I had no plan or desire to write this column as all the bowl games filled the Monday holiday. That’s really the whole point, because Jim Huber certainly didn’t intend to be the subject either.
The news of friend and fellow journalist Huber’s passing Monday was a devastating shock. Such news always is, but this struck a particular cord as it filtered out through Facebook and Twitter where much of the banter with the generous and warm television essayist happened between the occasional lunches and chats at golf tournaments.
Huber, who most remember from his years as a sports anchor and reporter with CNN and TNT, was awakened by a coughing spell on Dec. 22 that caused him to roll out of bed and hit his head on the nightstand. He joked with friends that his face looked like he lost a WWE tryout.
He couldn’t sleep the next night and woke up early again on Christmas morning.
“My persistent cough has demanded I rise and wish each of you the greatest of holidays,” he posted on Facebook.
By Dec. 26 he was asking “Anybody recommend a pulmonologist in the North Atlanta area?”
On Dec. 28 he started the day wondering about his late Social Security deposit and a few hours later posted his last status update: “okay, now they’re talking about taking me to the ER, etc. seems like we’ve built up enough FF points over the last couple years.”
“We will get thru this with flying colors. I just know it!” commented his wife, Carol, who had just been released from the ICU herself Dec. 20 after more than a week in the hospital trying to figure out what was causing what appeared to be mini strokes.
Huber was diagnosed a day later with acute leukemia. By Jan. 2, one of the nicest and most eloquent voices in sports journalism was gone. He was a young 67 years old.
I’m moved to write this not only to pay tribute to one of the best in our industry but to show just how quickly life can get away from us. It can even happen to one of the consummate good guys.
Huber was a rarity in the sports journalism business, a man who succeeded in every medium and was liked by all. The Presbyterian College grad started out in newspapers, covering the NFL and NBA in Miami, then Atlanta. Despite his way with words, his mellifluous voice wasn’t being done justice by the newsprint so he transitioned to radio.
A few years later he went into local television for Atlanta’s NBC affiliate WXIA. He was there when CNN was launched and he went national as an anchor and reporter. Pretty soon he found his niche as a profiler on his own series The Sporting Life with Jim Huber and later an essayist for TNT.
“I wanted to tell stories,” Huber wrote in the epilogue of his recently released book Four Days in July detailing Tom Watson’s amazing run at the 2009 British Open. “My mother to this day claims, with a wry smile, that was my purpose in life from birth. I wanted to sit in front of a roaring fire, gather my friends at my feet, and tell them stories that would make them both smile and cry. I wanted to place them on the wings of their imagination and visit people and places that would quicken their hearts and souls.”
He was so good at telling those stories and humanizing sports figures of all walks that the phrase “Let’s Huber-ize it” became a term at CNN.
The first of his 235 people profiles (plus seven animals) that he chronicled on The Sporting Life was about LPGA star Heather Farr battling breast cancer. He followed it up a year later with her wedding and again a year later with her funeral.
“She was our beacon for 10 years, giving us the greatest of perspectives,” he said.
Huber was likewise a beacon for sports journalism. He always set the right tone with his kind-hearted and generous spirit. When CNN needed a voice to provide immediate perspective on the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics, it called on Huber in the middle of the night to turn out a two-minute think piece. It earned him a national Sports Emmy.
He was so versatile that he published three books. The first was about hockey in the Deep South titled The Babes of Winter. The second was a personal story about his father’s dying months and their relationship. A Thousand Goodbyes went largely unnoticed after being published weeks before 9/11.
His last was on Watson, who gave the first interview after each incredible round in 2009 at Turnberry to Huber, who was only five years older than the nearly 60-year-old guy with the replaced hip chasing a sixth claret jug 27 years after winning his last.
“This was so much more than just another defeat,” he wrote. “This was a page very near the front of golf’s history book torn out and shredded.”
Huber dedicated the book to the subject: “To Tom Watson, who made an old world young again.”
Huber’s sudden passing was a blow that should tell us to seize whatever youth we have left no matter what our age. And the final words of his last book strike at the heart of any sports journalist.
“And finally my eternal thanks to Carol, my wife of many decades, who would find me at the strangest of hours hunched over my keyboard, deep in creation, and simply wander on, understanding the passion.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Huber. Your passion is already sorely missed.