When Rick Woodson called me at work a week and a half ago, I couldn't believe it. He often phoned on Tuesday to make sure I'd received his weekly column or, really, just to chat, but this was different. He was calling from Rochester General.
The day before, Rick's wife, Beth, had reached me out of town to say he wouldn't be able to write his column for the March 8 paper. The night before, he'd been taken by ambulance to the hospital.
When Rick started to apologize about not having a column, I quickly told him the same thing I'd said to Beth (whose grace and strength are breathtaking): He had much more important things to think about. His condition had clearly worsened; he coughed frequently and had trouble stringing together a couple of sentences before losing his breath. But he was still Rick, cracking a few jokes, thinking about others before himself.
I asked about visiting him at the hospital, then a doctor or nurse arrived and he had to hang up. The next morning when I arrived at Rochester General, Rick already had been taken to the ICU. Six days later he passed away.
I met Rick in late 1995 when he applied for a reporting job at the paper. I don't know exactly when we became friends, but we did. His absence now makes it even clearer how much the friendship meant to me. As many, many people would tell you, Rick was a good and generous soul. When we played golf together--the game was one of his great passions--he'd always praise my good shots and never make note of how much time we spent searching for the errant ones. When he finally got to "golf heaven" last summer, St. Andrews in Scotland, he brought back an Old Course towel for me.
Rick, his brother-in-law, Terry Quinn, and other golf buddies were part of the IGT: the Insult Golf Tour. ("A thick skin and sharp tongue were required," Terry says.) It was all for laughs, and in truth, Rick was mostly self-deprecating. He was the same way about his writing.
"Did ya get my BS yet, boss?" he'd say on the phone after sending off his column.
He often called me "boss," or "Jean-Claude"--because skiing is to me what golf was to him. Many times, when signing his email, he wrote, "Your faithful scribe."
Rick started writing for us at a point in his life when others in his shoes would want to spend all of their time on the golf course. He'd been a sports reporter, editor and columnist over a three-decade career, working at papers in Louisiana, Washington state, Hawaii and Rochester, where he'd spent roughly 14 years in two stints with the Times-Union/Democrat and Chronicle. He'd earned nearly 20 first-place writing awards, covered the Buffalo Bills and interviewed sports greats like Muhammad Ali.
After a brief period on our reporting staff, Rick left to manage the Golf Tee, the Webster driving range business in which he and Terry were partners. Not long after that, his weekly RBJ sports column debuted-and I don't think he missed a single issue since the first one, published Oct. 11, 1996.
I edited most of his columns over the last 16 1/2 years. This was not hard labor. Rick's work was both great, memorable writing and extremely clean; seldom did I need to ask a question or check a fact. Rick was unafraid to write with a sharp edge-his first print column, on Bills QB Jim Kelly, was headlined: "Kelly's job is his to lose--and it's time he lost it"--or with his emotions in full view.
Among my favorite columns was the one he wrote in 2000 about his son, Rick Jr., a pro golfer, competing in the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament finals. (Ever scrupulous, Rick felt the need to first ask me if it was OK for him to write about his own son.) Here's how it starts:
"This is the column I feared I would never get to write. It is a column about pain and perseverance, and dedication and disappointment, and resolve and resilience. ... It is about the persistent pursuit of the golden fleece, refusing to accept any suggestion that there was no pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It is about my son, Rick Jr."
The column has some trademark great lines-like "in golf, unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, close doesn't count"--and a heart-on-his-sleeve ending. It earned him another award.
Rick had no patience for star athletes who thought they walked on water. In a 2003 piece, "Don't look to the world of sports for real heroes," he paid tribute to some of his heroes: his grandfather, an East Texas farmer with one leg who "couldn't outrun a turtle (but) had the heart of a lion and the character of a saint"; the guy who picked up his garbage every week; the nurses who cared for his elderly mother. He concluded: "The list could go on forever, but the bottom line is, there are no millionaires there, just a bunch of working stiffs who make our lives worth living. And the only end zone they've seen was on television. We're lucky to have them, and I hope you'll remember that the next time some hot-shot athlete makes a fool of himself after he scores."
In his writing Rick also was willing to say what many others would not dare to. He won another award for his 2009 column on former quarterback and ESPN announcer Bob Griese, "Should a sportscaster's stupid joke really be a punishable offense?" The judges said it was "written with a spine, rare today in too-often P.C. press." The final lines were pure Rick: "What has happened to our sense of humor is sad, but if you want to bust my chops 'cause I talk funny and love fried chicken and crawfish, be my guest. Hey, life's too short to take it too seriously."
Rick loved the craft of writing and the newspaper trade. This was evident to anyone who knew him, but especially to the students of his newswriting classes at SUNY College at Brockport, where he taught for a number of years. The stack of emails from former students that arrived in his hospital room was a testament to his lasting influence on them.
Among fellow scribes, one of Rick's true heroes was Jim Murray, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times. When Murray died in 1998, Rick wrote a wonderful tribute to Murray, whom he'd once interviewed on his radio show. In addition to Murray's writing, Rick admired his self-effacing sense of humor. "Rickey Henderson's strike zone was massive compared to Jim Murray's ego," he noted.
I'm sure Rick would not mind if I borrowed his last paragraph from that column (with proper attribution, of course, and a slight change in wording):
There is no way I could do justice to Rick in this column. He was one of a kind.
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