated columnist and author of 25 books, but he never strayed far from his roots, even after attaining a measure of celebrity and financial success. His small town upbringing, traditional values, regional pride, and Bulldog football loyalties never faded far into the background and these remained at the heart of his most memorable work, even after Lewis took to wearing Gucci loafers and eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
As a Southern humorist and raconteur, Lewis often was likened to Mark Twain, but I believe that comparison sold Lewis short. Samuel Clemens was happiest when engaged in snide mockery of everything from religion to the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare; ultimately, the author of Tom Sawyer was more interested in tearing down what was than in building up what was to be.
Lewis Grizzard, by contrast, was a defender of something meaningful and imperiled, in the best tradition of the Vanderbilt Fugitive-Agrarians, even if he did with a wry wit and a sly folksiness what Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren did with a literary sensibility and an overarching worldview.
Lewis was, at times, a bundle of contradictions---an unreconstructed advocate of preserving traditional folkways who was the child of a broken marriage and the husband (and ex-husband) of many wives; a golf-playing resident of an upscale Atlanta suburb who continued to think of himself as a rural Georgian---but the arc of his life and career corresponded to a period of transition in the South generally, and in Atlanta particularly, which he helped the region to bridge by embodying many of its internal tensions. Walker Percy may have observed and commented upon this era more eruditely in Lost in the Cosmos, but no one captured the essence of what the average Southerner experienced during this period more faithfully than Lewis Grizzard in I Haven't Understood Anything Since 1962 and Other Nekkid Truths.
During my first two years as a student at the University of Georgia, I lived on campus in Myers Hall. In the fall, Dad would come into town on Saturdays and park next to my dorm, then we would walk down the hill to the stadium for the game.
There, tailgating between two parked cars across from the G.G.S. Building, would be Lewis Grizzard, identifiable by his familiar voice and lack of socks. Dad and I would nod and say hello without breaking stride, but we never bothered him because he wasn't there as a famous writer; he was there as a fan---as one of us---and it didn't seem right to disturb him.
Knowing what we now know about Lewis Grizzard's life---about his inner demons, his excessive drinking, his failed marriages, his absent father, and his health problems---it may well have been the case that what we saw on Saturday mornings were the happiest moments of the syndicated author's earthly existence. He may never have been more at peace than he was when standing within sight of Sanford Stadium, awaiting kickoff with a chicken leg in one hand and a Jack and Coke in the other.
Lewis Grizzard died in 1994, at the age of 47, after multiple surgeries failed fully to repair what was, literally as well as figuratively, a broken heart. A portion of the columnist's ashes was scattered over the field between the hedges. He suffered through the start, but did not survive to see the end, of Georgia football's long downcycle in the mid-1990s. I doubt whether any proud citizen of Bulldog Nation would have enjoyed the program's resurgence under Mark Richt as much as Lewis.
Lewis Grizzard is on my mind this morning because a significant anniversary is fast upon us. Because Lewis's father was a U.S. Army captain, the late Southern humorist was born at Fort Benning, a military installation named for a Confederate general and University of Georgia graduate. Lewis Grizzard entered this world on October 20, 1946.
Had he lived, tomorrow would have been Lewis Grizzard's 60th birthday.
I'll be thinking about Lewis Grizzard while I'm on my way into Sanford Stadium on Saturday. I'd like to tell you that my thoughts will be noble and altruistic. I'd like to tell you that I'll be thinking how wonderful it is that the man who brought joy to so many but struggled with so much while in life is at peace and happy and in a better place now.
He is those things now, of course, and I am glad for him, but that won't be what I'm thinking about on Saturday. Instead, I'll be thinking something much more selfish than that.
I'll be wishing Lewis was standing there behind the open trunk of a parked car with his greying moustache and crinkled smile, not wearing any socks or caring about the open container ordinance, enjoying a laugh and a chicken wing across from the G.G.S. Building.
I'll be wishing I had the opportunity---just this once---to be rude and inconsiderate enough to interrupt him and say, "Excuse me, Mr. Grizzard, I hate to bother you, but I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday, sir."
We miss you, Lewis.