Sportswriting lost an icon in Furman Bisher; I've lost a friend

I met Furman Bisher on a cold call.

It was just days before Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, and I was working on a feature about the unlikely rise of the long-suffering Atlanta Falcons. The best place to start seemed to be with the man who’d been covering them since their sorry beginnings.

So I called the front desk of the media hotel and asked to be connected to the Bish­er’s room. Despite not knowing me from Adam, the 80-year-old sportswriting legend agreed to meet me a couple of hours later in the hospitality room.

“Greensboro, huh?” I distinctly remember him saying after I stumbled through a long-winded introduction over the phone. “I’m from Denton.”

When my fiancee and I arrived early for the interview, Bisher and his lovely wife, Lynda, were already there seated on a sofa, dressed formally for dinner. They greeted us as if they’d known us all their lives, and Bisher spent the next 40 minutes sharing brilliant tales and writing my story for me.

Furman and Lynda Bisher have been nothing but kind to me ever since, and for that I’ve dearly loved them both.

What impressed me more than Bish­er’s wicked wit and his wife’s equally gracious heart is the fact that they never forgot our names. Being cursed with the fatal journalistic flaw of forgetting names five minutes after hearing them, I’ve wished ever since that I could be more like Furman Bisher.

So it struck hard Sun­day night when my wife came into the room with the Atlanta Journal-Constitu­tion’s online report that Fur­man Bisher had died of a massive heart attack. Having always believed Bisher would live – and write – forever, it was devastating news. As I broke down, my wife gave a consoling hug and whispered perspective.

“He was 93,” she said. “He lived a great life.”

Bisher lived an extraordinary life and shared much of it with his legions of endeared readers.

He was so gifted at the craft of sports journalism that at the first golf tournament he ever covered in Greens­boro, N.C., in 1938 as a college student, he penned the nickname “Lord Byron,” which stuck forever with Byron Nelson.

Bisher talked baseball in the home of Ty Cobb and snagged the only interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson after the Black Sox scandal. He played golf with Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. He could walk into any interview room for more than 60 years and be called out by name from the dais by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken (Jr. and Sr.), Dean Smith or Dale Earnhardt.

He was a giant in the realm of sports journalism for seven decades. His breadth of experience and institutional knowledge encased in a keen mind right to the end is an incalculable loss.

You name most of the iconic events of the past
70 years and Bisher was likely there crying “Judas Priest!” from the press box (or walking the course, which he still did faithfully into his 90s). Secretariat’s Triple Crown? Check.
Hank Aaron passing the Babe? Check. The Miracle on Ice? Yep. The Snead-Hogan playoff at Augusta? Absolutely. The Duel in the Sun at Turnberry? Of course.

Sixty-two Masters, from Jimmy Demaret in 1950 to Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Fifty-six Kentucky Derbys. Almost every Super Bowl. Countless majors and World Series and Olympics and Final Fours and bowl games ever since the Winston-Salem Journal paid him $2 for a story about minor-leaguers in North Carolina in 1938.

Hall of Fame golf writer Dan Jenkins said of Bisher: “He has written better over a longer period of time than any other member of our lodge.”

Through the decades Bish­er guessed he wrote “15,000 daily columns, around 1,200 magazine stories and a dozen books.” He said so when he came out of his brief “retirement” at age 91 with the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2010. One of his final columns – “When retirement is really retiring” about former Braves manager Bobby Cox – ran March 1 and included this line: “You know, it’s just tough sometimes for some guys to let go.”

So wrote the 93-year-old retiree – probably on his Royal typewriter with the frayed ribbon.

I’ve dearly missed seeing Bisher in recent months at all the usual haunts. He skipped last year’s PGA and Tour Championships in Atlanta because his back was bothering him. His seat next to mine was empty in the press box at Bobby Dodd Stadium for the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game in November.

The last contact I had with him came via e-mail in January after the sudden passing of another beloved Atlanta journalist, Jim Huber.

“You could have felled me with a feather when I read that Jim Huber had died,” Bisher wrote. “Then I heard that you had written a column about Jim, after I’d read that he and Carol had been hospitalized almost at the same time ... Ye gods, what kind of cruel fate is this? I’ll be stealing some of your column, but the worst of it all is that this genuinely fine friend should have been taken away. This has been a cruel blow to all of us who held them both so close to heart. – FB”

That one of the all-time great sports columnists might steal something from me is the highest honor I’ve ever received.

The only thing higher was calling a man twice my age and 100 times my superior friend. It is a cruel blow indeed that a great man and voice has been taken away.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Selah!

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