Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Van Thomas

In late November, 1970, the White Oak Roughnecks were undefeated, ranked second or third in the state and about to enter a deep run into the Conference A state playoffs. I was a decent enough starting wide receiver and cornerback on that team, and we were all full of ourselves — smalltown heroes with pretty girlfriends and fawning parents and cool teachers who knew better than to saddle us with too much homework.
It was everything it's made out to be. Of course, you can say the same about a fibrous tumor. Both are benign until they grow so large as to, as the physicians say, "overexpress themselves."
At any rate, one afternoon, at the end of practice, the sports editor of the local daily newspaper, Van Thomas, cornered me and said something along the lines of, "I read your story (in the high school paper). When this season's over, you should swing by the office. We might be able to find a job for you."
Well, the season ended two weeks before Christmas on a frigid Friday night in a 7-6 loss to Pflugerville, one game short of a shot at the state championship. Of course, we were devastated. Our girlfriends and our moms cried, and most of our dads tried to console us and place it all in perspective, which wasn't entirely necessary. Soon enough, the fall semester ended, and we turned our thoughts to Christmas and New Year's and other sports and the final slog toward graduation — not to mention all the homework our teachers were inexplicably assigning.
In time, I accepted Van's offer and made an appointment to meet him at his cluttered mess of a desk in the front right corner of the dank, nicotine-caked newsroom. I wore my new gold crushed-velvet blazer that I bought to have my senior portrait taken in, which Van was polite enough not to laugh at. Instead, he nursed a cigarette and explained what he and the other sportswriters did and  how I might fit in. He then introduced me around the office by my first name like I was a favorite nephew just back from the war with my arm in a sling.
I don't recall him offering me a job, but a few nights later, I called in my first story: White Oak falls to West Rusk in non-district basketball game
The piece was no longer than three paragraphs. No quotes. No official stats. Just a final score and a line or two how White Oak had squandered a 10 point lead going into the fourth quarter. 
The best thing about the story? It carried my name in the byline. "By Bobby Hawthorne, Special Correspondent."
If I wasn't insufferable enough before, I certainly was after.
Over the next four years, I would write at least another 100 stories for the News-Journal. My freshman and sophomore years at Kilgore College, I took 16-18 hours per semester and worked upwards of 40 hours a week at the newspaper, covering high school games, keeping stats for the Kilgore College beat writer, and knocking out three or four or more stories a week in between.
I wasn't very good, but I was reliable and willing to learn from my many mistakes, and by the time I left in the fall of 1973 to attend the University of Texas at Austin, I mostly knew what I was doing.
I also knew I would major in journalism.
I knew I would be a reporter.
I knew I had a job as a sports reporter when I finished at UT because I had learned how to pound out a clean and coherent story on deadline.
I learned to listen to the older guys, to accept their advice and to read their stuff because it was better than mine.
I learned how to overcome my natural timidity and talk to coaches and players and get them to say something more than boilerplate bullshit.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned the tribal customs and rituals of a newspaper newsroom.
In particular, I knew to never interrupt Van while he writing, especially on deadline.
I knew that whatever Van said to or screamed at me or to anyone else in a flash of red-faced anger or frustration was forgotten 10 or 15 minutes later.
I knew Van had my back — like the time when I dared to predict that White Oak would lose to New Diana in a pivotal district football game. At the pep rally, the Roughneck coach held up the Longview sports page and pointed to my story and called me a traitor. That evening, as I sauntered up to the press box, I heard a sprinkling of boos, but I assumed they were aimed at the officials or the New Diana coaches. They weren't. They were directed at me by people I knew, people who I thought were my friends.
I brushed it off, but it stung, even after I realized it brought me a dose of notoriety I found useful in dealing with the local thugs and ne'er-do-wells.
When I told Van about it, he laughed and asked, "Well, was your prediction right?"
He knew it was. New Diana throttled them.
So, he took a slow drag on his cigarette, nodded at me, wheeled around and walked off, and I came to understand what he was teaching me: In this  job, if you want a friend, get a dog.

• • •

Van died October 10, 2014, at the age of 81, not more than a month after telling me he wanted to cover the Livingston football team at least one more season.
"You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t,” he said, then proved it so.
I suppose that will be the last lesson Van Thomas taught me. I hope I'm smart enough and wise enough to heed his advice. At any rate, here's the column:

• • •

For only the second time since 1961, Van Thomas didn’t make it to coaching school. He had planned to go to San Antonio, but it was hot and he’d just returned from Austin where he was working on a story about the dismissal of a local boy from the UT football team. Van said he sympathizes with the young man but, darn it, the kid seems as talented at finding trouble as he is the end zone.
Van was also peeved at the NCAA for abruptly barring college coaches from speaking at high school coaching clinics like the THSCA’s. It’s all big business now, and Van realizes it, but he misses the old days, as old men are apt to do.
Van turned 81 recently. He has covered East Texas high school athletics for 55 years plus. Red-headed, flat-topped and freckled, he moved to Texas in the spring of ‘61 by way of northeast Arkansas and northern California, landing first in Henderson, then moving to Longview, then to Nacogdoches, and finally to Livingston, where for the past 36 years, he’s written his twice-a-week “Once Over Lightly” column for the Polk County Enterprise.
The column is full of sports flotsam, homespun humor and innocent gossip. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t mention this interview to his readers, not a one of whom know me. When Van is finished, they’ll feel as if they do.
Van said he thinks about retiring and would if it weren’t for the kids.
“I still love getting to know them,” he said. “Many of them will never have their name or picture in the paper again. This is their one shot.”
Of course, he’s encountered hundreds of fabulous athletes over the years and has a story about almost every one. Among the best: Big Sandy’s Lovie Smith, White Oak’s Mike Barber, Palestine’s Bill Bradley and Henderson’s Joe Wylie.
He said he needled Smith after Big Sandy ran up 100 points against some hapless opponent. He claims he had a hand in Wylie’s decision to attend Oklahoma over Arkansas — his alma mater. “Joe was one of the smartest kids I ever met, and I told him I thought OU was a better fit,” Van said.
Of course, Van spoke at length about Longview’s James Street, who might have attended Arkansas had the Razorback coaches taken his advice and offered him a scholarship. Van said he asked Frank Broyles if he planned to pursue Street, and Broyles replied, “Who all is interested in Street?’”
“Looks like it’s you and Texas,” Van said.
“Well, I tell you what,” Broyles said. “I’m going to let ol’ Darrell have him.”
We know how that turned out.
Van loves telling these stories, and over the course of an interview that stretched almost two hours, he told so many that I couldn’t mention them all if I committed to a two-volume biography. And they’re not all about sports. He described in great detail his 1967 trip to Saigon to write about a three-wheeled, 100-ton jungle-crusher built in Longview by LeTourneau.
But mostly, he talked about high school players and coaches, with whom he forged long and deep friendships, and that’s made the recent deaths of Street and Robert Newhouse of Hallsville and Rodney Thomas of Groveton particularly painful.
“James’ death broke my heart,” Van said. “I loved him like a brother.”
The same is true of Thomas.
“I almost adopted Rodney,” he said. “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”
Van said he plans to cover the Livingston team again this fall. His health is good enough, he says, even though he smoked a pack or two of Benson & Hedges a day until he went cold turkey in January of 1983. But he’s not kidding himself.
“Eighty-one, well, that’s getting up there,” he said. “You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t.”
I wish I could have interviewed him in person. His staccato laugh seems an octave higher today than what I remember from my days as a young sportswriter in Longview, and I tried to picture him as he surely is now: a flat-topped and freckled ruddy old man, a little hunched and pudgy and jowly but sweet blue eyes still dancing behind his black, horned-rim glasses. I hope he has at least one more season in him before he and “Once Over Lightly” hang it up.