Sielski: Bill Lyon is Most Courageous, and most generous, too

020317-Bill-Lyon-panel-1200x800-Version-2-with-Sielski
Inquirer sports columnist emeritus Bill Lyon (left) at his desk in his Broomall home office on May 15, 2016. Although Bill, 78, was diagnosed three years ago with Alzheimer's Disease, he continues to write, teach and exercise in an attempt to fight back against the ravages of this disease which he likens to "death by inches." Top right, Lyon was honored Friday with the Most Courageous Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. Lower right is columnist Mike Sielski.

So it's the summer of 1995, and there's this college kid who wants to be a sportswriter.

He will begin his junior year in a couple of weeks, and he has spent June and July and most of August interning at a small public-relations firm. But he knows he doesn't want to work in PR for a living. There's nothing wrong with the firm - great company, great people. But he's been covering various sports for his university's student newspaper, and writing has gotten its hooks in him. He loves the reporting, the agonizingly long time it takes him to arrange the words into a finished product that satisfies him, the feedback he receives. It's addictive. That is what he wants to do.

He gets an idea. He decides to send letters - yes, this was back when people actually sent letters to each other - to a few well-known sportswriters around the country. With each letter, he encloses some samples of his writing and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, asking only for some advice about breaking into the newspaper business. He'd be thrilled to hear from any of them, but most of all, he hopes to hear from his favorite columnist: Bill Lyon of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The college kid can't remember the first time he read a Bill Lyon column. It feels as if he's always read Bill Lyon's columns. Just a few months earlier, when the New Jersey Devils were unfurling their suffocating neutral-zone trap against the Flyers in the NHL's Eastern Conference Finals, the college kid read a Bill Lyon column about the series and committed the first sentence to memory:

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the Flyers.

 

Perfect. In his articles for the student newspaper, the college kid tries to mimic Lyon's writing style, but the pieces sound forced, stilted, as if he's trying too hard, which he is. Maybe, the college kid hopes, Bill Lyon will explain how he does it when he writes back.

Bill Lyon never writes back.

The college kid has another job that summer. His uncle owns a deli in Northeast Philadelphia, and the college kid works there part-time as a short-order cook, serving up hoagies, cheesesteaks, creamed chipped beef. It's fun, a good way to put a few bucks in his pocket. One slow Sunday morning, the deli's phone rings, and he answers it.

"Can I help you?"

"Hey, it's Dad."

"What's up?"

"You'll never guess who just called here asking for you."

"Who?"

"Bill Lyon."

"What?"

"He used directory assistance to look up our number. He gave me his. He wants you to call him back."

The college kid can't dial fast enough, and he can't believe what he hears after Bill Lyon answers the phone. I have to be at the Phillies-Dodgers game on Friday night, Lyon says. Would you like to tag along?

 

Five days later, pen and notebook in hand, wondering if he's in the right place, the college kid shuffles toward the media entrance to Veterans Stadium. No worry. Bill Lyon is already waiting there. Whoa, he's tall - 6-foot-4 and lean, like the ex-athlete he is. Down they go on the elevator to the Phillies clubhouse, where Bill introduces him to Darren Daulton, Jim Eisenreich, Larry Bowa. The two of them sit with Jim Fregosi in the manager's office, talking baseball. They walk out onto the field to watch batting practice. They have dinner together in the media cafeteria.

Then the game begins. The Dodgers' starting pitcher is Hideo Nomo, an international sensation who is dominating the National League in his rookie season. He lasts three innings. Gregg Jefferies becomes the first Phillies player in 32 years to hit for the cycle. Jeff Juden, the Phillies starter, hits a grand slam, throws a complete game, and conducts his postgame interviews with a cowboy hat on his head and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. Daulton tears the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on a seemingly innocuous slide into second base. The Phillies win, 17-4. It is the kind of game that can overwhelm a sportswriter. How do you capture so much? In the press box, the college kid glances at Bill's laptop and watches these words materialize on the screen:

This all begins to unfurl, this night of madness, at 8:16, when, to a firestorm of flash bulbs from the stands, Nomo pretzels himself into that bizarre contortionist's windup, stretching like a man just awakening from a long nap, then pivoting until he is turned halfway around, and from that bewildering posture the ball suddenly emerges, hot and hissing.

Bill writes the entire column in 45 minutes. Some things are beyond explanation.

On Wednesday morning - two days before receiving the Most Courageous Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, during the organization's annual banquet at the Cherry Hill Crowne Plaza - Bill Lyon opened the door of his home, a cane in his right hand. He will turn 79 next week. Since the winter of 2013, he has been living with Alzheimer's disease, fighting and raging against it. Since last summer, he has been writing about his fight, summoning every ounce of concentration to descend the seven steps from his living room to his writing room, to organize his thoughts, to hunt-and-peck the elegant paragraphs. The columns take more than 45 minutes now. They still defy explanation.

A year after that Phillies game, that college kid got the chance to cover high school football games for the Inquirer, at Bill's suggestion. Ten years after that Phillies game, that college kid brought the girl he was going to marry to the Lyon home, so that she could meet Bill and his family. Nineteen years after that Phillies game, that college kid listened over the phone as Bill told him about the Alzheimer's, and he couldn't believe what he was hearing, and he swallowed back the lump in his throat.

In July, after Bill had written one of his recent columns about resisting, persisting, and never giving up, that college kid opened his laptop and wrote an email to him about that Phillies game. He hopes Bill doesn't forget it, for as long as he can.

I consider that day to be among the 10 best of my entire life. I've met and married Kate. We've had two beautiful children together. Yet that day stays on my top 10 list. I think you know why, even if you're too gracious and humble to admit it to anyone else. . . .

I've never been prouder to call you a mentor and friend. The strength, the grace, the vulnerability you've displayed have been both inspiring and heartbreaking. What they have not been, though, is surprising, not to me. I suspected you had those qualities back in '95. I've seen you display those qualities in your love for Ethel, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandson. I've witnessed the reflection of those qualities in the esteem in which your coworkers and colleagues held you, and still hold you. And I've experienced the invaluable benefits of those qualities: your wisdom, your generosity, your friendship.

Thank you for all of this. Thank you so much.

 

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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