Povich Rewind: Granny Rice

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Povich Rewind: Granny Rice
May 15, 2018

In contrast to our era of 140-character tweets and “quick hits,” readers of another era appreciated the likes of Shirley Povich and the legendary Grantland Rice, who passed away in 1954 and elicited this appreciation from Povich.

Grantland Rice will be laid to rest in New York today in what the announcements said would be the last rites for the Tennessee gentleman who suffered a fatal heart attack at his work last Tuesday.

Sportswriter Grantland Rice, circa 1920. (Photo by Paul Thompson/Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

But the last rites for Granny Rice will not be conducted in fact until that day in the very distant future when they hold a wake over the last sports writer who strived for even a pale semblance of the lyrical prose Granny brought to his profession.

No writer ever brought such impact to his field as Rice brought to sports writing. He was the first to prove, I think, that sports writers could write; at least one of them. Until he came along in the early years of the century to give art to the work, our profession was the despised stepchild of journalism

Those were the days when the sports departments were the catchall for the incompetents dumped into them by editors eager to rid their own staffs of their flops; otherwise the sports pages were the products mostly of the unschooled dese-and-dem guys from the prize rings and the race tracks, which was then considered a sufficient background for sports journalism.

Like a fumigating breeze Grantland Rice burst onto the scene, circa 1905, to demonstrate that sports could be written with a talent for writing and that even in the sports pages a writer could dominate the language. If he didn’t exactly introduce syntax to the sports sections he lifted it to a new extreme with compositions that bordered on the literary.

Ty Cobb autographed this 1906 photo of himself for his friend Grantland Rice.

He was a giant in his profession even while steadfastly holding to the gee-whiz school of sports journalism and all but deifying his special heroes like Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Bobby Jones and Man o’ War. He resisted the provocative tone and the groping for cynicism that was to mark the latter-day syndicate writers who grew up in his shadow and sought by controversy a compensation for their own lack of his talent.

He could write poetry, too, not the doggerel that sometimes reaches print in the sports sections, but subscribing to the best accepted definition of that art, which as I recall from English Lit I at Georgetown, went something like: “…the imaginative representation, through the medium of language, for the expression of the noble emotions.” Two of his volumes of verse found eager publishers.

Granny lost none of the force in his articles despite an addiction to the imaginative, as when he likened Notre Dame’s all conquering backfield of 1924 as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Latter-day sports writing is still clogged with the Rice-isms he gave to it and he is still the most quotable man who ever graced our profession.

Georgetowners are continuously proud that it was their team which the Great Man once singled out as figuring in “the greatest football game I ever say” – the Georgetown-Boston College game of 1940. But I got a bigger belt out of a line of Granny’s after that contest that I treasure as perhaps the most descriptive ever written about a football game.

We were all impressed by the ferocity of that battle, as the two teams moved against each other, and the crunching line play between Frank Leahy’s BC Eagles and Jack Haggerty’s Georgetown Hoyas so evident all afternoon. But it remained for Rice to capture in capsule the entire spirit of the contest when he wrote: “I not only saw football played today; I could hear it.”

One of Granny’s steadfast heroes was the old Bill Alexander, Georgia Tech coach, and thus it is remembered that on only one occasion did Rice have a cutting word to say to any assembly. That was when during the war a Naval Academy football team sallied down to Atlanta for the first time to take on a Georgia Tech team comprised mainly of civilian 4-F’s.

Navy was a heavy favorite. The night before the game Navy braid and brass assembled for a pre-victory banquet. Granny was the toastmaster. He praised the Navy team. Then they asked him the big question: “What would the score by on the morrow?” Rice retreated not at all from his esteemed and old friend Alex.

“Well, gentleman,” he said, “it is like this. Navy’s football team is 16 points better than Georgia Tech’s. But Georgia Tech’s coaching is 24 points better than Navy.” Next day Tech won the game.

It was as I say, the only record of any Grantland Rice act bordering at all on unkindness. The men in the press boxes who knew him were in near-adoration of the man. There sprouted, in fact, a Grantland Rice cult of worshippers. Once there was actually a fight between two sportswriters. What had been there argument? That was simple. They had argued merely over who loved Granny the most.

July 16, 1954

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