On Saturday night, June 25, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C., Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News Sports Editor Tommy Deas took office as President of the Associated Sports Editors organization.
Here are the verbatim remarks from his opening address at the Omni Hotel.
Thank you, my friends.
And Mary, thank you. You are relieved.
And when I step up here again next year to step down, I assure you that I will be relieved.
This is going to be difficult, and I will probably talk a bit longer than most of you would like, but I beg your indulgence.
It’s fitting that I should take office as president of the Associated Press Sports Editors in Charlotte, a city I have only previously known by stopovers in its airport.
That’s because since I became a member, APSE has taken me to places where I have never been: physically, to cities like Boston and Chicago and San Diego; but also professionally, to places beyond my own aspirations and imagination.
There are so many people to thank, more than decorum permits, and you will hear some of those names as I ramble along, but a few I am compelled to mention up front:
* The late Hank Kaplan, who ran an international boxing magazine and allowed a 15-year-old kid to be published for the first time when I submitted a story to him about a fight I had watched on TV.
* The late Al Browning, who let me start covering high school athletics for The Tuscaloosa News the day I got my driver’s license, and Kirk McNair, a lifetime mentor and friend.
* Donald Brown, who hired me as interim sports editor at The Tuscaloosa News for a one-year term in 1993, a position I accepted with one stipulation, that he retain me if any permanent job became available. When a sports writing vacancy occurred, he kept his word.
* Tim Thompson, who, in 2008, promoted me to executive sports editor at that same paper, and Doug Ray, who taught me how to be a better manager. And also Jim Rainey, who became our publisher, and Michael James, who became my executive editor, both of whom have supported me and made me feel so valued, and who have made it possible for me to get to these APSE events across the country.
I could go on and on.
Instead, I’ll share a lesson I learned from my father, my Pop, when he first put me to work the summer when I was 11 or 12 years old. He told me this: Always do more than they ask you to do, and always try to leave things better than you found them.
And allow me to also express my appreciation for a mother who has loved me with all her heart, even when I did things not even a mother could love.
Now they tell me this is an historic occasion: that in taking office today I have become the first APSE president ever to rise from the third vice presidency; that no president has ever been elected from a news organization with a circulation as small as that of The Tuscaloosa News; and that should I make it 365 more days, I will be the only officer ever to serve a term of five consecutive years in this organization.
That astounds me and baffles me. Because, quite frankly, the fact that it has never before happened does not reflect the APSE that I have come to know. I have never once felt that because I came from a “small newspaper organization” that I was ever less than, or that there was an asterisk on my membership privileges.
In fact, it has been just the opposite.
Allow me tell you about my journey, and why this moment means so much to me.
When I was promoted at The Tuscaloosa News, I got a phone call from Phil Kaplan of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, congratulating me and inviting me to the APSE Southeastern Region meeting. I had been sports editor for about a week. I was overwhelmed. I told him I didn’t have time. I didn’t make it.
Phil persisted, and got me a scholarship to fly me to Orlando to attend the winter conference as a judge.
That is where my APSE experience began.
I was standing outside the hotel after arriving, smoking a Marlboro Light 100 – big surprise. This fellow approached me and glanced at my name tag and said, “Tuscaloosa News … I love you guys’ stuff. I’ve judged your sections. I tell our people we should cover the Chicago Bears the way you cover Alabama football.”
I was taken aback. I looked at his name tag, and my first thought was, “This poor guy, they misspelled his last name. I don’t have the heart to tell him.”
I looked a little closer. Below the name, it said, Chicago Tribune.
That was my real introduction to APSE.
That guy was Paul Skrbina, and it turned out they didn’t misspell his name. He became a lifelong friend, a professional sounding board and the best road roommate a person could ever have.
(Apologies here to roommates John Bednarowski, whose wife bakes the best cookies, and Chris White, who actually ironed my clothes at an APSE event.)
Anyway, a couple of nights later at judging, I was talking to another first-time judge out by the pool in Orlando, another guy from a small news organization. We were discussing the day’s judging and how we disagreed on some things with the people in our judging groups, guys from major news organizations recognized across the country.
So Garry D. Howard, the sitting APSE president, overheard. He walked over, and in the way only Garry could do it, he spelled things out: “If you have an opinion, bring it to the table. I don’t care who the other judges are. You earned your seat here.”
The next day, I told my fellow judges – one from USA TODAY and another from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – that I thought we got it wrong. We put the wrong story in the top 10. Another story, also on the BALCO scandal, had gone far deeper and uncovered facts that showed some of the reporting in the story we had originally judged into the top 10 to be incorrect.
They listened. They read both stories. They agreed with me. We revoted and the story I championed made the top 10. The other was dropped, and we turned in our results.
APSE didn’t care where I was from, how big our paper was. APSE cared about getting it right.
The entries from my shop did well that year, and people told me I should go to Salt Lake City for the summer conference. At the closing meeting, Michael Anastasi, then of the Salt Lake Tribune, made a plea for people to attend. He pledged that if anyone on a limited budget found a way to make it, he would personally pick us up at the airport and drive us to the hotel, and make sure we got to the airport when it was time to leave.
I went back home and asked my publisher if I could go. He thought about it and said The Tuscaloosa News would pay for my airline ticket, but that was all he could do.
I picked up the phone and called Michael Anastasi and said, “I’m calling to see if you are a man of your word. I can get there, but other than my flight I’m on my own dime.”
He answered immediately: “What time do you land?”
When I got off that plane, he was there. And APSE even put me with a roommate and picked up the tab for my lodging.
That is the APSE that I know as a sports editor from a small news organization.
But it goes far beyond that.
At that Salt Lake City conference, at the opening mixer, I looked for name tags and found Dave Morgan of Yahoo! Sports. I was aware of an opportunity to partner with Rivals, which Yahoo! owned, to become the network’s University of Alabama team site. Dave pointed across the room and said, “You need to talk to that guy.”
I looked at the man he had pointed out and wondered: “Why is Liam Neeson here, and what does he have to do with Rivals?”
Turned out it was actually Gerry Ahern, who was at Yahoo! at the time. We started working on a deal that would become a defining one in my career, one that got me a big raise and created an income stream that allowed us to take our coverage to new heights, and to really show what I could do.
More importantly, I forged a bond with Gerry, who has become not only a mentor but a true and valued friend.
And that still doesn’t tell the full story of what APSE has meant to me. And this is where it gets difficult. I rarely speak of these things, but I need do so here.
Please bear with me.
Now I’m going to tell you about a lady named Mehri. She grew up in Iran. Her father was a sort of regional boss for the Shah. When the revolution started in the 1970s, he saw what was coming. He got his children out.
Mehri, a terrified teenager, was on one of the last planes to take off before the government fell and the airport in Tehran was shut down. Her coat was stuffed with American dollars and valuables to help her get a start in a strange new country, and sewn shut to conceal them.
She settled in Alabama and learned a new language and new customs. She went to a community college and became a citizen. Then she enrolled at the University of Alabama on a student loan and earned a degree.
Many years later, we met. We fell in love. We married.
Mehri loved Alabama football. She decorated our mailbox and front porch in crimson and white on game days.
Some of the more subtle parts of the sports journalism profession, she didn’t understand. When I tried to explain that my employers might not like their sports editor having his house decked out in Roll Tide stuff because it might create an appearance of partiality, she told me if they had anything to say about it, send them over to say it to her face.
They never mentioned it if they saw it, but if they had, I think I know who would have won.
Now Mehri didn’t know you guys, but she did have an understanding of what APSE meant. Our shop competes every year in the APSE contest, as well as those of the Alabama Press Association, the AP Managing Editors and Alabama Sports Writers Association.
Mehri didn’t know APSE from APME from APA from ASWA, but when I would tell her we won a contest award, she would always ask one question: “Is that state or national?”
If it was a state contest, she would smile and say, “That’s nice.”
And that was it.
If it was APSE, a national award, she would call her friends to brag. She would cook something special or we would go out to celebrate.
It was always a big deal.
In January of 2012, I was in New Orleans to cover Alabama against LSU in the BCS National Championship Game. On game day, I couldn’t get her on the phone. I left messages. I worried.
The next day, I still couldn’t get her to answer. On my drive home, I found out that she had passed away in her sleep the night before the game.
I was completely shattered. I thought I knew what pain was. I had no idea.
My publisher, Tim Thompson, called and told me to take off as much time as I needed.
But he said something else.
“I know you,” he said. “You need this. I want you to understand that you can come back as soon as you like.”
My phone blew up with calls and messages and texts, hundreds of them. So many of those came from people in this room and my other APSE friends.
I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t call back. I couldn’t respond.
But I felt your love and your support.
So after about a week, I did go back to work. I worked all day. Sometimes I worked far into the night.
And when I went home, I wept. Sometimes all night.
A few weeks later, my phone rang and I did answer. Michael Anastasi asked me if I was coming to judging in Orlando. I told him I didn’t know. He invited me to come a day early, said he had an extra room. I said I’d think about it.
Then Phil Kaplan called and urged me to come.
I decided to go, but I didn’t know if I was ready.
The night I arrived, Michael and Phil took me to Disney, the happiest place on earth. And for the first time, I smiled.
Over the course of those days at the judging conference, I am certain that every single person there – even those who didn’t know me – expressed their sympathy. Jeff Kuehn shared a story of a health scare he had with his wife. Paul Skrbina, my roommate and friend, offered his ear and I opened up to him. I shared my grief with Gerry Ahern, who had lost his own father.
And Todd Adams, as he often does, said something funny.
And for the first time, I laughed. My healing began at that APSE function.
So I tell you that to help you understand what it means to me to stand before you as your president. If Mehri were here with us, she would be so, so proud.
I love you forever, baby.
Presidents, whether of a country or of an organization like ours, have an agenda. And presidents want to leave a legacy.
And of course I want APSE to continue to work to make strides in the areas of diversity and professional development and to be of service to its members, to be better in every way. Michael Anastasi once stood at a podium like this one and declared that APSE is the finest professional organization with which he had ever been associated. For the reasons I have tried to express here, I concur, and it is my hope that every member can feel the same way.
It is our good fortune in our jobs to get to observe great leaders in the field of athletics, and to learn from them. One coach whom I have covered for nearly 20 years is Patrick Murphy of the University of Alabama softball team. Each year, in the first meeting with a new team, he addresses the freshmen, and he tells them this: “It’s not all about you. The faster you figure that out, the better off you’ll be.”
I believe in my four years of service as an officer in APSE that I have absorbed that lesson. Because it’s not all about me: it’s about you, and it’s about this organization and the things for which it stands and the service it provides to its members.
The most important task I inherit is to assure, as best I can, the future of this organization, and that boils down to one thing: membership. Our industry is hurting, the future uncertain. My commitment is to try to do what they say can’t be done: I want to grow this organization.
So here it is: Membership is the new coin of the realm. To paraphrase the guy in the movies: Someday, and this day may never come, you may ask me for a favor. And if you do, the answer will be, “Go find us a new member.” Then we can talk about it.
Starting now, every discussion begins and ends with membership. When you ask what you can do for APSE, the answer is you can try to recruit a new member – a newspaper, a website, a writer, an educator, whatever.
So I tell you now: Don’t ask, go do it.
It’s a cliche to say that failure is not an option. In this case, it is not. That’s because only two things can happen as we try to grow this organization against all odds – if it works, they can say we did good; if it doesn’t, they can say we tried.
And I promise you this much: Tom and Kathy’s little boy Tommy will try.
As for my agenda and my legacy, well, that’s pretty simple. It all goes back to a lesson a boy in Alabama learned from his Pop four decades ago. And the great lesson to me is that it works both ways: APSE has done more for me than I could ever have asked, and it has left me better than I was before.
My agenda is this: to do more for you than you ask. As for my legacy, should I be so fortunate as to be remembered, I would like it to be this: that he left APSE a little better than he found it.
You have honored me with your trust, and blessed me with this opportunity. And I thank you all, my friends.