George Solomon: A tribute to John McNamara

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George Solomon: A tribute to John McNamara
Jul 31, 2018

John McNamara was a familiar face at the University of Maryland. He loved covering Maryland sports, which he did for decades for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Prince George’s Journal, Hagerstown Herald-Mail, Bowie Blade-News and Crofton-West County Gazette.

The newspapers and websites he worked for were important but so was the action on the field or court. He loved that action; the news, games, players and drama. It all ended much too soon.

McNamara, 56, was one of five staff members shot to death on June 28, in the Annapolis, Md., offices of the Capital Gazette. He left a legacy of a good newspaperman: copy editor, reporter and writer.

But most of all, sportswriting was his passion, particularly when it came to his alma mater in College Park. He wrote two books about Maryland athletics: “University of Maryland Football Vault: The History  Of The Terrapins” and “Cole Classics! Maryland Basketball’s Leading Men and Moments” with David Elfin.

Many years ago, McNamara and Elfin worked part-time at The Washington Post, covering mostly high school sports. “He was an old-school journalist, bulldog, a great reporter and relentless,” Elfin told  Andrea K. McDaniels of The Baltimore Sun.

If McNamara worked for a number of newspapers, the one constant  in his life was covering sports. He loved it and lived it. He worked hard for each newspaper that paid him, mastered his craft and knew the players and coaches. Like many in the business, McNamara craved the games, stories and news.

“When I got the idea to write a book about Cole Field House in time for its final season as the home of Maryland basketball, I asked John to be my co-author since he had become an authority on the Terps,” Elfin wrote in an email.

“Researching and writing ‘Cole Classics’ with John was a great experience. We really didn’t argue about which one of us would write about which players, coaches or games. It was truly a partnership of old-school journalists, more dogged reporters  and fine writers less concerned with flashiness than with getting the story correct. And that, in the end, is what stands out the most about John; he always cared about telling the story correctly. He’ll be missed by many.”

Days after the tragedy at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism hosted its fifth annual weeklong sports journalism summer camp, July 9-13, in Merrill College’s Knight Hall on the University of Maryland campus. There were 56 campers – grades 9 through 12 — in attendance, many of them already fascinated by games and the words and pictures that described   those games.

I’m sure McNamara would be the first person to have told the campers to follow their dreams when it came to sports journalism. That declining newspaper circulation and staff reductions might limit future options, but the most ambitious will still somehow find a way to do what makes them happy. John McNamara did.

So did ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, who spent an hour telling campers how he began to live his dream while a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and then at Merrill College. “I knew I was not going to become a professional baseball player,” said Kurkjian. “So I set out to become the next best thing:  A baseball reporter.”

Kurkjian has reached the top of his profession, as has Frank Isola (Merrill ’87), who covered the NBA for the New York Daily News. On July 23, Isola lost his job, as did hundreds of other Daily News staffers. A bitter pill for Isola to swallow  in the midst of an exceptional career. He’ll rebound, very much like the players he covers.

And watching all this play out is the retired Terry Taylor, who for more than 25 years was the sports editor of the Associated Press and who was this year’s winner of the Red Smith award given by the Associated Press Sports Editors in recognition for her distinguished career in sports journalism. Taylor is only the second woman to receive the award in its 37-year history; the late Mary Garber of Winston-Salem is the other.

The honor, Taylor said, “blew me away” when told she’d won the prize named for the late, great sports columnist. “Somehow sports has always had a place in my life and was a great comfort to me,” Taylor told Angel Franco of the Sports Journalism Institute. “Did I set out to be a sports journalist? Heavens no.  I liked it and I followed it, and it just turned out hugely to my benefit.”

Words the Povich Center’s 56 campers, plus hundreds of sportswriters and editors, need to remember.

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