The Goal Line

If Blackie Sherrod's just another writer, then Wilt Chamberlain was just another center

Perhaps what made -- makes -- Sherrod's writing so remarkable is that he was never a fan; he never romanticized the games or the inner children who played them. He never lived or died with a ball club, not even the Fort Worth Cats, with whom he traveled for eight years during his tenure with the Fort Worth Press, before he moved to The Dallas Times Herald in the late '50s. "They were all buddies," he says, "but I never lost any sleep over a game. I never worried about it one way or another. You don't have time to worry about who won or lost the game."

Sherrod is intimidating even in semi-retirement, his estimable back catalog mocking from a distance. Here is a man who, in 1965, wrote of the beleaguered Don Meredith: "As every English-speaking person knows, the Cowboys quarterback sank the Lusitania, set fire to Whistler's mother, and bombed an orphanage last Sunday." In 1973, Sherrod wrote that in a perfect world, a fair world, Bob Hayes "should be forced to carry a small calf on his shoulder when he runs the dashes...Mark Spitz, in all fairness, would swim with a sea anchor...[and] Ella Fitzgerald must sing every note with a mouth full of Tootsie Rolls." Thirty-seven years ago, Sherrod also wrote what surely must have been the first column begging athletes to stay in college and get a diploma: "The average guy may find that sheepskin a handy showpiece after his legs tire out or the curve ball starts doing tricks."

Galloway cites an old Sherrod line about how if Wilt Chamberlain's just another tall center, then the Grand Canyon's just another ditch. But he was more than the sum of his one-liners: He wrote subtly, sincerely, compassionately about old heroes (Branch Rickey), young legends just in the making (Joe Namath), and journeymen whose names would be written in the margins of history (former Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron). And he never lost perspective about how sports was nothing more, nothing less than a game -- a pleasant distraction, if that.

"Sports dangle and amuse on the fringe of lives," he wrote on November 25, 1963, in the shadows of John Kennedy's assassination not far from the front door of where the Times Herald once stood on Griffin Street. "What is important is that there is such hate afoot in the world...such seared minds that shout insults at elected leaders, spit on people, and, yes, even press finger against trigger...It is civilization itself that's been penalized half the distance to the goal line."

It is unfortunate, then, that there does not exist a collection of Sherrod's work outside the slim Scattershooting collection published in 1975, during Sherrod's long tenure with the Times Herald. Sherrod himself has maybe two copies, somewhere in his garage. Among the hundreds of books that fill his office, and the thousands more that spill over into his home, a copy of the author's own book is deemed rather unimportant. And there will not be another forthcoming, since Sherrod does not believe in penning his autobiography. He doesn't believe his life is worth going to all that trouble.

Sherrod belongs to the generation of sportswriters who took the games seriously enough to find the humor in them. He and his peers were children of war, men who either fought in World War II themselves or watched as countless family members paraded off to serve their country. Sherrod is a decorated Navy plane gunner, and there is simply no way in hell a man who killed for his country will ever live or die with a sports team. He knows of life-and-death battles, and a 24-23 Sunday-afternoon showdown at Texas Stadium sure as hell ain't one of them.

"During the war, those were pretty grim times, and the people who lived through that didn't consider sports grim," Sherrod says of himself and his peers. "They couldn't take it seriously, so we never did. It was just fun. Then it became big money, grim, gritted teeth, beady-eyed -- nothing wrong with that, it was just a different atmosphere. I hope the young guys today have as much fun as we did, but I don't think so."

Sherrod does not offer advice to his young peers, does not seek them out and hand out brochures on How to Write a Sports Column. When Tim Cowlishaw took over for Galloway last year, the longtime Morning News beat writer went in and asked Sherrod if he had any advice. Sherrod responded: "If I am asked." According to Sherrod, that was the end of the conversation: Cowlishaw never asked, so Sherrod never offered.

But those who know him best insist Sherrod is being neither standoffish nor arrogant. He is, Galloway insists, a quiet and shy man who was "never comfortable with being famous, which, I believe, is the nicest thing I can say about anybody." Old friend and colleague Frank Luksa, whose own writing should be taught to all English-speakers, says Sherrod prefers the company of old friends and cold beers. Under those circumstances, there is no better storyteller in the whole world.

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