Los Angeles Times

Dedicate press box for a legend

Back in the day, whenever my Long Beach Wilson water polo team played (and usually beat, by the way) a high school from Newport-Mesa, early the next morning I'd drive down to Orange County to pick up the Daily Pilot.

This newspaper covered (and still does) the minor sport of prep water polo like it was Major League Baseball, which was quite thrilling to a 17-year-old who longed to see his name in type. I'm sure my mom still has the yellowed, musty clips somewhere in her garage.

More often than not, the byline on the water polo articles read, Roger Carlson. And I noticed he didn't just write about water polo. Each time I paged through the Pilot's sports pages, his byline seemed to be on every other story.

I remember thinking, "This guy is something else."

For almost 40 years, Carlson chronicled the Newport-Mesa prep scene for the Daily Pilot, first as a reporter and later as an editor. His labor of love had a positive impact on literally tens of thousands of high school athletes who, like me, are forever grateful for having achievements from their glory days published in the Pilot.

In 2003, Carlson quietly retired from his position as sports editor of the Pilot and slipped away with his wife Dorothea to San Juan Capistrano. Not one to like the spotlight, this suited Carlson just fine. No going-away parties, no honors, no fuss.

No fair.

The Newport-Mesa sports community — the former athletes, their parents, families, coaches, administrators and fans — owe Carlson at least a great big thank you for the service he provided them.

And I can think of no better way to say thank you than to name the press box at Newport Harbor High's Davidson Field after him.

"The Roger Carlson Press Box" — it just sounds right.

"I'd feel very honored," said Carlson, now 74, when I told him about the idea. "The press box was like my home for a long, long time. I'd be very proud of that."

For those of you who don't know the local legend, here are the Cliff's Notes on Roger Carlson's life.

Carlson, raised in Monrovia, joined the Marines in 1954 as a 17-year-old fresh out of high school. After rising to the rank of sergeant, he left the service three years later and found work at an electrical wholesaler.

And then he received a fateful call from a childhood friend, Glenn White, who was the sports editor of the Pilot. White encouraged Carlson to become a reporter.

"I had no experience, and English was my worst subject in school," Carlson said. "But Glenn said he would teach me."

In 1964, Carlson started stringing for the Pilot, reporting on sports events in his off-hours and soaking up every lesson he could from White. A few years later, he was hired full-time and worked for the next 25 years as a sports writer.

"I covered at least 750 high school football games during that time," Carlson said. "And for the majority of them, I was in the press box at Davidson Field."

In 1988, Carlson was promoted to sports editor. I worked with him for a decade, and always considered him the classic newspaperman. He didn't care much for nonsense, expected his crew to love the job as much as he did (translation: work long hours without complaint), and demanded the Pilot get any local sports scoop.

Though a tough former Marine, Carlson had a soft spot when it came to the student-athletes of Newport-Mesa. It's why he worked 70-plus hours, seven days a week for decades. He wanted to make sure each athlete got his or her fair share of ink.

And he made sure no one was ever embarrassed. In Carlson's world, no teenager ever threw an interception. He'd insist the play be reported from the positive perspective — from the player who made the interception.

For instance, The Mustangs' John Smith intercepted a Sea Kings' pass. No kid fumbled. Instead, the Eagles' Mike Miller recovered a Sailor fumble.

"God, yes, I miss the kids and coaches," said Carlson, before adding with his standard bluntness. "They were really the whole heart and soul of the job. But I don't miss the office [expletive.]"

He just wanted to report on high school sports and be left alone. His office was known as "The Cave," from which he rarely ventured. He didn't care much for his bosses and the politics of even a small community newspaper. But at least people knew where they stood with Carlson.

His seven years of retirement haven't been exactly golden. About a year into it, Carlson was diagnosed with colon cancer, which he beat after a grueling fight.

Then his wife, Dorothea, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in the summer of 2009 after a four-year battle.

In the meantime, Carlson's cancer came back in another part of his colon. After another successful round of surgery and treatments, he was declared cancer-free last month.

So for six of his seven retirement years, cancer has dominated Carlson's life. Even so, he still managed to write a book, "Statistician 101," a how-to guide to keeping football statistics.

Carlson said, with a laugh, the book "didn't sell worth a [expletive.]"

He also keeps busy editing his community's 16-page monthly newspaper, the YaketyYak.

Carlson — always the realist — wonders if the idea of putting his name on the press box at Davidson Field stands much of a chance. He knows about the amount of bureaucracy involved in getting anything done in the school district.

"And they will generally nix these kind of things unless the people are dead," Carlson said.

I checked with longtime Newport-Mesa school board member Judy Franco. She said the district has a tradition of honoring living notables (the Marian Bergeson Aquatic Center at Corona del Mar High, the Loats Performing Arts Center at Newport Harbor High and the Roderick H. MacMillian Boardroom at the district headquarters).

Franco says the push must come from Newport Harbor High.

So I encourage Principal Michael Vossen, football coach Jeff Brinkley, volleyball coach Dan Glenn, former athletic director Eric Tweit and other faculty, parents and students touched by Carlson's work over the years: Let's get 'er done.

The sooner the better.

P.S. How great would it be for the Sailors' home opener next year to be a tribute to Roger Carlson? I'd imagine a fundraising the dinner just before the game; we could sell out any joint in town and the money could be put toward a sports writing scholarship. And then at the game, some former players and coaches could tell the crowd what Carlson meant to them. Guaranteed to be a teachable moment — and a tear-jerker.

Bob Hassay, who taught at Estancia High for 44 years and announced the Eagles' football games, said he saw first-hand the impact Carlson had on athletes and their families over the years. And the Roger Carlson Press Box would be the perfect tribute.

"It would be such a wonderful thing," Hassay said. "I'm just hoping and praying it can be pulled off. Roger epitomizes a football journalist. He became a permanent fixture" in Newport-Mesa athletics.

Anyone wanting to express his or her support for the Roger Carlson Press Box at Davidson Field can send an email to Daily Pilot Sports Editor Steve Virgen at steve.virgen@latimes.com.

I'll leave the final word to Carlson. When asked about his career, he talks about a World War II documentary he recently saw where a little boy asked his grandfather, "Are you a hero?"

Though the old veteran clearly had the right to say yes, he replied, "I wasn't, but I walked among them."

"That's how I feel," said Carlson, struggling with his emotions. "I wasn't a hero, but I walked among them. I didn't have any special credentials or gifts. I was nothing more than a sports fan. I just love the games and the people participating in them. But I did walk among them."

William Lobdell is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times religion beat writer and a Costa Mesa resident. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

How To Help

Here's how you can help make the Roger Carlson Press Box at Davidson Field become a reality:

•E-mail a note of support to Daily Pilot Sports Editor at steve.virgen@latimes.com. We'll forward it to Newport Harbor Principal Michael Vossen and the Newport-Mesa school board.

•Spread the word to former Newport-Mesa players, their coaches and families and encourage them to send the Pilot letters of support.

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