It was in the penny-loafer era, May 1963, and my byline was about to appear in The Buffalo Evening News for the first time since I came over from the Courier-Express.
The night before, a farewell party for my predecessor, Jack Horrigan, was held at the Club 31. We had a good time. A rollicking good time. I was not in tip-top condition when I showed up for work the next morning.
Nevertheless, Charley Young, then the sports editor, picked that time to take me out of our sports department cubby hole in the old News building at Main and Seneca and up the stairs to the main newsroom to introduce me to Alfred H. Kirchhofer, the editor. AHK was in the process of retiring, but he was still the most formidable and feared man in Buffalo -- at least to politicians and News reporters.
Mr. Kirchhofer looked me over and offered a welcome of sorts. Since my tongue was still the consistency of a hockey puck, my reply was unintelligible, but somehow I escaped back to the cubby hole. A few days later, Dick Johnston, our hockey writer, told me that Charley was AHK's nephew. The timing of the introduction may have been Young's idea of a heart-stopping practical joke.
When we got back to our office, Young told me Rocky Marciano was in town and staying at the old Leisureland. My assignment was to call him for an interview. Rocky answered the room phone and his voice didn't sound much livelier than mine. "Larry," he said. "I had a tough night. I need to get a lot more sleep. Can we make it sometime tonight?"
"Champ," I replied. "I know exactly how you feel. I'll see you at 7:30." I dashed home and beat Marciano to sleep.
I've been lucking out ever since.
When I was the Bills beat writer for The News, my offseason assignment was local college basketball, then in its last great period. Bob Lanier was playing for St. Bonaventure and Calvin Murphy for Niagara, but as often as not I chose Buffalo State, where Randy Smith was performing feats of wonder while playing with Durie Burns, Butch Holt, Tom Borschel and Chris Fuller. The coach was Howie MacAdam, one of the best ever to work here.
At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, one of the last events I covered was the famed 3,000-meter battle between Mary Decker Slaney of the U.S. and Zola Budd, the barefoot South African who had been one of the most spotlighted runners of the year. Halfway through the race Slaney, with Budd on her heels, fell and was carried to the infield, sobbing. The American crowd booed Budd as she finished the race but there seemed to be more to it.
Luck was with me again. The manager of the British team, Nick Whitehead, is the brother of a friend of mine, Joan Doyle, wife of Supreme Court Justice Vinny Doyle. With a deadline descending, Whitehead put me with one of the British runners who was directly behind Budd and Slaney, and she gave me a competitor's-eye view of what actually happened.
The guardian angel of deadlines rode shotgun for me throughout my career. In Super Bowl VIII, Larry Csonka, the Miami fullback, was named the most valuable player. From where I sat, Csonka wasn't getting much resistance until he was four or five yards downfield. The reason was that Minnesota's Hall of Fame defensive tackle, Alan Page, was being controlled by Bob Kuechenberg, an unheralded guard.
That was the first Super Bowl in which huge tents were used for postgame interviews because of the restricted space in the dressing rooms. Csonka was mobbed, but I noticed that Kuechenberg was sitting off by himself on a wooden platform in the corner. I had hardly joined him when Kooch virtually began writing my story for me.
A few months later Don Shula confirmed to me that "Kooch was the best player on the field that day."
I've also been fortunate to be around some of the most unforgettable characters in sport. When Chuck Knox was coach of the Bills, you wouldn't get much out of him about his team but he was a great gatherer of information from around the NFL. When we used to fly with the team, Knox would roam around halfway through the trip home, stop at my aisle seat, lean over and tell me all sorts of useful stuff, all the time dribbling his scotch into my lap. Mike Dodd, sitting in the seat next to me, would suppress a giggle as he watched me collect puddles without a murmur since I was afraid to miss anything Knox said.
The season the Jets won the most unforgettable of all Super Bowls, Joe Namath had his most miserable day in War Memorial Stadium. He was intercepted four times, three for touchdowns, including Tommy Janik's 100-yard return. The Bills won, 37-35. It was their only victory that season.
In the New York dressing room afterward, Namath sat with his head bowed between his knees, running his hands through his hair in anguish. All he kept saying was, "I stink. I stink. I stink."
For all the unforgettable events I've covered, the best times were in the company of men I'll always call my friends: Jim Kelley, the South Buffalo bon vivant, in Montreal, Boston, Quebec City or anywhere else during the NHL playoffs; Milt Northrop, Buffalo's most-experienced party animal; Vic Carucci when he drove the getaway car; Dick Johnston, an urbane guide and master story teller; and, lately, two stars on the rise, Mark Gaughan and Allen Wilson, who made an old crock feel younger.
When I was about 5 years old, my father took me down to the old Broadway Auditorium to see my first wrestling match. Steve "Crusher" Casey vanquished the Swedish Angel. As Casey made his triumphant way down the aisle he reached over and hoisted me atop his shoulders. I promptly wet my pants.
From that moment on, sports was my destiny.
It's been my honor to have you for readers. This isn't goodbye, however. In a few weeks I'll be back in this space on most Sundays. Until we meet again, thank you.