I was the interloper. I was from Oklahoma, by way of Vanderbilt and the Los Angeles Times, and I had the audacity to take on Dallas Times Herald columnist Blackie Sherrod, who was as hallowed on the Dallas sports skyline as Texas Stadium, the Cotton Bowl, and Tom Landry’s Hat.
This was October 1979. I was 27, Blackie 59. Several of my sportswriting elders warned me that taking the sports columnist job at the Dallas Morning News would be career suicide. Other young guns had tried to out-Blackie Blackie’s made-for-Texas style—to write the way Blackie wrote, only better. All had failed. Good Lord, the notes column he wrote for Sunday’s paper read better than Lonesome Dove. The two best sportswriters I’d ever read in magazines and books, Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, said Blackie was the best writer they’d ever read. For me, reading Blackie was like reading a foreign language I didn’t know but immediately understood.
Worse for his competitors, Blackie had a physical mystique. He looked like a former leading man in westerns who had retired to become a legendary columnist. He was a Brahman bull of a handsome man’s man with wavy, dark hair and a darker complexion that gave him a perpetual tan. He spoke few words with his gravelly growl, but you could trust those words would be wise or funny or both. I knew him well enough to speak to him before I took the Morning News job, and he continued to politely grunt hello as we sat next to each other at Super Bowls and World Series and Masters. He always finished before I did—he somehow composed literary prose as fast as he could type—and he once gave me a bit of advice as he left me on press row that I didn’t understand until years later. He said, “You makin’ another snake?” He meant I was writing too many words for a morning newspaper column. He was right.
I survived three years of competing against him and then one day found myself sharing his stage. Blackie’s bosses offered me far more money than I was making to join Blackie’s team. He surprised me by agreeing to do a TV commercial with me. In it, the two of us sat side by side at typewriters, facing the camera. He asked me to get him some coffee, and I shrugged and exited stage right. And Blackie said: “I think I’m gonna like this kid.”
I doubt he meant it. But Blackie Sherrod said it. About me. When I heard that he had died, I went numb and had to sit down. Never anything like him. Never will be.