Trying To Keep Up From The Pressbox

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For the first time in more than two decades I sat in a pressbox under the stadium lights, covering a football game.  The Kilgore College Rangers faced their archrivals, the Tyler Junior College Apaches. Two of my KC journalism students had never covered a football game before, so I sat between them, showing them how to record each play. The plan was, when the game ended, they would be able to write a comprehensive account of what happened.

A few days before the match, Longview News-Journal sports editor Jack Stallard kindly came to campus and gave my young charges a quick lesson on how to fill out the form he devised for taking down the play-by-play. I listened as well, nodding sagely as he walked them through the process. Truth is, after a 22-year hiatus I needed the lesson as badly as my J-students.


The last time I wrote a football game story was for the Lufkin Daily News. Editor Phil Latham had fired his sports editor — whose last name fittingly was Beer — because he kept showing up drunk at 10 in the morning or not at all, a decision with which I naturally agreed. I was the editorial page editor but was pressed into service. I drove to Beaumont to cover the Panthers in an early season game. I wrote the story on a laptop and transmitted it by modem on deadline back to the paper that night so it appeared in the Saturday paper, then drove back. It was a long night but makes for a good newspaper memory.

Luckily Phil soon hired Stallard as sports editor, the fellow now toiling away in Longview. I never had any interest in writing sports full-time, though I did walk the sidelines for more than 20 years, shooting photos of East Texas football every Friday night under dim lights in San Augustine, Newton, Center and Hemphill. It is what finally spurred me to try to work my way into a desk job and become a publisher. Even then, for five years I shot the San Augustine Wolves while Ramblin’ Sam Malone sat in the pressbox covering the game. Sam had sold the paper I then owned but kindly still covered the game for me.

My favorite Sam Malone story, told before, involves those 35-mm plastic film canisters used before everything went digital. I bulk rolled film to save money, and noticed, on the eve of the first game, that Sam had lined up about a dozen canisters on the counter of the print shop he operated in the other half of the building we shared.

“Sam, I’m not going to shoot a dozen rolls of film,” I said, thinking of both the expense and the time spent in the darkroom developing all those rolls. I despised developing film.

Sam shook his head. Rookies. I was 26.

“Each of these film canisters holds exactly one shot of whiskey, young man,” he said. Sam would buy a large Coke and keep it topped with whiskey all night, cigar clenched firmly between his teeth.

Wisely, I always drove.



So there I was on a Saturday night with two eager young men preparing to cover a football game. I was a little nervous. This wasn’t like teaching a class how to write a strong lead, or the mechanics of laying out a newspaper page. Covering football play-by-play is something I have only done a half-dozen times. Bill Clinton was president the last time I attempted it.

KC kicked off, the game was underway and I no longer had time for butterflies. All three of us were keeping the play-by-play. I murmured what had happened so they could also write it down. Football goes faster than you realize when you’re trying to record every play, whether it was a running or pass attempt, complete or incomplete, how many yards were advanced, where the ball was marked, and what down it now became. There’s no time for idle chitchat.

I kept peering myopically, trying to figure out where the official had marked the ball. Is it on the 42 or 43-yard-line? Finally, one of the young men pointed out the scoreboards on either side of the end zones conveniently provided that information. As I said, I was rusty.

By the second quarter, my budding sportswriters had the play-by-play routine firmly in grasp, and I was able to relax. We stepped outside to watch the world-famous Rangerettes perform at halftime, an impressive precision routine that neither of these young men had ever witnessed before — being freshmen.

The second half dragged on, since KC was getting creamed in its home opener. The game mercifully ended, and I gave my students a ride back to their dorm and headed home.

At least I didn’t have to knock out a football story on deadline

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