Needlepoint: I'd Rather Be a Sports Columnist Than President

A needlepoint that Dave Kindred's wife, Cheryl, made for him 40 years ago.

Dave Kindred never intended to take on this project. Truth is, he didn’t even think of the Facebook posts he’s been writing as a project.

But last spring, the walls began to close in on him. His wife, Cheryl, had suffered a catastrophic stroke four years earlier and required nursing-home care. He visited her virtually every day until, on March 13, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed her home to visitors.

Sportswriter Dave Kindred and his wife, Cheryl

Dave Kindred and his wife, Cheryl, before her stroke four years ago.

“When I couldn’t go in (to see her), I wrote about it,” he told me when I asked about the posts I had seen. “Writers write. It was one of my ways of dealing with my world suddenly becoming smaller.”

The result is a Facebook daybook that documented his travels through Coronaville, and glimpses of an episodic life narrative.

Some of Kindred’s posts are complex. Others are simple, and self-deprecating, like when he was stuck in a central Illinois Walmart, trying to open one of those flimsy plastic bags from a produce-department spool, or looking for green beans before realizing that, growing seasons being what they are, they could only be found among the canned vegetables.

Fifty-eight people responded to his Walmart adventures; 15 left comments with everything from green bean recipes to tricks for opening those plastic bags.

One comment might have touched the appeal of the posts: “You made me smile, once again.”

Discovering the power of the personal

Dave Kindred is one of the country’s most honored sportswriters after a career with the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Sporting News and Golf Digest. He’s covered the Olympics, the World Series and so many Masters tournaments that the local paper did a story about his NOT attending this year’s pandemic-postponed event. He spent 40 years following the career of Muhammad Ali as he bloomed from a young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, into the world’s most famous athlete.

He’s also written a shelf-full of books, including “Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post” and “Sound and Fury,” a dual biography of Ali and famed and bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell. His latest book, “Leave Out the Tragic Parts: A grandfather’s search for a boy lost to addiction,” will be released in February.

But the pandemic, and the serial daybook/journal that he began writing on Facebook, needed a different approach than his newspaper and magazine work — an approach that can be uncomfortable for journalists.

“At the start, it never occurred to me that I was documenting anything,” he said. “I was simply writing with the material that was available to me. Some of it was material I would have never written for a newspaper or magazine; it was too slight for that, too personal.

“But I soon discovered, through comments on the posts, that it resonated with people feeling the same things. So I was less inhibited about writing very personal things. We were all in this together, so why not share what I saw and thought?”

It opened up an unexplored “smaller” world of subjects. He wrote about losing his lawn signs to petty political thieves. He wrote about struggles with cooking. Watching while some geese raised a family on his pond. Trips to a nearby fast-food place. He wrote about the battle to yank out a bush that was growing from under a pole building. A visit to a library to apply for a library card. The sporadic opportunities to visit his wife.

Experimenting with the freedom of the form

Some of the entries are heartbreaking:

Cheryl lay under a white fleece blanket. She was dressed in a turquoise top that matched her mask. We sat in the shade out of the wind on the east side of the nursing home. She had just finished lunch and was about to fall asleep. She could not know it, but it may be a while before we sit together again.

There has been another infection at Restmor (the nursing home), a staffer. While the staffer is asymptomatic, doing well, and has not been in direct contact with residents, any infection these days is taken seriously. So, the Illinois Department of Public health has again closed the nursing home to visitors.

It may open in a month or in the new year or maybe in the spring. No one knows. There was no optimism in Restmor’s most recent letter to residents and families. It reported the rate of positive cases “in our Region is now above 10% and seems to still be on the rise.” No visits will be considered, let alone permitted, until that rate is below 6.5% for two weeks. “We will keep you informed,” the letter said.

It was 12:45 this afternoon when an aide brought Cheryl outside. She was pretty in the turquoise and warm under the fleece out of the wind and her face was smooth and soft. Too soon, her eyes fell shut.

I hope she heard me talking.”

This came from one Facebook reader in response: “Hugs to you.”

This from another: “I hope she heard you talking, too.

Another post is written as a “poem” about a boy and his dog, KO, and a lot more. It all led up to a Red Smith punch line.

A boy and his dog out for a walk
On an early evening in a west wind
That moves treetops and makes
Fall’s rustling swooshing music
As we step over fallen branches
Past a rickety rowboat
Abandoned on the dam
And the west wind throws leaves
Off the treetops onto the water
Fall’s gold rush of leaves
Gathering in a shadowed cove
And I tell KO I know it’s a
West wind because it’s coming
From under the setting sun and once
A kid sportswriter pointed over a
Stadium’s rim to the setting sun and
Asked Red Smith if that was west
And Red said
If it’s not
You’ve got
A helluva story

Kindred once shared a press box with his journalistic hero, Red Smith, the iconic New York Times sportswriter.

“Red Smith always avoided what he called ‘the dread vertical pronoun,’ that being ‘I,’ Kindred told me. “So did I, for decades. Who cares about me? To write about yourself was to practice the worst kind of self-indulgence.”

That barrier finally began to crumble.

Embracing the vertical pronoun

“It began to change for me a long time ago when I read a James J. Kilpatrick column in which he defended telling your own story, even advocated for ‘I’ in columns. He said the reader wants to identify with the writer; the reader is more willing to go on the trip with you if he knows who you are.

“These Facebook posts are the ultimate expression of that freedom to be myself.

“Also, I’ve always thought it’s important to read stuff that you like, figure out why you like it, and use some of those moves in your own writing. Well, I liked (Mike) Royko and (Murray) Kempton and (Art) Buchwald and Erma Bombeck, and one of the reasons that I liked their stuff was because I felt I knew them through the stories they told — sometimes with their world-view dominating, but always clearly personal.

“And writing these Facebook things, well, OK, get personal. Who’s going to stop me?”

When Kindred and his wife retired and moved back to Central Illinois, they started attending Lady Potter girls basketball games in nearby Morton for fun. Then Kindred started covering the team for its website. When his wife suffered her stroke he continued to cover the team, with the encouragement of the mother of one of the players.

That’s right. A member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame was covering high school girls basketball in Central Illinois. His pay? A box of Milk Duds per game.

“I’ve written more words, maybe 500,000, about a girls high school basketball team than I wrote about Muhammad Ali in 40 years of covering him up close and personal,” he said. “But not once did I write about that girls team any less professionally or with less passion than I did Ali.

“What I’ve learned for the thousandth time — it always feels like the first time — is that it’s fun to write a sentence that you didn’t know you were going to write.”

Sharing untold stories

A story about Ali.

Someone reminded Kindred of an old 1974 photograph of a young reporter sitting in the shotgun seat of a huge Cadillac. The car was rocketing perilously at 85 miles-an-hour down a rutted logging road in Pennsylvania.

The black-and-white photograph was taken from the back seat. The driver was Muhammad Ali. He looked distracted. The young reporter was Dave Kindred. He looked nervous.

“Muhammad, you afraid of dying?” Kindred remembers asking him.

“You don’t ever want to die,” Ali says.

“Glad to hear that,” Kindred said.

Two hundred seventy people responded.


Greg Bowers is retired from a career as a sports journalist in Pennsylvania and journalism teacher at the University of Missouri.

Further Reading

Show comments / Leave a comment