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Remembering sports writing great and mentor Furman Bisher

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Hall of Fame sports columnist Furman Bisher, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, passes away. (Getty Images)  
Hall of Fame sports columnist Furman Bisher, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, passes away. (Getty Images)  

ATLANTA -- To those of us who worked with Furman Bisher, admired him and, yes, loved him, it never seemed possible that we would lose him to something as pedestrian as Death.

I always thought that when Death came to claim Bisher, he would tell the son of a bitch to get the hell out of his room. He had a column to write.

But last Sunday, the man who knew Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Bobby Jones, Hank Aaron and every other major sporting figure in the last half of the 20th century, and who mentored several generations of sports writers (this one included), died of a heart attack at the age of 93.

And Saturday they turned out en masse at the Northwest Presbyterian Church to remember a man who, quite simply, was one of the greatest sports writers this nation has ever produced. Those who came to say goodbye were a Who's Who of the sporting world: Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National; Hall of Fame football coach Vince Dooley; former Georgia Tech, Alabama, and Kentucky coach Bill Curry, now the head coach at Georgia State; Jim Nantz of CBS, who is in town to call Sunday's South Regional championship game between Kentucky and Baylor.

There were dozens of his newspaper colleagues who came to say goodbye and to trade their favorite "Bisher stories," of which there are thousands.

So who was James Furman Bisher? I beg your indulgence for a few minutes because most of this will be personal.

I should first tell you that the sheer volume of his work is staggering. In 1950 he came here as the sports editor and columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. Bisher wrote his first column on a Royal manual typewriter owned by famed Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill. Some 59 years and over 15,000 columns later, Bisher put his laptop computer away and wrote his last column for the AJC on that same typewriter. That typewriter remains in his home office in Fayetteville, Ga.

"It's simple," said Jim Minter, the great former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who eulogized Bisher on Saturday, "In the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, nobody wrote more quality words for newspapers -- sports or otherwise -- than Furman Bisher."

Despite the quantity of his work, Bisher was all about quality. Name your sports writers Hall of Fame: Red Smith, Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Frank DeFord would certainly be included. Bisher could write as well as any of them. They knew it and so did he. His ability to craft the language would make grown men weep, as we all did when Bisher wrote about the death of his son, Roger, at the age of 44. I could tell you that in 1950 he covered his first Masters golf tournament and decided Augusta National was the most beautiful place on Earth. That feeling would never change. He would go on to cover the event for 62 consecutive years. When I last spoke to Bisher, he was concerned that a bad back and subsequent surgery might keep him from his familiar spot in the press room at Augusta for No. 63. On several occasions I was honored to walk the course with him. He knew every blade of grass on that hallowed ground and every golfer made it a point to know him.

I could tell you about how much that man loved the utter civility of horse racing. On a brisk October Saturday in the 1980s Bisher took me to Keeneland race track in Lexington, Ky., before a Georgia-Kentucky football game that night. He knew every trainer, every jockey and every owner. He taught me how to read a racing form and how to handicap horses. It was an experience I probably would have never had without Bisher.

I could tell you about driving back to Atlanta from Gainesville, Fla., in 1994 with Bisher in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. We had watched Georgia's football team just get pounded by Florida (they played in Gainesville because the stadium in Jacksonville was being renovated). For over five hours we talked about life, family, and the crazy career path we had chosen -- or had chosen us. He talked about raising three sons as a single father. The only time I ever saw him get emotional was when he talked about his boys. And he was emotional that night as we drove up Interstate 75.

I could tell you about the 2010 banquet of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association in Salisbury, N.C. Each year the NSSA honors the top sports writer in each state. Bisher was there, at age 91, being honored as the Georgia winner for the 19th time. Arnold Palmer was there to introduce somebody else. Palmer, a mere spring chicken at 80, walked across a very crowded banquet room so that he could say hello to Furman Bisher.

I could tell you about the hand written note Bisher sent me in 2002 when I won a journalism award -- The Furman Bisher Award. I still have the note that began with the words: "It's rewarding to have my name attached to such a splendid journalist." You think I wasn't walking on air that day?

I could tell you so much more, but right about now I feel Bisher standing over my shoulder saying: "Barnhart, will you get to the damned point?" So here's the point:

I've always told people that the two happiest days of my life were when I married my bride and when my daughter was born. But the third happiest day of my life was Sept. 22, 1984. When I decided to become a sportswriter, my goal was to someday work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and to work with Furman Bisher, my boyhood hero. On Aug. 7, 1984, I was hired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the beat writer covering the University of Georgia. A little more than a month later Georgia played Clemson in Athens, and when the national anthem was played, I looked to see Furman Bisher standing on my left. We had never met.

“Welcome to Atlanta, Tony,” he said shaking my hand after the music stopped. “It’s good to have you with us.”

Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Now sit down, I have some questions.” He was the teacher. We were his pupils who hung on every word. And so it will always be, even as they wheeled him out of the church with his floppy Augusta National golf hat on the casket while a lone bagpipe played Amazing Grace.

Laughter and tears are an amazing mix that really clears the soul.

I’ll leave you with this: Every now and then Bisher would end his column with the word “Selah,” which he found in the Book of Psalms. He said he never quite understood the meaning of the word but said that it just felt right to him. And that’s all the mattered. A new copy editor could question it at his own peril. Some did. But only once.

So “Selah,” my dear friend. And thank you. You helped us more than you could ever know.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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