Purdy: My five best and worst assignments

Purdy: My five best and worst assignments

Mark Purdy, who has been a sports columnist for this newspaper since 1984, will retire from that job in August. He is writing a series of columns recounting the most memorable elements of his four decades as a sports journalist. This time: Best and worst assignments.

For a sportswriter, that first big assignment is really something. Your first plane flight to cover a game? So exciting. My first was to a football game in Pittsburgh. And my bosses paid for it! I felt as if I had arrived in the business.

Hundreds more flights followed. Gradually, they became less exciting. Well, one still was–and ironically, it was another trip to Pittsburgh. On approach, the landing grear failed to drop. The captain walked down the aisle, peeled up the carpet to crawl inside the fuselage, then manually cranked down the wheels. He returned to the cockpit and warned us to prepare for a possible bad outcome in case the wheels didn’t hold. Emergency crews lined the runway. We braced ourselves.

At this point, my journalist companion on the flight, a witty pro football scribe named Ray Buck, turned to me and said: “You know, Purd, if this plane goes down, they’ll list the victims alphabetically. So my name will appear before yours in the obituary.”

That’s sportswriter humor for you. I forced a laugh. We landed . . . gently, safely and not alphabetically. We left by the emergency exit, took a taxi to the stadium and covered the game. Another day on the job. Assignments are assignments. I’ve had some great ones and lousy ones. You go where they send you. I never complained. I always found interesting stories.

Once, the big boxing matches were my favorite trips.You can ask anyone who’s been to a major fight in Las Vegas. The mojo in the days leading up to the event is unmatched, with celebrities wandering around — hey, is that Dustin Hoffman entering the elevator? — and the sharpies flying in from both coasts to lay down cash at the betting windows. Pinky rings proliferate. Smarmy perfume odors ooze. By the night of the main event, when spotlights hit the ring and only the two fighters and referee are left inside to settle business  . . . it’s just hard to match.

Mike Tyson, right, delivers a powerful blow to Trevor Berbick in the second round Nov. 22, 1986, in Las Vegas. Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion shortly after with a TKO. 

Those moments used to happen frequently, back when fighters were household names. Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Aaron Pryor . . . all rich personalites. But no boxer was a more arresting column subject than Mike Tyson. When he dominated the heavyweight division, Tyson was a must-see magnet. Chaos reigned in his entourage. One hotel clerk told me that when housekeeping crews cleaned the rooms on Tyson’s floor, they were ordered to pull their carts inside rooms while doing their work. If left in the hallway, the carts would be defoliated.

After one Vegas fight, I wound up at a hotel lounge with Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo writer. A mutual friend introduced us. Many drinks followed, as well as an extended conversation that touched on the “Ben Hur” film soundtrack, leeches and the NFL. I’ll leave it at that. As the night wore on, singer Wayne Newton and boxer Leon Spinks passed through the bar. Spinks’ had a bizarre-looking bodyguard named Laurence Turead. He would later be known as “Mr. T.”  What a scene. More drinks were consumed. The next morning, I was extremely hung over.

In retrospect, I guess that night would qualify as both a “best” and “worst” work experience.

Yet incredibly, as I went over the last four decades to select my five best and worst assignments, I found myself leaving all boxing events off either list. There was too much other stuff. Both ways. But we’ll start with my least delightful assignments. Here they were:


This was the shortest distance I ever traveled to cover a story. It’s also a story I wished I’d never had to cover. Tillman, the San Jose native and Arizona Cardinal safety who left the NFL to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, perished on duty in Afghanistan in the spring of 2004. He was a victim of friendly fire under circumstances that remain up for debate because of the government’s botched handling of his case.

** FILE ** Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo, released by Photography Plus. Investigators probing the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of former football star Pat Tillman found no criminal negligence, a government official said Monday, March 26, 2007.<br />(AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE) ** NO SALES ** 

Tillman’s public MEMORIAL SERVICE was held at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, within blocks of my house. So I strolled over with my notebook to try and capture the most raw emotional event I’ve witnessed. Around 2,000 people attended. Fifteen satellite trucks were parked on the street. Radio host Jim Rome emceed. Sen. John McCain spoke. Then the people who truly knew Tillman stood up to speak. It was riveting.

“Thank you for coming,” said his brother Richard, holding a Guinness beer in his hand. “But with all respect to those who have been up here before me, Pat’s not with God. He’s not religious. He’s dead. It was amazing to be his little brother.”

“If Pat were here today,” said Paul Ugenti, a high school friend, “he would be saying, ‘Get off your ass and get hold of yourselves.’ ”

Jake Plummer, Tillman’s teammate in Arizona, gave the most touching remarks when he talked about the philosophical discussions the two men had.

“You’d walk away from one of those sessions and say to yourself, ‘Man, I’ve got to become more of a thinker.’ ” said Plummer. “To me, the saddest part of all is to not know what he planned next.”

My personal belief is that had he lived, Tillman would have settled in San Jose after his football retirement and either run for office or started up a company. After the MEMORIAL SERVICE that day, I walked home and wrote: “Tillman’s 10th high school reunion would have been this summer. It will now happen without him. Guinness will be consumed. Stories will be told about an honest man who would have been proud of what his honest friends said Monday.”


Do I really need to explain? The NFL has come to dominate our athletic culture so completely–and admittedly, does provide its share of thrilling moments–that we tend to forget how the league also produces two of the least compelling regularly scheduled concepts known to modern spectator sports: Preseason exhibition games and the annual college draft.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – APRIL 27: (L-R) Solomon Thomas of Stanford poses with Commissioner of the National Football League Roger Goodell after being picked #3 overall by the San Francisco 49ers (from Bears) during the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on April 27, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) 

Yes, it’s a crime that the 49ers and Raiders and every other team in the league forces season ticket holders to purchase seats for games that mean nothing. But at least there’s some football action involved. You can’t say the same for the draft, which has grown from a one-day event into a three-night prime time production where people . . . stand up and read off names.  That’s it. Despite all the bells and whistles, that’s it.

I understand how the ramifications of draft night can be significant. I understand that intrigue is involved with trades and moves. But the bottom line is,  you never truly know how a rookie draft pick will do until he is on the field competing with NFL players. Analyzing the success of a team’s draft five minutes after it ends is a fool’s errand. You’re throwing darts.  It takes at least two or three years before you can draw real conclusions. The draft happens in late April. Every year, I pulled for the Warriors and Sharks to go far enough in the playoffs so that I could avoid covering the name-reading. Thank you, Warriors and Sharks, for recently never letting me down.


You may be surprised to find this hallowed event on my “worst assignment” list. But the answer lies in a question many people never ask themselves: “Gee, did you ever notice something different about Masters telecasts compared to every other major golf championship? There are no overhead blimp shots. Why is that?”

Defending Masters’ champion Adam Scott, of Australia, helps Bubba Watson, left, with his green jacket after winning the Masters golf tournament Sunday, April 13, 2014, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) 

I can tell you why. The poobahs that run Augusta National don’t want you to know that across the street from their cherished course are a Circle K convenience store and Jay’s Music Super Center. Just down the road are four or five tattoo parlors.  The simple truth is that while inside Augusta’s gates is one of the world’s most beautiful golf courses, outside the gates is a city that (sorry, Augustans) is a distinctly non-glamorous city. It mostly serves a nearby army base and is not exactly stocked with first class hotel rooms. Once, making a late reservation, I wound up in a place where I’m fairly certain that heroin was being shot up down the hall.

Also, I never felt quite comfortable with the Masters’ elitist nature. My preferred golf tournaments are the US Open and British Open, in which anyone on earth can attempt to earn a spot through a series of qualifying events. The Masters’ elders set up a limited field to their liking through a series of  “standards” that often wind up excluding great up-and-coming players. This gives the Masters the weakest field of the four major championships but almost always provides the tournament with a well-known winner.

The first Masters I covered, in 1975, was also the first Masters in which an African-American (Lee Elder) was invited to play. That was 11 years after the congressional Civil Rights Act. Lee Trevino used to change his shoes in the parking lot instead of the locker room because he felt uncomfortable in the clubhouse. I assume that vibe has changed, now that the Augusta members have begun to admit women and minorities. I wouldn’t know. About 20 years ago, I began declining the Masters assignment from my bosses. I knew we should send people who were far more excited to go than I was.


This, too, may be a surprise entry. My passion for postseason baseball and hockey is well known–but that’s as a viewer or a paying customer. For a writer on deadline, nothing is worse than a baseball playoff game that goes into extra innings or a hockey game that goes into sudden-death overtime.

Football and basketball can go into extra periods, as well. But it happens very infrequently in the NFL. And in NBA games, there’s so much scoring that a multi-overtime game is a rarity. In baseball, with no clock, a game could theoretically last forever. And it’s always a long slog through each inning with the deadline clock ticking. In hockey, there’s a different problem. The sudden-death component means the game could end instantly, which means writers must simultaneously compose two stories (one if the home team wins, one if it loses) and possibly three (if the desk needs a story that says “at press time, the game was still not decided.”).

This explains why, in the late innings or extra periods with writers pounding away, the most common phrase heard in the press box after a crowd roar is: “What happened?”  We scribes look up from our keyboards and hope there’s a decent replay. Does anyone recall that 2014 playoff game between the Giants and Nationals in Washington D.C. that went 18 innings and lasted six hours and 23 minutes? It’s still the longest postseason baseball game in history. It was an open press box.  As the night wore on, the temperature dropped into the low 50s or high 40s. I hadn’t brought a heavy jacket. I tried to type with gloves. Couldn’t. The game finally ended well past midnight after a Brandon Belt home run. I wound up writing my column about unheralded Giants’ reliever Yusmeiro Petit. He sat in the chilly bullpen for 11 innings and admitted his fingers were “numb” when he was called upon in the bottom of the 12th.

“The first hitter, I wasn’t feeling the ball,” said Petit, who would save the Giants’ bacon by going six innings and allowing just one hit. Great story. I had about 10 minutes to write it. Against all odds, it was in complete sentences and in English.

The Sharks’ equivalent of that game occurred in 2008 in their own longest game ever, a four-overtime playoff defeat in Dallas. The beloved Los Tiburoneslost when defenseman Brian Campbell, on his 68th shift of the evening, committed a penalty and gave the Stars a power play which they converted. It ended the series. In a silent postgame dressing room, a drained Campbell said: “There’s not much I can feel about it.” I rushed upstairs to get that quote in my final edition column, which was barely comprehensible. Another perfect example of how I could love and hate my job in equal measure.


Wow, did I create a ruckus in January 2004 when the Super Bowl was played in Houston for the first time in more than 30 years. The lead of my first column that week was: “Yikes. Get me out of here.”

Oakland Raiders’ Austin Howard (77) gestures to the fans as he returns to the locker room after losing to the Houston Texans during their AFC West Wild Card round game at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Houston defeated Oakland 27-14. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

No, that wasn’t subtle. But everyone who travels has favorite road cities and non-favorite road cities. Houston was my most non-favorite. Lots of people live there, so the city must be a decent place to raise a family. For a business trip, however, Houston has terrible logistics. The city’s major airport is a long hike from downtown. The downtown hotels are far away from the football stadium. And driving between any of these places, the freeway traffic is horrible. In the summer, the weather is oppressively humid. In the winter, it can be rainy and windy.

As I opined: “Every time someone says San Jose is spread out and haphazardly planned, I tell them to visit Houston. There are no real zoning laws. You can motor down a street and pass a barbecue joint, followed by a church, followed by a nice apartment complex, followed by a strip club, followed by a public library, followed by a tattoo parlor. It’s like driving through a city designed by the stoner teens in “That ’70s Show.”

When local residents read these words, they were not amused. I wound up having to go on local television to defend myself, not entirely successfully. On my latest trip to Houston, for the Raiders’ playoff game last January, I noted that the downtown is a little more lively. I still plan no vacations there in retirement.

Now, here is the happier portion of the program with my five all-time most favorite assignments:


More than once over the years, I have told the tale of how I wound up coming face-to-face with Fidel Castro at a bowling alley in Havana. The details were so preposterous, you couldn’t make them up.

The 1991 Pan Am Games — basically the western hemisphere Olympics — were a chance for Cuba to show off itself to the world as the event’s host. Except the country was in a profound recession/depression. The sports venues were not first rate with the exception of a brand new bowling alley that had been built for the Games. Castro was famous for not announcing his daily schedule in advance (so that no one could be in waiting to harm him) and one day he decided to take in the bowling competition. He wanted the best seats, which happened to be in the press row.

As applause broke out at Fidel’s entrance, we were ordered to move. As I made my way to the end of the aisle, there he was.  I made meaningful eye contact as he passed me and plopped down in my exact spot. That became the lead of my column: “Fidel took my seat.” With a Havana dateline, I figured that would get people to the second paragraph.

The Castro encounter was hardly my only Havana adventure. This was in the era when Cuba was officially closed to Americans, so it was a fascinating time to be there. As journalists, we were trailed almost everywhere we went by “security people” on scooters. But one day, myself and a friend from the Los Angeles Times rented bicycles and purposely headed the wrong way down one-way streets to successfully evade our followers and talk to some average Cubans without monitors nearby. We also tracked down the home where A’s slugger Jose Canseco and his brother lived as toddlers before their parents took them to America.  Across the street was a woman who was married to Jose’s cousin.

“Yes, I remember Jose and his twin brother, Osvaldo,” she told us. “They were cute. I hear Jose is very famous now. That’s great. I’m glad, because he has done me no harm. But we haven’t been interested in him and he hasn’t been interested in us. There’s been no communication between us.”

Her words made me sad. I’m not sure if, with the new USA-Cuba diplomatic initiatives, the Canseco family has reconnected. I’m hoping so.


The Rose Bowl is my favorite annual sports event.  New Year’s Day in Pasadena is a sublime sports experience, aesthetically and competitively. But as a columnist, it was not my favorite event to cover. That would be the Super Bowl, which is the country’s most-watched sporting event and also the craziest to cover, thanks to the sponsorship circus it has become and the relentless hype drum pounded by the NFL.  I knew that whatever I wrote would draw readers’ interest.

Thus, I doggedly plowed through Media Day, where cable television “reporters” from MTV or the SyFy channel wearing costumes vie to throw out the first stupid questions of the week and always succeed. Early on, the zoolike atmosphere frustrated me. Then I realized that covering the Super Bowl was really not about journalism. It was a business transaction between the NFL (which used football to sell advertisers’ products) and those of us in the media (which used stories about the Super Bowl to sell advertisements on their broadcasts or websites or newspaper pages). Once I accepted that fact, I could relax and roll with it by finding off-the-beaten path angles that didn’t involve interviewing a nose tackle.

Fireworks explode over a colorful Super Bowl 50 halftime show in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group Archives) 

One example: Before Super Bowl XXII in San Diego, I visited Tijuana to talk with a bullfighter there who had also played some football wide receiver at his high school. He told me that football was far tougher than bullfighting because (A) there’s only one bull as opposed to 11 tacklers and (B) bulls never blindside you.

Another example: At Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, renowned for having the most strip clubs per capita of any American city,  I decided to visit one and get some predictions from the dancers. (They also told me which players had visited their club.) The matchup that year was Ravens vs. Giants.  A performer named Dawn told me she was sure the Giants would win.

“But that’s because I’m anti-Trent Dilfer,” she said, referring to the Ravens’ quarterback. “We trained him here when he was with the Buccaneers and then he goes off and takes another team to the Super Bowl.”

Nothing is more bitter than a bitter stripper football analyst. And of course, Dawn was nakedly wrong. Dilfer and the Ravens did win. I eagerly covered more than 30 other Super Bowls, none more enjoyable than Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. That day, I put down the top on my convertible and took surface streets to Levi’s Stadium with absolutely no traffic issues or tie-ups. That’s a story my grandchildren will never believe.


Australian 4 X 200 Relay team jumps into the pool to acknowledge the hometown crowd’s applause after they set a new world record and winning the gold medal on Tuesday September 19, 2000 at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Left to right, Todd Pearson, Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe, and William Kirby. 

I pulled off the best scam of all time in 1987 when I convinced my newspaper’s bean counters that I should be sent to Perth for the America’s Cup yacht races. Then and now, there aren’t a ton of yacht racing fans in the Bay Area.

However, my pitch was this: At a slow time of year (February), our readers would glom onto the brave story about USA skipper Dennis Conner’s attempt to wrest back the America’s Cup from the Australians who had defeated Conner four years earlier–the first-ever defeat for the United States in the Cup competition.

My ulterior motive, of course, was to get to Australia. I’d always been fascinated by the country and wanted to see it in person. Much to my shock, the bosses bought my pitch. And I was off to the West Coast of Oz. It didn’t disappoint. Neither did the event. Because of the time difference, my daily deadline was 1 p.m., so after covering each race in the morning, I filed my copy and could spend the rest of the day drinking beer and/or going to the beach.

Conner wound up sweeping the Aussies and I ended up having a blast. The story angles kept rolling in. One day there was a bomb threat on the water during the race, which made no sense. Another day, singer Jimmy Buffett showed up on Conner’s dock, which made perfect sense. On one off day, I visited park where you could hold a koala (they’re not cuddly). Australia is a sports-loving country where Americans are mostly loved. When the 2000 Olympics were awarded to Sydney, I couldn’t wait to return.

Those Games were also a kick. The Aussie sense of humor showed itself in the Opening Ceremonies, which featured a tribute to outlaw Ned Kelly and a “lawn mower dance.” I took a train to Canberra though herds of kangaroos to cover a soccer game, then dove into the many performance-enhancing substance abuse rumors that dominated those Games. Most famously, the rumors involved USA sprinter Marian Jones. One morning at my hotel, I woke up to find a news conference taking place downstairs that involved an “expert” who debunked any notion that Jones was juicing. That was the first time I met Victor Conte, who would later become Barry Bonds’ cream and clear provider. Jones was later stripped of her five Sydney medals after admitting to steroid use.

Mainly, I just enjoyed the Aussie days and nights, feeling fortunate to be there for the nation’s biggest moments in the sun. New Orleans is my favorite American road city and Sydney tops that. I’d go back anytime. If only they’d move the Rose Bowl game Down Under.


When people ask which of the 14 Olympic Games that I covered were the best, I never hesitate to name this one. Barcelona, a beautiful place, also had a beautiful plan. The sports venues were integrated throughout the city. You would pass by an amazing cathedral or art museum on the way to track and field or weightlifting. In subsequent years, the preferred model has been an “Olympic Park,” usually on the outskirts of town, that contains seven or eight or more stadiums or arenas situated around a giant plaza and surrounded by a high fence to ensure greater security. But inside that fence, shut off from the city, you could be anywhere. In Barcelona, you always knew you were in Barcelona.

Pablo Morales of Santa Clara, CA, swims the 100-meter butterfly to take the gold medal during competition at the Barcelona Olympics July 28, 1992. 

Also, from Day One, the Games of 1992 rolled out column topics on a conveyer belt. At the Opening Ceremonies, the Olympic torch was ignited by a paralympic archer who shot a flaming arrow from the ground level up to the six-story high structure that housed the cauldron. It’s still the coolest torch-lighting method I’ve ever witnessed.

When the competition began, South Bay swimmer Pablo Morales won a gold medal and female athletes such as Gail Devers in track and field and a 13-year-old Chinese diver named Fu Mingxia were dazzling. The original basketball Dream Team from the USA with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — and Chris Mullin — wowed the European crowds who treated the whole group like rock stars.

But I’ll also remember a Cal swimmer named Ron Karnaugh, who experienced a horrible tragedy when his father had a heart attack at the Opening Ceremonies and died in the stadium as his son was marching around the track. Karnaugh decided to compete anyway and walked to the starting block wearing a large floppy hat. After an emotionally drained Karnaugh finished sixth in his race, a more than acceptable result under the circumstances, I asked him about the hat.

“It’s the hat that my dad was wearing in the stadium the other night,” said Karnaugh, who then spoke about how much his blue-collar father had given up so that Ron could pursue his swimming excellence.

I’ll admit I was blinking my eyes. The Olympic grind can wear you down during 17 consecutive days of 14-hour work shifts, But the grind also gives you the opportunity to tell readers the story of Ron Karnaugh, who is now a physician in New Jersey. And the grind thoughts vanish completely.


I guess it’s kind of cheating to put him in this category, because no boss ever technically “assigned” me to write about Wedemeyer. I would just assign it to myself when I wanted to be inspired.

In 1977 when Wedemeyer was a young high school football coach in Los Gatos, a doctor diagnosed his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctor told Charlie he had less than three years to live. Wedemeyer ended up having 64 birthdays until he died in 2010. As I wrote in a column that day, he was atop my rankings for the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. And everyone else was in eighth place.

I Former Los Gatos High School football coach CHARLIE WEDEMEYER gets a kiss from his wife Lucy at the 32nd annual All Star game held at Spartan Stadium in July 2007. Wedemeyer passed away in June after a 32 year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hundreds of former players and admirers turned out for Wedemeyer’s MEMORIAL SERVICE that was held at HP Pavilion to celebrate his life. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News) 

I still can’t fathom how Charlie and his wife, Lucy, persevered through all those years with his disease. They were simply determined to keep living and do whatever they could to make other people feel better about their own lives. By 1983, the ALS had taken away Charlie’s ability to speak. But the Wedemeyers worked out an arrangement for Charlie to coach his Los Gatos team from a golf cart and relay his play calls through Lucy to the field.

The unique method worked, with the cooperation of his assistant coaches. Los Gatos won a sectional championship. The victory served as the climax of a television movie made about Wedemeyer’s life. The principal told Wedemeyer he could stay as head coach as long as he wished — except that three years later, the principal changed his mind and gave the job to one of Charlie’s assistants. I went out to visit the Wedemeyers and write about it but was surprised to find that Charlie wasn’t angry.

“I am disappointed,” he told me with Lucy reading his lips.”But you have to accept it, grow with it and move on.”

So he did. The Wedemeyers began raising money that awarded scholarships to students who had overcome challenges. They flew to Europe where Charlie gave motivational speeches. They became involved with a local high school all-star football game that still bears Charlie’s name. I could usually find a pretext to write a column about him based on one of those efforts, but I primarily  enjoyed visiting with Charlie when we could gab about football– the 49ers or Raiders or the instant replay rule. He hated it.

“They should just play the game,” Charlie told me.

No one played the game of life better than him, right up until his death. He’s not the only inspirational person I’ve interviewed. There have been Special Olympians, athletes who have survived cancer or persevered through personal tragedies. Charlie, though, was always there when I wanted to feel better about humanity. I covered a lot of unforgettable stuff over the years in this job I’m soon exiting. But the best part about that job was meeting people like Charlie. It was the best assignment of all.

Source : http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/07/28/purdy-my-five-best-and-worst-assignments/

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