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Memories of a sports writer

In 1980, the sports editor of the paper at the time, Bruce Opheim, promoted me from writing about high school sports, which I had done for more than five years, to covering Wichita State sports.

It was a dream come true. I grew up a huge Shocker fan, never dreaming that I would one day be on the WSU beat. And it was a pretty good time to cover the Shockers. They had a decent football team and better-than-decent men’s basketball and baseball teams, with the likes of Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, Randy Smithson, Joe Carter and Phil Stephenson.

I was 25 at the time and, as it turns out, a little out of my league. I lasted only two seasons on the Shocker beat before the same guy who promoted me decided to demote me to the desk.

The desk!!!

Now, let me be the first to say that some of the finest journalists I have ever been around have worked the desk. But it wasn’t for me. I was devastated at losing the Shocker beat, which happened because I had been behind the “Kansas City Star” on a major NCAA infractions story. Never mind that our sports editor had been behind on that story, too.

I felt like a failure. I questioned my ability as a journalist. I wondered if I had a future in the business and doubted I would ever get a chance to cover a college beat again.

And, remember, I had been banished to the desk, where my job was editing stories, writing headlines and cutlines and, once in a while, laying out pages.

Some journalists flourish on the desk. They just have a knack for it and it fits their personalities. A good “desk man,” as we called them in the day, was worth a lot.

I wasn’t a good desk man. My heart was in writing, but I had been shamed. I remember crying like a baby in the third-floor stairwell at The Eagle shortly after getting the news while my buddy, John Murphy, tried to console me.

The only good thing about being on the desk was getting to work with Murphy and some other guys I really liked, including the one and only Gary Karr. I didn’t necessarily like the work all the time, but I enjoyed the guys I got to work with.

And over time, I became myself again. I had a strong personality clash with Opheim, though, and eventually requested to be moved out of sports in the fall of 1984 and into a section we had at the time called “Neighbors,” which devoted its coverage to zones. I started out in what I remember was the “C” zone, which was south Wichita. I wrote stories about almost everything you can imagine, from park board meetings to hamburger stands to guys who flew model airplanes.

Being in “Neighbors” was probably the best thing to happen to me in my journalism career, to that point. I had a great editor, Barry Holtzclaw, who was excited to have me. He helped me grow as a writer and, most importantly, as a reporter. I got all kinds of story assignments and before long I was impressing my new editors with the diversity of subjects of which I could write about. I threw myself into the challenge of learning new things.

My best moment in “Neighbors” was working on a series of stories about Wichita public school dropouts. It was my idea and it involved the kind of in-depth reporting I hadn’t done much of. It took weeks of work, but it was that series that really convinced me my mojo was back.

So what happened then?

I was moved to the news side in 1986 to cover the police beat. At first, I was excited about the possibility. But after a few months, I was miserable. My editor was new and not really engaged. I was productive, I suppose, but not passionate about the work I was doing. I kept hoping that eventually I could get back to sports. But I wasn’t holding my breath.

In the early part of 1987, after I had been covering the cops for about eight months, The Eagle decided it was going to produce a high school sports tabloid starting in the fall called “Score,” which would be distributed to our state readers each week. It didn’t circulate in Wichita, which was a bummer. But we had a strong presence in the state at the time and our readers fell in love with the product.

It required a lot of work. In fact, in all of my years at the newspaper, I have never worked harder. We had standing features, statistics, standings and a weekly cover story, which I often produced. There were a lot of people who contributed much to “Score,” including Duane Frazier and a couple of guys who are still at the paper, sports editor Kirk Seminoff and assistant sports editor Tom Seals.

I was fortunate that “Score” came along when it did and that the Eagle’s editor at the time, Buzz Merritt, allowed me to return to sports and work on that publication. I believe “Score” lasted for three or four years. Besides doing the tabloid, we also produced high school coverage for the city and the area, so there wasn’t much down time. But I was sad when “Score” was discontinued. For those of us who worked on it, I think I’m safe in saying it provided us with a lot of good memories.

Next week, I’ll pick up my career story after the dissolution of “Score.” The ride was just beginning.