Slim Smith: The last dinosaur

November 30, 2013 9:01:05 PM



About two-thirds of the way through Thursday's Egg Bowl, after watching Mississippi State and Ole Miss perform their version of "Punt, Pass and Kick" minus the "punt"and "pass" parts, I left my seat in the pressbox at Davis Wade Stadium for the dining area. 


It was there that I discovered what it must have felt like to be the last dinosaur to roam the face of the earth. 


Much like I had decided to do, Rick Cleveland and Rusty Hampton had left the pressbox for the dining room. 


I have known the two for the better part of 30 years. Rick, of course, was the long time sports editor/columnist in the Clarion-Ledger. Rusty, too, worked at the Clarion-Ledger, first as a beat reporter covering MSU --which is where I first came to know him -- and later as the sports editor after Rick had turned his full attention to writing columns. 


In the past year, both have left the paper business. Rick is now the director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Rusty left just a few months ago for a job in public relations for Neel-Schaffer Engineers. 


And of the three, I am the only one who still makes a living putting words on newsprint. 


Once, yesterday it seems, we were the kids on the beat. Now we are the gray men of the press box and the gray men of our young reporting days all have typed in granite their final --30-- which is old newspaper copy editor's designation for the end of the story. 


I do not know how many Egg Bowls I have attended over the years, but it doesn't come close to any sort of record, thanks to 15 years away in California and Arizona. 


But Thursday's game was one of the more memorable. 


When I first started, a trip to the Egg Bowl was about the biggest sporting event I could imagine having the privilege to cover. 


Since then, I've been to three national championships, two Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby, two Olympic Games (summer and winter) and an epic World Series.  


But in those early years of my career, going to the Egg Bowl was for me probably what it was for Damian Williams, the Bulldogs' true freshman quarterback who, due to injuries, drew his first ever college start. 


Williams acquitted himself quite well, according to MSU coach Dan Mullen.  


I am not sure at all if the same could be said of me. I was still very much learning the trade and I find, all these years later, I am still learning the trade.  


Back then, it was all about the turn of a phrase and trying to turn ballgames into epic prose. In fact, my first national writing award came for a story I had written about a MSU-Tennessee football game. It was a fine piece of writing, I have to admit. I had the final score of the game wrong, however. But I suppose accuracy doesn't count for much when the people judging the writing are from Los Angeles or Boston and had neither the memory of nor an interest in the final score of a football game played eight months earlier in Knoxville, Tenn. 


So I won on style points, which is not the sort of wins a newspaper person should aspire to. 


Now, all these years later and despite having occupied a spot in hundreds of press boxes all over the country, I feel a little out of place now. 


When I was a very young sports writer, I remember seeing Bill Ross in the press box. Bill had been writing sports for the Daily Journal in Tupelo since the 1940s and I grew up reading his stories in my hometown newspaper. Having joined the sportswriting fraternity, I remember thinking to myself as I watch Bill struggle with the latest technology of the business, "I cannot imagine sitting in a press box at 50 years old."  


Well, I don't have to imagine it at all now. I'm 54. Suddenly, I am the old guy struggling with the new technology. I look around: Everyone is tweeting or making live blog entries while I am trying to find a place to plug in my laptop. 


So my trips to the press box, while enjoyable, are less and less frequent and I'm hardly surprised by that. When I left sports to start writing news columns in Arizona, I made the switch because I had come to realize that the people in the stands were more interesting that the people on the field. 


I don't regret the move and I feel fortunate that I can dabble in the old sports writing game, when the situation permits. 


And I know that Thursday night, as I reminisced fondly the good old days with Rick and Rusty, a young sports writer noticed us and thought to himself, "Man, I can't imagine sitting in a press box at 50." 


That's true enough, of course. 


But there are worse places to be at that age, I have learned.