Column

On College Football: For 40 years, this guy delivered the goods

My first recollection of the Los Angeles Times is my dad parking his delivery truck outside our house whenever he had a drop-off in La Habra.

My second is scribbling on the blank pages of printing-press paper my sisters and I used for coloring and homework.

The third is my pop, who worked graveyard for 10 of his 37 years in The Times' transportation department, slamming the newspaper down on the kitchen table the morning after Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel.

My fourth is hearing a high school English teacher praising the work of Times sports columnist Jim Murray.

I was all newspaper in — hook, headline and sinker.

That guy I knew in transportation landed me a job on the loading docks June 17, 1976, a few days after high school graduation. My boss was Dallas Beck, a small man who smoked big cigars.

My first memory of the job is being petrified after getting assigned to be a companion rider on a midnight delivery run into a seedy section of town.

My second is bundles, not raindrops, falling on my head from the mail room chutes while doing the splits between the dock and the truck bumper.

We would stuff trucks full of news, hitch the chain-link gate closed, then bang the side to indicate all clear for drivers to race away onto Spring Street.

NASA had its Mission Control, we had ours.

On my way to dinner in the 10th-floor cafeteria, I would sometimes snoop around the third floor, the newsroom, to catch glimpses of my sportswriter heroes.

I think I saw Mal Florence once.

Imagine the young man who did his college homework two floors down in between press runs growing up to get this chance, nearly 40 years later, to write his last story for this newspaper.

I was hired as a newsroom go-fer in 1981, and rose to the professional pinnacle of the great Murray knowing my name.

The highlight of all highlights was sitting next to Murray at his last Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1, 1998, a matchup between Michigan and Washington State.

It was the last year before the Bowl Championship Series arrived to help lower, but not eliminate, the odds of split national championships.

Michigan was No.1 in both polls, but sentiment was dripping toward Nebraska, with retiring coach Tom Osborne, which was playing Tennessee the next night in the Orange Bowl.

I told Murray that if Washington State won I was taking a red-eye to Miami that night. My packed suitcase was in the car.

He got a big kick out of that. After Washington State scored, he leaned over and cracked, "Is there a movie on that flight?"

After a positive Cougars gain he'd chirp, "I hear you get chicken or fish with your meal."

Murray died the following Aug. 16 — the same calendar date as Babe Ruth and Elvis.

There is too much other ground to cover, so I'll try to beat my final deadline by just saying I was one lucky son of a truck driver.

I worked as a copy boy for the Orange County edition, surrounded by clacking typewriters, glue pots and loud ringing things we used to call telephones.

I jumped one day when the edition's sports editor, Marshall Klein, the man responsible for hiring me, shouted my name for a big assignment.

It was to fetch him a deli sandwich at the Lil' Pickle.

I moved on from condiments to cover the high schools, kayak races to Catalina, racquetball and quarter-horse racing at Los Alamitos.

My break came in 1983, when I was assigned to chronicle a circus called the United States Football League. Then it was on to legitimate work with the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders.

There are eight or nine Super Bowls in my rear-view mirror and several basketball Final Fours. I covered one summer Olympics (Atlanta 1996) and six frozen frolics, starting at Lillehammer in 1994. The first Olympic event I covered was Tommy Moe's surprising gold in the downhill.

I made my bones, though, on college football, starting in 1995. It was the right canvas for my artistic leanings, an offshoot of the crackpot-crazy USFL.

Unlike the USFL, which folded after three seasons, college football came back every year.

My competitive advantage was that my alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, dropped football years ago, meaning I had no pigskin in the game.

College football is foundationally rooted in where you went to school, so it was great to be Judge Judy.

I never cared who won — unless it meant a bowl trip to New Orleans instead of Detroit.

My fight song was Switzerland's national anthem. Writers mostly bow to the god of fast games and what works best for me.

The birth of the BCS in 1998 was terrible for people who had the notion that every season had to be equitably resolved. It was my gold mine/candy store.

In what other sport could you get to a title game, as Nebraska did in 2001, after losing 62-36 to Colorado?

When the BCS was buried, well, a piece of me died the way Southern Methodist did after the NCAA death penalty.

I'm not leaving The Times because the BCS is gone — it just seems that way. I'm leaving because 40 years seemed a long enough time to be any place.

The work hasn't changed, and will continue. I only wish today's blogger generation knew better the irrevocable permanence of a newspaper hitting the driveway.

This is my chance to sneak out on the same getaway train with valued wingmen Bill Dwyre and Chris Foster.

I'll miss daily journalism after typing 6 million words. What won't be missed are 7:45 p.m. kickoffs and my name being butchered by teleconference operators.

True story from a Pac-12 Conference football coaches call: "Your next question is from "Cristy Fries of the Los Angeles Times."

This is the only ink joint I've ever really known, cared about, or wanted to work for. Thank goodness Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Denver Post (pause, deep breath), Seattle Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Kansas City Star and a thousand other papers never offered me a job.

It would have been difficult to say what I would have said: "No thanks."

Or maybe they already knew that.

I keep a laminated letter posted on my wall, at eye level, dated Aug. 8, 1980.

It is a rejection letter from Bill Shirley, who was then the L.A. Times' sports editor.

"Dear Mr. Dufresne: There are no vacancies in the sports department and I don't anticipate any soon. There is little turnover at The Times."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 09, 2015, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "For 39 years, he delivered" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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