ADVERTISEMENT

A younger sports writer can only imagine what it must have been like to cover the American Football League in 1960. It seems like such a distant time now. John F. Kennedy had not been elected when the first game was played. The space program was in its infancy. The tumult of the Sixties was still a faraway murmur.

It must have been incredibly exciting to be Larry Felser back then, to be a young reporter getting his first crack at pro football, to feel a writing career and a new football league ascending together, uncertain where it would all lead.

Felser hopped aboard the AFL that first year and he got the ride of his life. This week, he rides into retirement, leaving daily newspaper work exactly 50 years after taking his first job as a copy boy at the Courier-Express.

Pro football took him from creaky old ballparks to shiny domed stadiums; from portable typewriters to Windows 98; from Cookie Gilchrist to O.J. Simpson to Thurman Thomas; from the old Courier to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He saw the AFL grow, in the space of 10 years, from a maverick upstart league to a respected competitor and, finally, a partner when it merged with the NFL in 1970. He chronicled the league as it evolved into America's pre-eminent sporting institution. He has covered all 35 Super Bowls and saw his hometown team play in it four consecutive times.

By the end of the 1960s, Felser was a national figure in the sports media; he was a respected weekly voice in The Sporting News for a quarter century. But through it all, he remained at heart a Buffalo guy, a local treasure, an all-around good person who never changed and never lost sight of his roots.

"He's one guy you don't have to lie about," said Jerry Izenberg, the veteran sports columnist at The Newark Star-Ledger. "Larry Felser comes from a class of columnists who wrote for the people. They didn't write lines, they wrote for the people. It's a dying thing. There was no question who Larry's audience was. From what I know of him and about Buffalo, I think it was the perfect marriage."

Izenberg and Felser are among the eight sports writers who have covered every Super Bowl. It's a distinction they cherish. Every year, the eight look forward to meeting for dinner during the week of the big game.

"It's like a drug," Izenberg said. "If we're not there, that means we're dead. Generally, we hold each other up."

Izenberg said he and Felser shared a special affinity because Newark and Buffalo were similar cities, unfairly maligned in the national consciousness. He said Felser rose above any negative perceptions of his hometown. Vic Carucci, who worked alongside him for nearly 20 years on The News' football beat, said Felser felt it was his duty to represent Buffalo well.

"He carried the Buffalo pride thing more than any of us," Carucci said. "You weren't just a representative of The Buffalo News, you were from Buffalo. No matter where you went, whether it was New York, Chicago or LA, they showed a remarkable respect for this man, and by extension, for Buffalo. He understood that how you carry yourself went a long way, and it was a valuable lesson. It was never anything he spoke of. You had to observe it to learn it."

That level of respect doesn't come by accident. Felser achieved it through decades of dedication and hard work, through countless hours spent cultivating sources and earning the trust of coaches, players, executives and other writers. They say the most important thing a man has is his word. In Felser's case, his word -- or his words -- were impeccable.

"When people read Larry Felser, they said, 'This is accurate. This is true,' " said Will McDonough, the long-time Boston Globe football writer and TV analyst, and one of the eight to cover all the Super Bowls. "Everybody respects him. He's been fair, honest, accurate -- everything you'd want if you owned a newspaper. Married to the same gal, all the traditional values. And he's never changed."

Former news columnist Jim Kelley, who worked with Felser for more than 30 years, said Felser is more appreciated outside Buffalo than anyone could imagine. "And that's saying a lot," Kelley said, "because he's really appreciated here. Everywhere I've ever gone, if I told someone, 'Larry Felser said hello,' the door swings open. The guy opened more doors for me than any doorman at the Marriott. And no one ever said, 'You're friends with that jerk?' Never."

He was always ready with a kind word, or a helpful piece of advice, for a fellow writer. Carucci said one of the highlights of his early career came when former Bills coach Chuck Knox called him with a scoop, because Felser had told him Carucci could be trusted. The highest compliment you could get was when Larry called you "Cuz," which meant you were OK in his book.

Felser was a tough guy to compete with. Jim Peters, who took over the Bills' beat for the Courier when Felser came to The News in 1963, said he worked hard to build up contacts, but he could never keep up. But he was grateful, because going against Felser kept you on your toes. It made you better. And you could always count on him as a friend.

"I remember the day the Courier-Express closed in 1982," said Peters, who is now retired from The News. "I wasn't in the office 10 minutes when the phone rang. It was Larry. He said, don't do anything foolish. We'd like you to come down here. It was one of the most welcome phone calls I ever had. I'll never forget him for that."

The guy wasn't perfect. Like many sports writers, he had his share of adventures with cars. Carucci says he'll never forget the time Felser drove a rental car out of the Orange Bowl parking lot after covering a Bills-Dolphins game and took a wrong turn. Carucci and Milt Northrop looked on in horror, certain they were about to die, as Felser narrowly missed colliding with a car going 80 mph.

"He'd been at the Orange Bowl more than the rest of us put together," Northrop said. "And every time he left that place, he still turned the wrong way."

Carucci said from that point forward, he was the designated driver on road trips. Felser did not object.

Edwin Pope, the veteran Miami Herald sports columnist (and yes, another of the original eight), recalled that he and Felser covered the United States' historic win over the Soviets in hockey at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. When they came out of the arena, Felser's rental car was gone. It had been towed. Felser paid about $150 to reclaim it at the police station, only to find that the front end had been ruined. Miracle on Ice indeed.

Pope said it was the only time he ever saw Felser really angry. Mostly, he just rolled with the punches.

Affable and accurate, that's Larry. A gifted writer and dogged reporter who gave you the clear, unvarnished truth.

"I used to call him the Swami," said Ed Abramoski, who was the Bills' trainer for the first 36 years of their existence and is now on the Wall of Fame. "Larry was always so up on what was going to happen in the NFL, he'd tell me ahead of time. I'd say, 'Go on. What are you, a swami?'

"The players might not have liked what he wrote. But one thing they always told me was Larry always had the facts. You might not agree with the premise or the conclusion, but his facts were always correct. As a matter of fact, when Billy Shaw asked me to give his introduction at the Hall of Fame, I called up Larry and we went to lunch."

Abramoski said Felser was instrumental in Shaw becoming the first Hall of Famer to play his entire career in the old AFL, although Felser wouldn't take the credit. But he could be a persuasive voice when those votes were being taken.

"When he gets up and talks in those meetings, everybody listens," Pope said.

"They don't make them like him anymore," said Knox, who met Felser as a Jets assistant in 1963. "I really believe that. He's one of a few that came up through the ranks and got better with his profession. I never felt it was personal with Larry. He looked at it, and if we didn't play well, he had the right to say it."

Jerry Green, who has covered all 35 Super Bowls for the Detroit News, said Felser knew more football than most of the national writers, and most important of all, he was a workhorse.

"Larry was sort of an offensive lineman among sports writers," Green said. "He did the blocking, the smashing. He had that kind of work ethic. Games are won in the trenches; that's where the good stories come from, too."

In fact, Felser was an offensive lineman. He started at guard for Canisius High in 1950. Even then, he was a class act. Jack Fahey, one of the team's stars back then, said it was Felser who convinced him to stay on the team when he wanted to quit as a junior. As a senior, Fahey became a high school All-American.

It's a rare man who can say he's covered all 35 Super Bowls and played in a St. Joe's-Canisius football game. People in Buffalo don't know just how good they've had it all these years, to have a giant like Larry Felser come up in their midst and spend his entire professional life here.

It's a good thing they don't use those old typewriters anymore, because it's pretty clear that none of us could carry his.