John McGrath

Purple uniforms, surprise hurdles and My Boy Jack. What a career it’s been for this sports columnist

Tacoma News Tribune sports columnist John McGrath walks along Broadway in downtown Manhattan after arriving on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, to cover the Seahawks in Super Bowl 48.
Tacoma News Tribune sports columnist John McGrath walks along Broadway in downtown Manhattan after arriving on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, to cover the Seahawks in Super Bowl 48. Staff Photographer

This is my last column for The Tacoma News Tribune, and likely the last time I’ll type words printed for a daily newspaper. It brings to mind the first time I wrote an article for a daily newspaper, 41 years ago, which in the dream world of a sportswriter equates to, like, 41 minutes ago.

I’d been hired by a paper in the mid-Missouri town of Columbia, and my assignment was to cover a high school basketball game in the Kansas City suburb appropriately named Independence.

I wasn’t vigilant about such specifics as street addresses, but when I saw two yellow buses parked outside a school, I correctly determined a basketball game was imminent.

As the kids were taking their pregame layup drills, the scent of popcorn in a gym on a wintry night, along with the sound of an earnest pep band in sweet disharmony, told me I had signed up for a lucky-for-life occupation.

I was in heaven. After 20 minutes, it occurred to me I also was in the wrong place. One team was wearing white uniforms with a red-and-blue trim, the other was dressed in black and gold.

The team I was supposed to cover wore purple uniforms – a deft reporter doesn’t miss details like that – and soon I was dashing through the snow, screaming all the way. Ten yards from my car, I tripped on a low-hanging parking lot fence.

My keys went one way, my notebook and pen went another, and I went down with my back on the ground, glancing at the full moon and asking: Seriously?

And then I heard a voice, something like James Earl Jones’ rendition of a cheerful Five Stairsteps song.

“Ooh-ooh child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh-child, things’ll get brighter.”

I made it to the game I was assigned to cover in the fourth quarter, and from a phone booth outside a diner, dictated a story to a copy-desk editor. I wasn’t sure I got the final score right, but I was quite sure the team in the purple uniforms won.

My career as a sportswriter was off and running, mindful of the low-hanging parking lot fences hidden in the snow.

The career took me to Jackson, Mississippi, where I met lifelong friends, and to Atlanta, where I met my wife, and to Denver, where I had a blast, and to Chicago, where I was born and assumed would be the last stop on my wild ride.

The stop lasted 16 months – the publication folded – and I got a call from Greg Gibson, the sports editor of the Tacoma newspaper then known as The Morning News Tribune.

We had a lunch at a waterfront restaurant, and though the July afternoon was overcast, I glanced at the vista behind the window and swung at the first pitch.

“What are you looking for?” I was asked.

“Stability,” I answered. Our first child was due in September. I wanted a place to call home.

Tacoma became home, a reality underscored my first road trip for the newspaper: The Washington Huskies 1991 season opener against Stanford.

The were great expectations about a team returning most of its starters from Rose Bowl victory over Iowa, but questions simmered. Quarterback Mark Brunell was recovering from surgery, could the unproven Billy Joe Hobert fill in?

With swagger and style, Hobert completed the first six passes he attempted, a cue that I was about to occupy a front seat for one of the greatest college football teams of all time.

I wrote a story with a vaguely familiar narrative – the team in purple won – and when I returned to my hotel room, I noticed a red light blinking on the telephone.

“Get back,” my pregnant wife told me. “I’m on the way to the hospital.”

I arranged a Sunday-morning flight from San Jose to Seattle, and at 4:30 p.m., I was cradling the baby we would name Jack, in honor of his grandfather.

Jack is my boy, not especially astute about the concept of accumulating a savings account but very much a fan of sports.

A few weeks ago, on his way to watch a Mariners game, he sent me a text message: The final horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby had won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

The horse opened as 30-1 longshot for the Run For The Roses on Saturday, but I believe in karma and all the possibilities that await us in this wonderful life.

The horse’s name?

My Boy Jack.

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