Note: This post was written last fall but for some reason, it was not published. Apologies.
A great sportswriter died last year. The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Peter Finney passed away in August at the age of 88 years old. He defined sportswriting for the entire South for several generations. The newspaper's Les East paid homage to the scribe when he passed away:
Let’s face it, folks.
No matter how much those of us in this profession try to pretend otherwise, sports journalists just aren’t that important.
Except for Peter Finney. He was different.
Finney, who died at his New Orleans home at age 88 on Saturday morning, was the authoritative voice of sports journalism in Louisiana for nearly 70 years.
But Finney’s accomplishments and lifetime of achievement transcend the mere duration of his career and even the countless awards and other accolades he earned.
First and foremost he and his beloved wife, Deedy, who preceded him to the Pearly Gates by three years, raised a remarkable family comprised of six children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren who will continue to bless this and other communities for generations to come.
As for the professional side, Peter had a world view that was more sophisticated than that of any other sports journalist I have come across in my 30-plus years in this business. He was as knowledgeable and insightful discussing the Page 1 stories in the New York Times — which he read faithfully — as he was dissecting the latest success or failure of the Saints or LSU or anyone else.
Peter was an indispensable resource for Saints fans through the good, the bad and the ugly. Generations of Saints fans would trek to Tulane Stadium or the Superdome, listen on the radio or watch on TV to see how the team did. Then they’d talk among themselves, listen to post-game talk radio, watch the highlights on the late-night news and more recently get online reaction.
But after all that bluster and over-analyzing, when the newspaper arrived the next morning the entire city turned to the sports section with the collective thought, “Yeah, but what does Peter think?”
There was always something in that column that cut through all the other noise and provided lasting insight that might have made you feel a little better about a loss — or a little less giddy about a victory — but it stuck with you because no one else had come up with it.
Those about whom Finney wrote often had the same experience, though maybe they were a little slower and reluctant to recognize the truth in what he had to say.
When Jim Mora joined the Saints after an outstanding career as a head coach in the United States Football League, his team’s first performance in its first game under him belied the success he would go on to have.
The Saints played Atlanta and were embarrassed by the hated Falcons. Finney’s column began, “Welcome to the USFL.” Sixty minutes of terrible football perfectly contextualized in four words.
For years after that Mora regularly would remind Finney of that lead. It probably still stung the prideful Mora but he knew it was fair. And whether he gave credit or criticism, Peter was fair in doing so and was without fail gentlemanly about it.
We sometimes hear people say “no one ever said an unkind word about” so and so. But in Peter’s case that must be taken to the extreme. I have never encountered a person who spoke about Peter Finney that wasn’t downright effusive in their praise of him as a person and a professional.
When I started as a grunt at the Times-Picayune, having followed Finney’s footsteps through Jesuit High School and Loyola University, he treated me from the moment I was introduced to him with the same degree of kindness, warmth and respect that he showed the biggest newsmakers he covered.
Early in my career a coach I was covering got fired and he refused to talk to me for my story because he didn’t like things I had written about him in the days leading up to his dismissal. Finney, the most important columnist at the paper, called the coach and got quotes for me to use in my story.
When I started covering Super Bowls and Final Fours it was a bit intimidating being surrounded by the biggest names in the business. But Peter Finney was one of those “biggest names”, having covered every Super Bowl as well as the World Series every October and countless historic boxing matches when historic boxing matches were as big as it got in this business.
When I saw the respect and fondness with which nationally renown writers from New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Philadelphia and Miami interacted with Peter, I no longer felt like I was from a “small market.”
Peter elevated New Orleans to big-league status.
Sitting next to Peter in a press box or on press row was priceless as both a joy and a learning experience.
He would throw out observations during the game and listen attentively to your reaction. Peter always listened more than he opined — an invaluable trait that’s nearly extinct in all facets of the media these days.
In post-game interviews while the rest of us bounced between a dozen or more subjects taping every word they said — later meticulously transcribing a mess with maybe a handful of worthwhile quotes — Peter had a pen and a notebook — or sometimes just a scrap of paper — and he’d corner a couple of people most relevant do what he was going to say.
Periodically he’d jot down a few words worth remembering and you always wondered how he could write so much worthwhile stuff with so few notes to refer to.
Then he’d listen, ask a couple of questions and then listen some more.
And the next morning you’d pick up his column, read it — often times more than once — and say to yourself, “Damn, I wish I could do that.”
Mr. Finney was a class act who will be missed. More than a few sportswriters could improve their craft by simply reading his works. LSU Press published a collection of his best columns that can be ordered online.