It was a little over 24 years ago when I got the job as the second sports columnist at the News, replacing Donn Esmonde. I was still living in Brooklyn, finishing my time at New York Newsday, when I got a phone call from Buffalo. It was Larry Felser, calling ahead of time to welcome me to the News.
I was a little intimidated, I must admit. Felser was a sports writing icon, I knew that from an early age. His wrote an AFL column in the Sporting News when I was a teen-ager. The Sporting News was my Bible back then. Discovering it at 14 years old was the first event that inspired me to be a sports writer. All the columnists were legends to me. They were the first thing I read when the paper arrived in the mail.
I distinctly remember Larry saying one thing over the phone that day: "There's plenty of stories to go around. "He wanted to put me at ease and not feel as if I would be intruding on his turf. Over the years, I've seen a lot of petty behavior by out-of-town sports writers and columnists when a new guy showed up in town. That would never be the case with Felser. He wanted me to feel welcome. He was always there with advice and insight. He never once uttered a mean or disparaging word to me. He couldn't have known how much that meant to me.
Of course, it wasn't until I arrived in Buffalo that I realized just how big he was there. Everyone knew him. He was a legend who had covered the Bills from the very beginning, who knew Jack Kemp and O.J. Simpson and went to lunch with Ralph Wilson, who had covered every Super Bowl. But even more so, it was the stature he had achieved as THE local writer, the guy all the young sports fans turned to first before devouring the sports page as kids.
Larry always made me feel welcome in Buffalo. There was never any sense of rivalry between us. Readers would occasionally say, "You're no Larry Felser." I would laugh and think, "No kidding!" I was just happy to be in the same town, on the same paper, allowed to write about the Bills. No way could I measure up. I knew that. Larry Felser WAS Buffalo sports writing. He was the chronicler of the town's beloved Bills from the very start. The best I could do was try to live up to his standard the best I could.
Chuck Knox once said of Larry, "They don't make them like him anymore." That was so true. He was one of a kind, the product of a kinder and simpler era in sports journalism. He carried himself with a quiet dignity. Athletes trusted him. So did readers. At a time when people tweet their thoughts without filters and everyone wants to be the smartest guy in the room, it would be wise to remember Larry and journalists like him, who spent a day reporting and polishing a column that people read as if it were gospel.
Rest in peace, Larry. We all looked up to you as a role model. Not as just a great writer, but even more important as a great guy.