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This column first appeared in the AJC on 10/11/2009. It was Furman’s last as an AJC employee although he later contributed as a freelancer.
By Furman Bisher
It was April 15, income tax day, in 1950 that this all began. Usually, such a run as this rarely ever carries on this long. Perhaps my act has worn thin. Perhaps I have overstayed my time. But to an old warrior such as I, it isn’t easy finding an appropriate ending place.
My mind wanders back to the Falcons’ first flirtation with glory. They led the Dallas Cowboys into the shadows of a Sunday afternoon in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, 60,222 fans in a state of exhilaration, a division championship a breath away when the defense broke down. It was over and a city was left heartbroken.
This column first appeared in the AJC on 7/6/78.
By Furman Bisher
After you’ve been in the fun and games division of journalism a few years you begin to take other forms of life for granted. Everything out there looks like a cinch. Nobody else earns his daily bread chasing down press credentials, being held at bay outside some locker room like a vacuum cleaner salesman at the service entrance, waiting for late planes, missing others that leave on schedule and cursing games that start so late it’s tomorrow before they’ll end.
This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 9/5/1983.
By Furman Bisher
ATHENS — This was the turf hallowed, if you so choose upon which the feet of Herschel Walker had trod. Now he came only to spectate, but still found himself much celebrated in his new capacity as observer. Almost as if to signal that all the hostilities that arose from his defection to the New Jersey Generals had evaporated, ex-No. 34 and his wife were guests in the booth Mrs. Vince Dooley reserves for the select.
To the more pressing matters now. The green grass of Sanford Stadium was well-drenched. The scene was eerie, stadium seats awash in red, except for one dollop of blue and gold of the minority UCLA party, and every tiny drop of rain glistening briefly in the illumination, then falling on to eternity.
As a debut, Georgia-UCLA turned out like so many of Georgia’s recent openers, save for the landslide 44-0 picnic against Tennessee two years ago. It was more survival than victory. As against Clemson last year, Tennessee three years ago, the monumental unveiling of Walker, Baylor, Oregon and California, it was left to the defense to save. There was one in between against Wake Forest that the defense couldn’t save.
A score of 19-8 sounds substantial. It doesn’t reveal that only one touchdown by the offense is represented among the 19. By the second half, the offense was all but closed for the night, two first downs, 25 yards passing and 57 yards rushing after the interlude.
Replacements rushed for 114 yards
By statistics alone, Georgia showed no great slackening from the loss of Walker. Vince Dooley ran out five tailbacks, including the new model, David McCluskey, nervous and playing as if he had seen the ghost of Herschel Walker, Barry Young, a senior with no such awe for his former roommate, Melvin Simmons, a former receiver, Tron Jackson, the human blip, and the most likely of the lot, Keith Montgomery, who has startling acceleration and the moves of a bucking horse.
Together, this choir of carriers delivered 114 yards in 29 attempts, which would have been considered a dutiful night for Walker. In the long run, it shouldn’t take five men to replace one, once Dooley has come to his hour of decision.
Optimists cheerfully groping for a brighter side to Bulldogs football without Herschel Walker had latched onto the prospect that the 1983 offense would be less one-dimensional. There would be more aerial warfare to give the infantry support. The Bulldogs would dazzle them with suspense.
Unfortunately, it was still one-dimensional. The troops slogging through the dampness were still the backbone of the attack, though they didn’t knock many holes in UCLA’s defense. ‘Air Dooley’ simply didn’t come close to matching up with ‘Air Donahue, ’ as West Coasters like to refer to Terry Donahue’s free-gunning game.
The first thing those defensive of Georgia will say is, ‘Well, the ball was wet…tough night for passing and catching.’
Dean provided finishing touch
The ball was wet for both sides. Receivers cut on the same slippery surface. It was actually in the midst of the tropical downpour of the second half that Rick Neuheisel, UCLA’s passer, really heated up. It was he who kept Georgia’s offense on the bench. In the fourth quarter, Georgia was allowed only eight offensive plays.
Meantime, survival was left to the defense, always bending, hanging on by its thumbs, but always slamming the door just short of disaster. It was at one of the more ironic moments of the evening that Charlie Dean, a local kid, put the knife to the Bruins.
The television network was in the process of handing down its pronounciamento, ‘ABC’s Offensive Player of the Game, ’ an arbitrary choice, when Neuheisel threw the pass that Dean plucked from the hands of aUCLA receiver. Pictures will show the thwarted catcher grasping for a ball that doesn’t reach him. Dean continues on a runaway path 69 yards to the saving touchdown just as ABC delivers its decision. ‘ABC’s offensive player of the game is…Rick Neuheisel, the UCLA quarterback.’
Georgians couldn’t have agreed with ABC more. They had been swallowing dry and gulping for air until Dean’s pilferage. It was a critical moment, leading only 12-8, having just surrendered a safety, UCLA having its own way by air, and then Air Donahue crashed.
It is quite pertinent that Dean was playing where the wounded safety, Jeff Sanchez, would have been playing, such indicating that Georgia has depth like the Russian army.
Suddenly, those tight throats and gasping lungs of the red-blazered partisans came off the critical list. Blood flowed again, and in no time they were loose and chirpy, crying out once more in the mating call of the caninebullis, ‘How ‘Bout Them Dawgs’
The rain stopped, but they never noticed.
This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 10/6/1991.
By Furman Bisher
This is the story that should write itself, but it won’t.
It happened on a Saturday afternoon in October 1991, a perfectly lovely day in Mudville. But this time Casey didn’t strike out. There wasn’t a broken heart to be found among the multitude, for this was Atlanta, not Mudville, and the mighty Braves had won the pennant.
The Braves won the pennant!
The Braves won the pennant!
The Braves won the pennant!
I remember the screeching voice of Russ Hodges 40 years and a day ago, when Bobby Thomson hit the home run heard from Staten Island to Timbuktu. I just wanted to see how it looked in print.
Losersville had been magically transformed into Tomahawk Town by a bunch of guys who, in the spring, would have pleased their constituents at the thought of finishing third. Some free agents, some castoffs, some grizzled veterans, some pink-cheeked youths and some with flopping manes and hairy faces.
These were the Atlanta Braves who would take their places on the line after three teams of Braves that had finished last. Whoever would have thought it would end this way. This swiftly and deftly?
Swiftly?This was the 161st game of the season.
Deftly? At the All-Star holiday, there were 9 1/2 games out of first place. The Miracle Braves of 1914 weren’t that far back.
They’d had their run, we said. They’ve given us hope, we said. Let us be grateful for small gifts, we said.
Then when they won again, they said, “A team of destiny.”
Bah, humbug! There is not such thing. Destiny is something worked out within yourself. One act is not more important than one other, no turning point, no crossroads. What is most important is what’s at hand, and for now it is most important because it is now. As one who has lived through all 1,124 of the Braves’s defeats since they became Atlanta’s own, this is to celebrate the end of September drudgery. Of a stadium with 48,250 vacant seats, the voice of the public address announcer bouncing off each of them, and on the field a lineup of strange names imported from Richmond, Va., and Greenville, S.C., perhaps even Sumter.
On this day, 44,994 American bottoms filled the seats. The opponent was Houston, the Astros, deeply imbedded in sixth place, previously owned by the Braves. A match sure to attract a crowd of 1,750 in Septembers past.
The poor Astros, bless ‘em, they played their role. Once again the Braves took a lead right out of the box. Lonnie Smith singled. Mark Lemke singled. Terry Pendleton hit a shot through the hole at short. Smith scored. It was 1-0. David Justice’s double play hopper was converted into the fourth of Andujar Cedeno’s five errors in two days. Bases loaded. Lemke scored on Ron Gant’s fly to left. 2-0.
Second inning, Rafael Belliard singled. (Who does he think he is, Honus Wagner?) Smith drove him home with a double. 3-0.
That would have been enough for John Smoltz, but Gant singled and scored in the third, then hit his 32nd home run in the fourth. It would end 5-2. The Braves had taken on a whole nation - Portugal, Mark by name -
About the middle of the seventh inning, the score was flashed on the big board: Giants 4, Dodgers 0. You have never heard “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” sung with more lustiness. What music to one’s ears!
Then the loyalists reverted to their seasonal form, giving off their paleface imitation of an Indian war chant. The drums beat and the tomahawks chopped, Dr. Frank Jobe and his precocious warning notwithstanding - what’s one to contract, a case of elbowitis? - and the same for the fellow who nominated himself the official and inevitable Indian protestant.
Then the Braves, nine strong men and true, took to the field to get three more outs. The tension was next to unbearable. After all, this was only the third time in 26 seasons. If Smoltz could even spit, I’d have been surprised.
Jeff Bagwell singled. Belliard threw out Luis Gonzalez. Ken Caminiti lined a shot off Smoltz’s leg that Belliard turned into an out. Fittingly, Cedeno, whose work afield had opened doors for the Braves, lofted a fly to Justice for the last out.
The Braves converged in the center of the field and broke out into one of those celebratory wrestles, like milling earthworms. This is not only customary, it is seemingly required, and the miracle is, no one gets wounded.
All hands were there, those who contributed and those along for the ride, those in health and those afflicted. Nick Esasky, who hasn’t been to bat since April 1990, Jim Clancy, whose life here has been an elevator ride, and nobody celebrated with more vigor than Marvin Freeman, fresh from the surgeon’s knife, and Mark Grant, whose season has been a zero, but not without bouyant spirit.
But it wasn’t over yet. On the big screen it read, “Meanwhile, in San Fran.” The Braves and their people turned and watched the last outs from that now lovely and beautiful Candlestick Park, where the Dodgers made their last stand, akin to Custer’s.
Then the celebration started over again before the Braves tunneled into their lair, tossing their caps to their beloved fans behind the dugout. Later, they came out in their undershirts - with pants, of course - caps turned backward, and they did a victory lap, this time serenading those who had been their loyal people through it all, and had given them a war cry and a symbol to be engraved in their hearts forever.
This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 4/11/1991.
By Furman Bisher
Opening Day is baseball in its most amiable moment. Not a game has been lost. Last place is the equal of first. Every manager expects to win the pennant, or gonfalon, as you see fit.
The fans love the most diabolical politician, for he comes to throw out the first ball, representing goodness and honor, and for one night is a real sport. After which he is returned to his state of public wretchedness.
Opening Day is the season at its peak. It will never be quite so sweet again, not even the World Series, not even the All-Star Game. By that time, the season is treadworn, fans have been on a roller-coaster ride, the end is in sight, and it’s almost a relief. Opening Day is like everybody’s World Series.
On Opening Day, the atmosphere is freshly distilled spring. And then it rains. And rains.
Then it stops. The tarpaulin comes off. It rains again. The tarp goes back. It stops. The tarp comes off. The skies grumble some more. It rains again. The tarp goes back. Not Opening Day at its best, except for the lightning, which put on a show of shows.
It was a great scene for bellyflopping and water-sliding, but the gendarmes, darn ‘em, were no kind of sports at all, and the acrobatic crackpots were led off into the somewhere under the stadium.
Let’s see, the first opening game I saw in Atlanta, it was so cold charcoal buckets had to be used in the dugout to keep the Atlanta Crackers warm, which belied the name of the league - Southern Association. Next one I remember, only 2,000 showed up in ratty old Ponce de Leon Park, which was falling down. Baseball was dying there.
The next one was a gala. Mayor Ivan Allen threw out the first ball, the Braves played their first game in town, Tony Cloninger pitched 13 innings, and his arm was never the same again.
The last time the Braves and Dodgers opened the season in Atlanta, a thunderstorm would have been appreciated. The Dodgers won, the score was 13-4, and the winning pitcher was Don Sutton, now at work in the Braves’ broadcast booth. It is not an entry in the book of Bobby Cox’s most memorable moments. He was managing his first team of Braves.
Another 13 years, another Cox debut. An April ago he watched from a club-level booth, dressed in a proper business suit with a blue shirt and tie and shoes with no spikes. This year he’s back in the dugout, wearing the garment of the trenches. Ever wonder what he might have done with a $33-million allowance to spread around among free agents?
Bill James runs a baseball laboratory in his mind in Lawrence, Kan. Each year he publishes a major-league reference work that he calls “The Baseball Book.” This is a man speaking out and sparing nothing or no one. He calls a bum a bum, a star a star.
At times I sniggered at an existential work he called “Baseball Abstract.” He reached out too far across the horizon for me. Now he has put “Abstract” to bed. No more reaching out. He takes several of the Braves, new and old, under advisement in the 1991 “Baseball Book, ” and some of his conclusions startle even me, because I agree with them. Not all, but some.
Sid Bream: “Probably the dumbest free agent signing of the winter.”
Terry Pendleton: “I don’t want him… . not any worse than Jim Presley, but not any better.”
Andres Thomas: “He has no assets, ” agreeing with John Schuerholz, who set him adrift.
Francisco Cabrera (as compared with Bream): “He’s the best. He’s got to play.”
Jeff Blauser: “I still believe, as I did a year ago, he’s going to be a star. “
Deion Sanders: “Bo [Jackson] can play major-league baseball. Sanders can’t… . What’s the big deal about this guy?”
Bill James does say that, given proper and orderly seasoning in the farm system, Sanders probably would have some value.
Well, Opening Day has run into night. Bravely, the Braves have plunged ahead into all the fun and frolic of Opening Day, a study in drenched ceremonials. The Georgia Tech band gave out an Olympian sound, its big brass echoing around the stands. The Chapel Hill choir sang on through a drizzle, backing up an intrepid baritone who looked like Willard Scott, the weather man.
The air was filled with patriotism. Tribute to the soldiers of Desert Storm. Lumbering old prop planes doing a flyover. Players were introduced, the rain hit a crescendo, but through it all, military brass stood ramrod straight, unrelenting, taking the soaking at attention without a quiver.
Not necessarily symbolic of the Braves’ new indulgence in defense, the National Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, had been imported to deliver this first pitch. Stubbornly, and appropriately, he delivered it, through rain and all, because he had to be on his way to another appointment.
He threw a strike. Mike Heath received it with impeccability.
The last I heard, the Braves and the Dodgers were about to play the game. By the time, it was past my bedtime, and besides, I was on my way to Augusta, where the Masters will be played again. It seldom rains on the Masters, by order of His Local Highness, Hord Hardin.
With the US Open now completed, we can turn our attention across the Pond and we remember Greg Norman’s win at Turnberry in the ‘86 British Open. This year’s British Open starts July 18.
This column originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 21, 1986.
By Furman Bisher
A clue to the kind of British Open No. 115 had been was that Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had both finished their Sunday rounds before Ian Woosnam, Gordon Brand and Jose-Maria Canizares had teed off.
Ian Woosman, Gordon Brand and Jose-Maria Canizares, I said, defending champion of the Ivory Coast, the Zambian Open and a Spaniard who last won in Kenya.
AJC reporters Jeff Schultz and Steve Hummer talk with Channel 2 Action News sports anchor Zach Klein about the US Open, starting Thursday. Watch as the three preview the field and make predictions during this Google Hangout, sponsored by Delta Air Lines.
This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 2/4/1986.
By Furman Bisher
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: What I would like to know about Kenneth Davis and the $38,000 he said he was paid to play football for Texas Christian - did he report it to the IRS? … “If Ruby Goldstein had been refereeing the Super Bowl game, he would have stopped it in the second quarter, ” says our former ace Gene Asher, pugilism ever on his mind… . And whatever became of Jiggy Smaha?
Looks like it’s back to law practice for Eddie LeBaron and out of football. He’s looking west, but the hope is he’ll make his base in Atlanta. He is too good a man for this town to lose… . Hank Morgan has hung it up at WCNN after a trial run at modern-time radio didn’t turn out to be the pleasure he thought it would. He may be headed back to Florida, but no more sportscasting… . Speaking of oldtimers, the American Foundation for the Blind salutes a name out of the past, old Atlanta Cracker slugger Bob Montag. The AFB has established a Robert Montag Youth Award to honor visually impaired youth who star in their own way, and Tim Willis and Tiffany Lovett are the first recipients at a Friday breakfast.
Bob Toski has placed himself in the care of a psychiatrist since coming off the Seniors Tour as a confessed cheater. It remains to be seen what this does to his career as a teaching pro… . They have a thing called the World One-Club Tournament in Cary, N.C., and a man named Thad Daber recently broke a record set by Chick Harbert way back in 1942. Daber played the course in 73 strokes with a 6-iron… . When somebody asked Tommy Bolt who was the greater player, Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan, old Thunder said: “Well, I saw Nicklaus watch Hogan practice, but I never saw Hogan watch Nicklaus practice.”
Perhaps the Peach Bowl’s course to guaranteed prosperity would be to follow that of the Fiesta Bowl, which this year made a deal with a corporate sponsor and became the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl. Come to think of it, the “Coca-Cola Peach Bowl” does have a nice ring to it… . On the other hand, there’s the corporate vs. press battle in Sacramento, where the Sacramento Bee refuses to address the place in which the NBA Kings play as the “Arco Arena, ” for Atlantic Richfield, which paid $5 million for that and other rights… . Peachtree Road Race makes Runner’s World’s list of the country’s 25 best, no less than could be expected.
Oldest records still standing in the National Football League were all set the same day by the same man. On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers rushed for six touchdowns, kicked four extra points and scored 40 for the Chicago Cardinals against the Bears… . San Diego farm system is beginning to read like an oldtimers’ reunion, with such names as Roberto Clemente, Sandy and Roberto Alomar, and Jeff Cisco, all sons of onetime major leaguers of the same name, Cisco being son of the Padres’ pitching coach… . Name of the week: Matt Byrne, what else would you expect but a wrestler (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa).
I see the college basketball girls are fast adopting all the foul traits of the men. A Louisiana school is punished and a star is suspended, and a game between Hampton and Virginia Tech comes to an end after the gals get into a hair-pulling brawl. You know what they say, girls will be girls… . Here’s one fellow who doesn’t mind listening to his mother-in-law. Pat McGowan thinks he is the only touring pro in the PGA who takes lessons from his wife’s mother, who happens to be Peggy Kirk Bell, once an LPGA player of note and now a teacher of same… . Speaking of fast living and its effects on longevity, Sonny Jurgensen has this to offer: “All I know is, Richard Burton lived longer than Jim Fixx.”
A filly named Liz Taylor racing at Gulfstream in Florida was bred by the esteemed lady horsewoman, Liz Tippett, by Warm Front out of Restless Life, naturally… . What’s this? Pat Riley drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1967 because he was an outstanding end at Kentucky? So claims the Dallas Cowboys Weekly, which will note by checking that the Lakers coach never lettered in football at Kentucky. But his pa was an outstanding minor league baseball striker… . Here’s another one for the record book. Two fellows named Mike Novack and Billy Sharp strung a tennis racket in seven minutes and 27 seconds, which broke the old record, whatever it was. Usually takes about 45 minutes, if you’re not in a tearing rush.
Jack Nicklaus is taking the real estate plunge since he parted company with Chuck Perry, who ran the operation from Sandy Springs. He’ll open a Golden Bear Plaza in Florida, already has staked out ground in Colorado and New England, not to mention his new development in North Fulton… . They are having their financing troubles in Alabama to the point that Birmingham Turf Club has now conceded to accept out-of-state investors. Originally the horse track proposed to restrict investing to state residents only, keep out the Mafia and other shady characters, you see. The project already is running six months behind schedule… . “You know you’ve been on the road too long, ” says Dick Vandervoort, trainer for the Houston Rockets, “when you come home and dial 9 to get an outside number.” … Selah.
This column first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 7/5/1987.
By Furman Bisher
A seething multitude of 110, looking for nothing more than running room and considerate traffic, took off down Peachtree on the Fourth of July in 1970 to the rapt attention of nearly no one. They came from as far away as Austell and Stone Mountain to find obscurity, and did. No television. No radio. Just Tim Singleton’s baby, a little hoofing exercise put into motion by the Georgia State dean to attract a few of his friends.
Jeff Galloway won. A little ahead of the times, for sweating in public was still not popular among women, was Gayle Barron, fastest damsel in the crowd. She would make the race her private division for several years.
Seventeen years had passed. A pastime that became native to early man, running to catch his supper and running for his life, had become so socialized and organized that now they were hoofing it for dough, fame, contracts with shoemakers, headbands and short trousers and T-shirts with their names on them. They came from as far away as Kenya and New Zealand and Laramie, Wyoming, with names you couldn’t pronounce or spell.
The game, if you can call it that, has come so far that Craig Virgin, who once won it three times in a row, is working on another comeback.
Peachtree becomes international event
Mary Decker, later Slaney, fell here before she ever fell in the Olympics. Patty Lyons-Catalano was just another hyphenated female until she won here. The Boston Marathon came later. A mystery girl named Heather Carmichael won one year while the track people stumbled all over another trying to find out who she was.
Ed Leddy won the men’s race in 1975, and that not only gave the winner’s circle an Irish accent, but the staging folks began to get that international air. After that they came in a flood of foreign glamor, Allison Roe, Grete Waitz, Michael Musyoki, Filbert Bayi, John Doherty, and some who came and didn’t win, like Rob de Castella and Ibrahim Hussein.
But look coming around the turn, striding down the human lane formed by the spectators, and who was this? Some strange sound had been coming over the speaker since the leaders hit 14th Street, taking the lead from Bruce Bickford, a Massachusettsan, and Gidamas Shahanga, a Tanzanian from Cleveland, Ohio?
Nzau comes from off the charts to win
At least they were on the charts. This leader, though, a scrawny black man with slightly bunched shoulders, a moustache and wee chinbeard, rolled on in the name of anonymity.
"Joseph Nzau of Laramie, Wyoming, " a voice cried out as the little man crossed the finish threatened by no one. Joseph Nzau, a common everyday name you find around the streets of Cowboy Town, Wyo., of course. Once he had come to rest, towered over by his interviewers, Nzau told a story of rise and fall, another runner on a comeback, but at the age of 38. He was a late bloomer, discovered in Kenya and brought to Wyoming on a running scholarship when he was 28.
"I start running only when I am 25, " he said. "I come from the other side of the country where running is no big deal."
From the other side of the white highlands, from the other side of the Chalbi Desert, one is not to know. Once you have said Nairobi and Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is really on the border, you have said Kenya to most of us.
Nzau had come late and unannounced because he had lost his identity, and a shoe contract, when he developed a leg problem. He had been off the track so long he had no grounds for seeding. It is not as if he were running a course strange to him, though. He has finished in the top five here before, but this time he came as a man driven by necessity. He earned his degree at Wyoming in 1981 and now approaches his masters in agro-economics, then back to Kenya to help his country develop.
Nzau did the 10K in 28 minutes, 24 seconds, Shahanga, Bickford, Peter Koech and de Castella behind him, and further up the track a few old favorites and one-time winners. Now followed the masses, the rest of the field that came rolling off the start line at Lenox Square like a engulfing wave of human bodies, exactly 24,890 more than ran the first. Some serious, some for fun, some on a dare, some out of pride. The pride you could see in the eyes at the finish line, scanning the fenced-in watchers, saying to them, “I ran. I did it. You didn’t.”
Some crossed the line with wives or lovers, a team holding hands. Some came staggering and glassy-eyed. Old men, some bearded, some grey, some bald, some lean, some fat; women small and lissome, some large of bosom, some striding, some waddling. One large man, 230 pounds of untrained bulk, weaved unsteadily across the line, mounted a curb and found a small tree and held on until help came. He was last seen under a bale of cold towels in the medical tent.
After the race came the real contest, runners finding those who came for them, or with them among the hillside teeming with thousands at Piedmont Park, as if they’d come to be fed by a few loaves and five fishes. This is what happens when 25,000 who would be star athletes for a day get strung out with another 125,000 along the streets and in a park.
If there was a personal hero, make it the 74-year-old man from Miami who did the course in a wheelchair. Max Rose is the name, I think. You know, a Rose by any name, and so forth.