Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Small Town Hero-maker, Runner and Collector of Things

Photo by Wayne Hinshaw for The Salisbury Post.

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© Tim Peeler, 2017

Ed Dupree called me up last summer and wondered if there was some possible way we could get together and play the 9-hole par-3 golf course at the NC State University Club on Hillsborough Street.

It wasn’t really an odd or difficult request to fulfill, even though the two of us had generally played at much better courses through the years. The University Club’s course is good for beginners, but not exactly the Lonnie Poole Golf Course in terms of slope, difficulty and statewide prestige.

But Ed was on a mission, a recurring theme throughout his life. He had a list of 529 golf courses in the state of North Carolina, and he was intent on playing every single one of them at least once. He had already played many of them, including 43 courses in the state that no longer exist. He was down to less than 40 courses to play, including the University Club.

Man, what a perfect way for a sportswriter to spend retirement.

Certainly, I owed him the favor. Ed hired me for my first fulltime sportswriting job, a low-level position at The Salisbury (N.C.) Post, where I earned just enough money to be ineligible for food stamps—$285 a week if I recall correctly.

It might’ve been the best job I ever had, except for the inability to pay rent.

We were a four-man staff, along with retired sports editor Horace Billings and Steve Phillips. Horace and Ed primarily wrote about local events, Horace covering Catawba College and Ed coordinating high school and Livingstone College events. That allowed Steve and me to go out and cover Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and football, as long as we managed to get our five local high schools covered.

For the three seasons I worked there, Steve and I covered every single ACC home football and basketball game played in North Carolina. Between the ages of 23-25, I made two trips to the Final Four (Kansas City and Denver), three trips to the NCAA Tournament, three trips to the ACC Tournament and one trip to the Peach Bowl. I was able to cover every Charlotte Hornets home game, as well, double-timing for the Post and for The Associated Press (a free-lance gig that helped pay the bills). In the winter and spring of 1990 alone, I covered more than 100 girls and boys high school, men’s and women’s college and NBA basketball games.

I drove so many places in my Honda Civic that my travel reimbursements often doubled my monthly salary. Steve was the same.

Ed could have taken those assignments for himself, but he had done most of it before. He had a son my age and a teenaged daughter and he devoted his time to being with them. Ed was an avid runner and the long-time coach of the Faith Flyers running club for teenagers. He ran 13 marathons and taught hundreds of people the importance of daily physical activity.

When Ron Morris, who started working at the Post in high school, first started at the paper, Ed took him to the Catawba College track one day at lunch and told him to run one lap. The next day, he did two laps. The next day, three. They kept it up until Ron could easily run several miles, an activity he continues 50 years later.

From the set of "Black Rainbow," a straight-to-HBO production.
The great thing about the job I had at The Post was the ability to cover just about anything. In addition to writing about sports, I volunteered to cover the world tug-of-war championships, a Ku Klux Klan parade through downtown Salisbury, which has a troubled racial history, on Martin Luther King Day and a local shoot of a Hollywood movie at the then-abandoned train station. I was an extra in the movie, which starred Jason Robards and Rosanna Arquette, though none of my scenes as a homeless man made it into the final cut.

Ed let Steve and me do whatever I wanted, as long as we were in the office every morning by 6 a.m. to help put out the afternoon paper. Which we were, in fact, on the day Hurricane Hugo blasted through Rowan County with 80 mile-an-hour winds. When none of the news reporters could get into the office, Steve and I helped out with hurricane coverage—then left the next day to cover the NC State-Carolina football game at Carter-Finley Stadium.

On Saturdays, we would put out an afternoon paper and Sunday morning paper. During football season, there were several times that we covered a Friday night game, wrote it up the next morning, helped put out the paper, drove to Raleigh or Chapel Hill or Durham, then drove back to write it up and put out the morning paper. Of the 128 Saturdays I worked in Salisbury, I did that double shift 125 times. I know, because my family and two (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriends at the time counted them up.

I lived in two apartments while there, the first located behind the original Food Lion (LFPINC/SC/VA) and the second three doors down from local celebrity Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s mother. From the latter location on Fulton Street, I walked to the downtown office every single morning.

It was the perfect job for someone just out of college, but unsustainable financially. (My replacement came in, did the job for about a year, started a family and then took a job with the town of Salisbury as a left-side, back-of-the-truck garbage pick-up man because it paid significantly more.) I left after two-and-a-half years to take a job covering Furman for The Greenville (S.C.) News, shortly after covering Duke’s humiliating 103-73 loss to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA championship game.

Ed collected things besides golf courses, and taught me to do the same. At one time, he had more than a million baseball cards, including a full set of Topps from every year beginning in the early 1950s. He had a knack for collecting the most valuable cards. Back before the companies figured out non-sequential sorting, he could go into a Family Dollar Store, pick up a cellophane tri-pack of cards and know which one contained a Gregg Jeffries rookie card, which at the time was a big deal. He tipped me off about the famous Fleer Billy Ripken “F*ck Face” card so that I could buy one before it was pulled off the market.

I spent most of my meager paychecks buying wax packs at a local card shop owned by future Salisbury Post sportswriter Mike London. I still have about 250,000 baseball cards—almost all of which are worthless 1986-89 Donruss and Fleer cards—stored in my climate-controlled attic.

He collected Rotisserie baseball championships as well. He and some buddies at The Post started a National League-only fantasy league in 1987. They invited me to join in 1988 in my first year at the paper and started an American League-only league. We had our 30th annual draft this spring at Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove, and will have our 31st annual draft there next spring. Nothing made Ed happier than pulling off a good trade, whether it was for a superstar or for prospects. I think I gave him my 2019 second-round minor league draft pick not long ago in part of a trade for Didi Gregorius.

Ed kept all the statistics and adjustment lines for the first five years of the leagues, but we went to an internet service in the mid-1990s. The leagues were something that were quite serious. When my named was pulled for the media lottery to play Augusta National the day after the 1992 Masters, I played there in the morning and sped as fast as I could to Salisbury for our annual draft. A friend that I invited to join the league, Steve Elling, spent two years working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, was dissatisfied about having someone draft for him one year, so the next season he scheduled his vacation so he could spend a few days with his family in Orlando, then drive to Salisbury for our annual draft.

Ed’s team, the Slimey Snells, won the American League title this, leading wire-to-wire because of his foresight in taking Aaron Judge in our minor league draft five years ago.

He collected workouts too. After he and his wife Bitsy went on a cruise in 1992—when he broke his daily streak of running at least three miles—he started a new one. He ran at least one mile every single day until July when he severely tore his hamstring. He spent 11 days in the hospital.
Apparently, that injury triggered a blood disease he had been treating since 2011 to become acute myeloid leukemia. He went through a six-week treatment at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem—working out on a stationary bicycle every day—that was ultimately ineffective. He entered Kiser Hospice House in Salisbury last week and died peacefully Tuesday evening, surrounded by his family. He was 76.

He finished 31 courses short in his quest to play every golf course in the state.

His daughter posted this Bible verse as part of her Caring Bridge post about his death: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7)

It was the perfect farewell, in many ways, not the least of which is that Ed's mailing address is Faith, North Carolina.

I was fortunate enough as a college student at NC State’s student newspaper and through internships at The Raleigh Times how to cover big events: the U.S. Olympic Festival, the ACC tournament and bowl games. I learned from several noted reporters, like the recently departed Caulton Tudor. Back then, they were all exciting, high-profile and glamorous for readers who didn’t always have access to them on live television, video streams or cable coverage.

What Ed taught me, and many others, was how to cover smaller events like high school football and basketball games, how to keep county-wide wrestling stats, how to make local kids feel like superstars in their communities. It’s a lost art almost, because most people who enter the media profession want the glamour assignments. If newspapers are ever going to be a viable industry again, that’s the direction it needs to follow, since the media conglomerates buy and manage broadcast rights and shut out small and mid-sized newspapers.

Rest well, my friend. I will speak with your family soon about a counter-offer to that trade someone suggested for Aaron Judge.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the Execution of a Killer

Video via the Atlanta Falcons

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© Tim Peeler, 2017

The Georgia Dome killed the ACC tournament, and early Monday, just like with Charles Manson, justice finally was served for its crimes against humanity.

The dome didn't send cult family members out into the suburbs to kill the best part of the basketball season—it just took the shine off an event whose tickets were once considered the hardest to obtain in all of sports, even more difficult than notoriously exclusive Masters.

In this case, judgment was swift. It took only 15 seconds for most of the building—which opened at a cost of $214 million in 1992—to crumble into dust. Manson spent 40 some years on and off California’s death row before he died early Monday, old and unimportant, at the age of 83.

The Georgia Dome was only 25.

It’s not like I have no fond memories at all of the building. On Jan. 1, 1995, NC State beat Mississippi State, 28-24, in the second Peach Bowl ever played indoors. I covered a couple of entertaining Atlanta Falcons games there, when quarterback Chris Miller was trying not to shoot himself in the foot running Jerry Glanville’s “Red Gun Offense.”

At the 1996 Centennial Olympics, I begrudgingly covered a couple of Dream Team games at the dome, which as divided down the middle, with one half hosting basketball games and the other half hosting gymnastics and team handball competition.

One day, after a difficult morning of covering beach volleyball (don’t judge me, I was on assignment), I wandered into the Georgia Dome to see if the U.S. women’s gymnastics team could win its first ever team gold medal. I took the first open seat on press row and was annoyed when a thumb-like member of the media immediately crawled over the top of me to take the only other empty seat.

When Dominique Moceanu fell twice on the vault and Kerri Strug twisted her ankle on her first attempt, those hopes were all but ended. With coach Bela Karolyi screaming "You can do it, you can do it," Strug took off down the runway for her second attempt, vaulted and landed on one foot before collapsing in pain. But she stuck the landing, and the U.S. beat the Russians in the team competition for the first time ever.

The energetic media member beside me jumped up and gave me an unexpected hug in the excitement of the moment, and that's when I realized it was former gold medalist and off-duty television analyst Mary Lou Retton. She rushed down the stands, screamed and hugged Nadia Comaneci and Bart Connor, who were sitting just in front of us. I interviewed all three about this historic moment in U.S. gymnastics history for my story in the Durham Herald-Sun.

The coolest thing was seeing Karolyi carry Strug to the podium for the gold medal ceremony and then into the media room for interviews. It was the defining moment of the Centennial Olympic Games, along with Michael Johnson's unprecedented double gold medal performance in track and field.

In 2001, I went back to Atlanta and the dome to see how the facilities were going to host an event that, to me, was even bigger than the Olympics: the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament.

For decades, there had been no public sale of tickets to the tournament, which was born and raised in Reynolds Coliseum and had been played in larger arenas like the Charlotte Coliseum, the Greensboro Coliseum, the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, and The Omni in Atlanta during the league’s first 50 years. NC State won tournament titles in each of those buildings.

The league was convinced that if it occasionally opened the doors to the 71,228-seat Georgia Dome, or some other extra-large football facility, more fans would clamor to donate money to their schools for the opportunity to buy the impossible-to-get tickets. So more than 180,000 people watched the five sessions of the tournament, an average of 36,505 per session.

The championship game between Duke and North Carolina—won by the Blue Devils on their way to the 1991 NCAA title—drew 40,083 spectators, at the time the largest crowd to ever see a conference tournament game. The ticket market, however, was depressed. Before the tournament even started, fans from Virginia and Maryland were selling entire tournament books for less than face value. Tickets for the upper deck, an elevated football field away from the court, sold for $18.

Scalpers were selling center court tickets for the Blue Devil-Tar Heel final for less than $75 each.

The market never really recovered, especially following the economic downturn of 2008. Even in 2003, when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Greensboro Coliseum, tickets were on public sale, but they were easily and cheaply available in the parking lot before every session.

When the ACC tournament returned to Atlanta in 2009, it was becoming clear that the tournament, now increased to six total sessions because of league expansion, was not the same spectacle as it was before. More than 10,000 fewer spectators attended each session. For the first time since 1966—the last time the tournament was played in Reynolds Coliseum—advanced tickets to the tournament were sold directly to public, not just to donors of the individual schools.

As the tournament wandered from Greensboro to Charlotte to Atlanta to Tampa to Washington, average attendance hovered between 20,000 and 22,000. The availability tickets, once harder to get than perfect score on the SAT, has been plentiful for all who want to attend, which is not exactly a bad thing for fans of college basketball.

The league no longer relies on ticket sales as a primary revenue stream, and schools have used the model of permanent seat licenses in both football and basketball arenas to generate guaranteed revenue to go along with ever growing barrels of cash from television networks for broadcast rights.

I once had a streak of covering 25 consecutive ACC championships and it was always the highlight of my annual calendar, a place where we all gathered for three intense days of basketball. Now, the tournament is played over five days, most recently in Brooklyn, a place so far away a friend who had covered the event for 49 consecutive years was unable to attend. I have no idea if or when I’ll go to another.

It’s not the same anymore, and that’s fine. The league, now with 15 teams and a convoluted bracket that includes back-to-back days with four games each, seems to be doing OK. Things change.

But in its heyday, going to the ACC tournament was better than the Super Bowl, the Final Four or the Olympics, when just being in the building was almost as big of an accomplishment as seeing your favorite team win.

In the dust of the dome’s death, it’s never been clearer that those days aren’t coming back.