By Tom Mattingly
There’s nothing better than reading a well-told story, particularly one about sports.
Willie Morris, a prolific writer closely identified with the state of Mississippi, once penned the following well-turned sentence: “There is a tradition in the South, as in other parts of America, that a story worth telling places a responsibility on the listener to tell it again, in another place.”
Roger Kahn holds a special place in the pantheon of the storytellers, if for only one work, the classic “The Boys of Summer.” It is the story of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, from the days he covered their games to him revisiting several of them years later, long after their careers had ended.
The storytellers in the American sporting scene are fascinating people. In this area, Marvin West, Ben Byrd, Russ Bebb, Sam Venable, and Lindsey Nelson, among others, have been something special over the years. Their stories are worth telling and retelling.
Haywood Harris and David Housel are artisans of their craft with the University of Tennessee and Auburn University, respectively, telling their school’s story with great purpose, passion, resolve, and verve. Each school’s history comes alive as they chronicle the great moments of two proud traditions.
These guys could turn a phrase, whether with pen, pencil or on their personal computer. Excitement jumps off the page at every turn. There is a lyrical quality to their prose.
Haywood was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying “Dang” when an Ole Miss field goal attempt just before halftime in the 1969 game hit the crossbar and bounced across. Nothing more, just “Dang.” That made his point—no wasted words for him, either orally or on the printed page.
There was a time in 2004-05 that Haywood, Donnell Field, and I had offices in a “suite” deep in the bowels of Stokely Athletics Center, along with Doug Dickey, Mike Rollo, and golf coach Jim Kelson. There were all kinds of little surprises each day, including a passing acquaintance with assorted vermin.
All would be well, until Haywood’s voice, obviously panic-stricken, came booming across the transom, with an urgent plea.
“This gosh-dang machine ate my copy,” he would say, wondering if he would ever see what had been written again. Never, ever, would he have said anything stronger than “gosh-dang,” even when there might have been a considerable amount of work at stake.
That was our call to action. I would immediately trot over to his workspace and hit “edit-undo,” and his copy would reappear as if by magic.
Haywood’s fingers tripped lightly over the computer keyboard, with readable copy flowing like rushing waters.
Watching Haywood operate was an education. He was a perfect “fit” for his position, using his experience as a journalist and an innate sense of interpersonal relations to deftly balance the needs of the media with those of the coaches and athletes he served.
His story came down to his unswerving loyalty to his family, friends, and the University of Tennessee. He was known as a “team player” in the best sense of the term. He also, however, held strong opinions on any number of subjects he was not reluctant to share when necessary.
When the Vol football team flew to Nashville for the 1964 Vanderbilt game, Haywood and long-time colleague Gus Manning met the team at the airport on Friday afternoon. They had gone over a day earlier to “advance” the trip, preparing the local media for the team’s arrival.
The team bus was ready to head to practice and then the hotel, when one of the drivers announced that the fan belt was broken, spoiling the clockwork precision so famous on Vol road trips.
Haywood had to share the news with Dickey. Dickey’s response: “Haywood, you did check the fan belt, didn’t you?”
Haywood was rarely speechless, but that query caught him off-guard. He had performed his assigned duties well, not ever supposing that checking the fan belt on the team bus might be considered one of them.
Here’s the bottom line.
When Haywood Harris told the stories of Tennessee athletics in print, thoughtful people appreciated what he wrote.
When Haywood Harris talked, thoughtful people listened.
“When you write, you must listen for sounds,” Kahn recalled a colleague telling him in one of his early days at the New York Herald Tribune. “And there is a sound that one word makes and there is the sound that one word makes on another and there is the sound of silences between words.”
Haywood Harris definitely understood what Roger Kahn was talking about.
Long live the influence of the great storytellers, particularly those who have told the story of the University of Tennessee and its people.