The newspaper clippings — the fossils of a bygone era — were faded and yellow, the droppings of a more literate era. Most of them had long given way to film, and then to digital files. Only these remained.
For some reason, they were in the desk I was cleaning out a couple of years ago after all of these years. Nice pieces. Average pieces. Memorable ones. Ones to get a writer through the day. I lingered on the print, which had come out about the time I had decided to get into this business.
And then one caught my eye.
It was praise for columnist Hubert Mizell, which he used to get a lot. To his final day on earth, everyone liked Hubert. There was a warmth in what he wrote that was lacking in my own copy, a kinship, a trust. Hubert was a kind old uncle that everyone invited to breakfast.
This letter to the editor wasn’t that unusual. It praised Hubert’s perspective. It talked about his kindness, and his level of understanding. The writer said that Hubert grasped things about him that no one else could grasp.
It was signed “O.J. Simpson, Buffalo, New York.”
Yeah, everyone liked Hubert.
He was here when I got here, and for some reason, I always felt that Hubert would be here when I left. He was a large man, a boisterous man. But there was a kindness to the way he wrote that made him approachable. Most sports columnists never find that; I rarely did. Everyone called Hubert by his first name. There was nothing formal about Hubert. He was the guy in the paper. Just that, and all of that.
Columnists were bigger in his day. There was no all-reaching Internet, no multitude of sports networks. These days, a guy can cover a team from half the world away. That amazed Hubert as much as anyone. He was a guy who wanted to be there, and he was: Wimbledons, British Opens, Olympics, Final Fours, Super Bowls. You name it. Officially the list is 42 bowl games, 33 Masters, 10 Olympics and eight Wimbledons.
But Hubert was more than a dateline. He was a personality who belonged to Tampa Bay, to Florida. I used to joke that he was born in the left-hand corner of the sports section.
In the old days, he used to mock the Bucs’ punter frequently. The punter would struggle to get off a 32-yarder, and Hubert would shout “boom.” To this day, when a Bucs’ punter kicks, I hear his voice.
Once, after FSU had come from behind to tie Florida in the Choke at the Doak, Hubert was assigned to the FSU column (I had the Florida one). He announced to our staff there that he was going to write about Seminole quarterback Danny Kanell.
Upon reaching the dressing room, however, Mizell saw that coach Bobby Bowden slipped in his chair and almost fell off the stage. In the ESPN highlights, you could hear Hubert’s voice laughing loudly. “Don’t make fun of me, Hubert,” Bowden said, a quote that Hubert didn’t quite get right the next day.
That did it. Hubert changed his column, leaving others to scrap together a piece on Kanell. And what Hubert wrote was the single most-read thing in the next day’s paper.
That’s how he worked, going from field to field, game to game, chasing the headlines. Even late in his life, Mizell could tell a story.
There was the time, for instance, when he covered a game in Athens, Ga. Before the game, he was on the field, and he felt a sting in his lower leg. He glanced down, and sure enough, the Uga mascot had taken a chunk out of him. Painful, but not a bad story.
Two days later, however, Mizell read that Uga had died. For goodness sakes, Mizell thought. I’ve poisoned Uga!
There were things to learn from Mizell. Our first night in Barcelona, at the Olympics, the fan mysteriously went missing. To his room. “You have to be quick,” was all he said.
Mizell once wrote that Spurrier was arrogant. Spurrier called him. Mizell stuck to his description. “Well,” Spurrier said, “I guess I am arrogant.”
He loved Bobby Knight to a fault. One day before Ray Perkins was fired he gave him another year. He doubted Tony Dungy. He lived for the Final Four. He thought the Masters was terrific. He opposed football at USF. On the first-ever game we covered together, I bet him the 49ers couldn’t score on the Broncos again before halftime. I lost.
Honestly? We weren’t always Damon and Pythias. I came along at a time he was protecting his turf, and I was a young wise guy who wanted more to cover. But we talked about our columns a lot. I’d like to think we had a nice respect for each other. I mean, he was Tampa Bay sports to me.
And now he’s gone. It’s an empty, numbing feeling. I was used to Hubert being around. I guess I thought he always would be.
Happy trails, old pal.
May the parking always be good, and may no one get to the press buffet first.