Larry Felser, who chronicled Buffalo sports for more than 50 years and became an icon in the newspaper business, died Wednesday at age 80.
Felser worked for The Buffalo News for 38 years, his last 25 as the lead sports columnist for the paper. He was an authoritative, provocative voice who had a greater connection to the heartbeat of Buffalo sports fans than any newspaperman Western New York has known. He succumbed to a brief illness at the Beechwood Continuing Care facility in Getzville.
“Larry was basically the voice of sports in Buffalo for a generation,” said Howard Smith, former executive sports editor at The News. “He interpreted what went on, and his opinion really helped color the opinions of a whole generation of sports readers. ... He set the agenda for sports discussion in Buffalo for years and years.”
A Buffalo native, Felser began his newspaper career as a copy boy at the Courier-Express in 1953 and worked there for 12 years before joining The News. He covered the Buffalo Bills from their inception in 1960 to his retirement in 2001. He continued to write a weekly sports column in The News until 2012. He held the title of sports editor for the last 20 years of his News tenure.
Felser was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1984, he received the Dick McCann Memorial Award for distinguished reporting of professional football, an honor that is displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Felser was not the voice of the fans; he was the voice for the fans. He was not one to jump to rash conclusions.
“Today we’re used to so many people ripping so many sports figures every day of the week, just because there’s so much media and immediacy now,” Smith said. “Felser had a temperament and a poise in his writing, and a perspective. He wasn’t going to rip somebody for one bad game or one bad moment. He had wisdom to put it in perspective and understand that one bad game does not a disaster make.”
When unleashed, however, Felser’s criticism was stinging. He brought a two-fisted attitude but wrote with finesse. He censured with a scalpel, never a rusty knife.
“He felt a sense of duty to kind of look out for the fans’ interests in those teams, that they were doing it right and playing it straight,” said Vic Carucci, a former Bills beat writer for The News.
Felser’s voice carried weight. He gained national prominence in the late 1960s in part because of a weekly football column he wrote for The Sporting News. He had great sources and could get top football executives – from legendary coach Vince Lombardi to National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle to American Football League founder Lamar Hunt – on the phone whenever he wanted.
“I always had this list of guys in my mind that if they knocked you, you must be doing something wrong,” said Ernie Accorsi, respected former personnel chief of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants. “If Larry Felser was gonna criticize you, you better look at yourself in the mirror, because you’re probably wrong.”
Despite his accomplishments, Felser maintained a feet-on-the-ground, Buffalo sensibility. “He loved bringing guys along, mentoring younger reporters about writing, ethics in the business, how to live on the road – he took pride in that,” said News sports writer Milt Northrop.
The respect Felser inspired was evidenced on his honeymoon. It was 1966, and Felser and his new bride, Beverly, were vacationing in Florida. Few knew their destination. But the newlyweds were awakened one morning by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who tracked them down. Davis offered Felser a job as a lead public relations man for the league.
Felser turned him down, largely because of his loyalty to Buffalo and The News.
“I am deeply saddened to hear the news of the passing of Larry Felser,” said Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. “He was the consummate professional – tough, but fair, and never one to shy away from clearly stating his opinion. I had tremendous respect for Larry, and we developed a deep friendship that lasted throughout our lifetimes. We shared some great laughs over the years, and that’s what I am remembering most today about Larry.”
Felser graduated from Canisius High School and Canisius College. He served in the U.S. Army for two years as a cryptographer, decoding messages.
“It’s ironic that he died this week because this was Larry’s favorite time of the year – the NFL draft,” said Northrop. “In the Army, most guys get weekend passes and go to the beach. Larry would get his pass and go to Columbia, S.C., to watch Alex Hawkins or to scout Clemson.”
Even though he immersed himself in the sports world, sports did not define Felser. He was a voracious reader, a political junkie who loved history and genealogy. He was proud of his Jesuit education and was a whiz at trivia. He loved to travel and went to Europe many times. He called himself “an avid gardener by marriage.”
He proudly considered himself “a foodie.” He relished eating snow grouse at La Maisonette in Cincinnati and bananas foster at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.
Yet he never strayed far from his Buffalo roots. Upon his retirement, he was one of only eight writers to have covered each of the first 35 Super Bowls. He could have kept going to the title game after retiring from full-time work but demurred. “I plan to watch the game on my couch with a beer in my hand, the way God intended,” he said.
“He was as strong a family man as I’ve known,” Smith said. “His wife and two daughters were Nos. 1 and 1 AA, and all the other stuff wasn’t as important. Maybe that’s what helped put it in perspective for him, because he knew that what was really important was his family, and the football game was not life and death.”
Felser and his wife shared their 47th wedding anniversary Tuesday. He also is survived by two daughters, Ellen Morfei and Lenise Anne “Niecy” Deakin, and four grandsons.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.