Assuming I make it through the weekend, Monday will mark the beginning of my 40th year at the AJC. Doubtless you’ve wondered, “How did a goofball like you get a job at a place like this?” Glad you asked.
It was 1984. The AJC was where every youngish sportswriter wanted to be. It swept the 1983 Associated Press Sports Editors awards. It hired Dave Kindred, whom I’d idolized when he worked in Louisville, away from the Washington Post. In the basement, I still have three fat folders of Kindred clippings – labeled “basketball,” “football” and “other.” (Oh, and my dad loved him, too.)
I was in Tampa to cover the Super Bowl for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Van McKenzie, the AJC’s assistant managing editor for sports, agreed to meet me at Pete Rozelle’s state-of-the-NFL session at the Hyatt. The first person I saw when I entered the ballroom was Kindred. I asked if he’d seen Van. He said no.
Then he said: “Is this like a job interview?” At that moment, I heard the words “job interview” as a sneer: “You really think we’d hire YOU?” (Kindred swears that wasn’t the intent. I remain unconvinced.)
Van arrived, fashionably late. We went upstairs to a room he’d borrowed from an AP guy. I sat in a chair. He laid on the floor because his back hurt. He spent a half-hour on the phone because the Peach Bowl was upset with something Furman Bisher wrote. (I’ve upset the Peach Bowl a time or two myself.) I looked out the window and thought, “Big-time journalism.”
Van hung up. We talked. He escorted me to the door. I asked, “So where are we?”
He said: “Oh, I’m going to hire you. Come to Atlanta and we’ll take care of it.”
The AJC put me up at the Peachtree Plaza. I walked to 72 Marietta Street. Van introduced me to Gary Caruso, the sports editor. He looked at me and said, “Good size.” (He also coached the softball team.) I said hello to Tim Tucker, who’d just left the Braves beat to become assistant sports editor.
I’d known David Davidson, the legendary college editor, for years. I met others I recognized from their bylines: Tom Stinson, Earnest Reese, Jack Wilkinson, John McGrath, Ed Hinton, Glenn Sheeley. I tried not to act awestruck. I failed.
I met with managing editor Ed Sears, who told me he was a Florida fan. Then Van took me to the editor’s office. “This won’t take five minutes,” he said. “He doesn’t talk much.”
“He” was – and still is – Mr. Jim Minter, who is NOT a Florida fan. He had my clip file on his desk. He said, “Let me read for a while.”
For the next six hours – I exaggerate, but that’s how terrifying this was – Mr. Minter read my writings as I sat and tried to look elsewhere. Once he gave a tiny laugh. Finally – finally! – he said, “You get off a good line.”
He asked if I knew anything about SEC football. I said I did. (I’d covered Kentucky since 1980.) He asked, “Can you name all the SEC quarterbacks?”
I ran the list though my frazzled brain and realized I couldn’t get Ole Miss. So told my prospective employer a pre-emptive fib. I said, “I can, and I can tell you why Georgia lost to Auburn.”
(Mr. Minter was seated in front of a panoramic shot of Sanford Stadium. I discovered this while looking elsewhere.)
He said, “Why?”
I said, “Because their best defensive lineman dominated your best offensive lineman.” (Doug Smith and Guy McIntyre, respectively. I’d covered the ‘83 game in Athens. Auburn won 13-7.)
Mr. Minter said, “Still almost won.”
Taking my life in my hands, I said, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t have deserved it.”
Mr. Minter actually laughed. He said, “If you’re a fan, you don’t care if you deserve it.”
We chatted a bit more. He walked me to the door and patted my shoulder. He told me, “You give some of the best answers I’ve heard.” (Thank heaven for Guy McIntyre.)
Van was waiting. He said, “What HAPPENED in there?”
I said, “We got to talking.”
I flew home. The next day, I called Van and accepted the job. My wife and I were excited, though I was also scared. I wasn’t sure I was of AJC quality. Thirty-nine years later, there are days when I’m still uncertain.
I thought of my dad, who died in 1982. I asked Penny, “What would he say?” And we both said, “‘Same paper as Kindred.’”
That’s how I got here. Someday I’ll tell you about my first day at work. I was late. The downtown connector was jammed. Caruso gave me an assignment, which was …
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