I’m not too sure if my sister has forgiven me.
The second she saw the photo in The Press-Tribune, she put down the newspaper and called me.
I barely said “hello” when she demanded to know why I didn’t tell her.
What I didn’t tell her? I had shot a photo of San Francisco 49er players Dwight Clark and Joe Montana handing Sierra College football coach Rex Chappell a football signed by the entire 49er team the community college athletic department was going to auction off as a fundraiser.
If you were anywhere near Sierra College in 1982 the San Francisco 49ers were “the team”. They had shifted their training camp to the Rocklin community college next door to Roseville at the start of the 1981 season that led to their first Super Bowl championship. Even if you didn’t follow football it was hard to ignore the fuss.
It was the season of “The Catch”. I happened to be at Candlestick Park as the Press-Tribune photographer. The sports editor wanted some photos after the game of linebacker Danny Bunz as the team headed into the locker room for a feature he was doing in addition to game photos. I was on the eastern end of the field when it happened.
From my vantage point I couldn’t see “The Catch” take place on third down and three to go with 58 seconds to go. What I did get to see was Eddie DeBartolo — who had been standing 10 feet from me — going completely nuts. I was one of perhaps a dozen people that he spontaneously hugged as he was jumping around.
Bunz — a Roseville product and graduate of Oakmont High — was the linebacker at the heart of the two back-to-back goal line stances that turned the tide to assure the 49ers of the Super Bowl victory against the Bengals that season.
While both Montana and Clark earned legendary status that season, it seemed almost every female was smitten with Clark.
My sister almost felt betrayed because I didn’t tell her in advance I was taking Clark’s picture.
I wasn’t in awe of any
athletes, pro or otherwise
At the risk of having 49er fans think I’m off my rocker, I honestly wasn’t in awe of the Niners or any sports team for that matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d been covering high school sports — and enjoying it — since 1972 even after I became the city hall reporter for Roseville, Rocklin, and Lincoln.
A few years later when I became the sports editor, I left the training camp coverage in Rocklin to a sports reporter. I preferred concentrating on the seven high schools and two community colleges we covered.
Most sports reporters would have given their right arm for the people I was able to cover during the four years I was the Press-Tribune sports editor.
There was Summer Sanders, an Oakmont High and Capital City Aquatics swimmer who went on to win two gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the 1992 Olympics. A teen-age Scott Pruett, a Roseville High student at the time that was breaking go-kart records left and right on his way to becoming an Indy driver.
Mark Fuller was a Lincoln High product that qualified for two Olympics as a Greco-Roman wrestler. Steve Cook was a Roseville High graduate who was the top money winner in the Professional Bowling Association tour. Fred Besana, a Roseville High graduate who was starting quarterback for the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. I even covered Evelyn Ashford in her last year at Roseville High. She eventually ran the 100-meters in less than 11 seconds 30 times including when she won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
And then there was Robbie Bosco, the Roseville High graduate that led the Brigham Young University Cougars to an undefeated season and the national college football championship.
When Bosco landed the starting job as quarterback that year, The Press-Tribune publisher who was hell-bent on making us hyper local to the point the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union couldn’t match us when it came to any connection to the communities we covered. So he sent me packing to five days to Provo, Utah.
The goal was to produce five days of full page features about Bosco — everything from his campus life to a day-in-the-life-of feature, and stories focused on how he fit into the hierarchy of great BYU quarterbacks (Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Steve Young, and Gifford Nielsen) plus how coaches and teammates sized him up.
Busy day at BYU campus
truly an understatement
The day I interviewed BYU coaching great LaVell Edwards and then quarterback coach Mike Holmgren who went on to work as the 49ers offensive coach before serving as head coach for the Green Bay Packers and then the Seattle Seahawks, was the day that had been scheduled after practice so I could get photos of Bosco passing with the Wasatch Range in the background.
As were about to head out to the field, Steve Young — who earlier that month signed a $40 million contract to quarterback the Los Angeles Express in the new USFL, happened to pull up to the training facility in his beat up 1963 Valiant.
Holmgren asked Young to go with Bosco and myself to the practice field so he could catch passes to assure that the photos would be of action and not staged.
Young stood 60 yards down field. He impressed me so much with his accuracy — he threw the ball back almost three dozen times without Bosco barely having to move a foot or two to catch it — that when the 49ers signed Young it prompted me to pen a column that he might just end up being as good as Montana. More than a few people took those words as pure blasphemy.
It was during that time I was approached by Associated Press to work as their Sacramento Kings stringer. For 5½ years before I moved to Manteca I covered every Kings home game except one when it conflicted with a bicycling trip in Death Valley. (Hey, I have my priorities.)
As a wire service reporter I sat with TV sports anchors and metro newspaper staff courtside between the official scorer and the Kings home bench.
It required filing two stories, calling in quarter scores and the final, and dictating long and short boxes. For the boxes, I was allowed to bring someone with me to do that who sat in the second row.
Courtside coverage of Larry Bird,
Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson
This was when the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan played at Arco Arena.
Everybody that knew I covered the home games and not only saw NBA stars up close but actually interviewed them after the games thought I was the luckiest guy on the planet. Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact I work for a newspaper. But I’m far from being infatuated with professional athletes and don’t really have a desire to “meet” them except for one — Greg LeMond.
If you do not know who LeMond is, I believe he is the greatest American cyclist of all time. He was the first American to win the grueling Tour de France. He did so in 1986 and repeated the fete in 1989 and 1990. Lance Armstrong did “win” seven in a row but he was stripped of those titles due to drug doping.
It helped a lot that LeMond was becoming a legend at the same time I took up riding racing or road bicycles. My go to route once a month when the snow cleared was the 88-mile course with 8,200 feet of climbing covering Mt. Rose, Spooner Summit, and Geiger Grade that a teen LeMond cut his teeth on. He was living in the Washoe Valley south of Reno when a winter drought derailed his dreams of pursuing stunt snow skiing. That prompted him to try road racing.
I even dropped just under $3,000 to buy one of his line of bicycles dubbed the LeMond Team Z frame with its flashy rainbow-like paint design.
And as an added note a young LeMond raced as a teen in Manteca in the 1980s when the now defunct Manteca Bicycle Club hosted a criterium in the Manteca Industrial Park. The future Tour de France champion ended up spending the night at a club member’s house when his dad broke his arm in a crash racing in the open division and had to overnight at Doctors Hospital.
Given all the pro athletes I came across when I was sports editor in Roseville, it is ironic I never met LeMond face-face. It’s ironic because at least four times I had the chance to and each time failed to realize it.
Four close encounters
with cyclist Greg LeMond
The first time was when I was out bicycling north of Lincoln on McCartney Road heading toward Camp Far West Lake and Wheatland. A cyclist waved from his drop bars as he passed in the opposite direction wearing a distinctive La Vie Claire team jersey. I also happened to have a La Vie Claire jersey on that day because that was the team LeMond was riding for that year. The jersey was considered outlandish at the time even by cycling apparel standards.
I have never worn any pro sport fan gear but I made an exception for cycling jerseys worn by my favorite riders that I would wear on rides. Among them were Dave Phinney of the 7-Eleven team and Scott McKinley of the Coors team.
I passed the same guy donning the LaVie Claire jersey at least one other time while riding the same country road.
Little did I know that it was LeMond.
I found this out one day when I was working as the city editor at The Press-Tribune. There was a report of a shooting on the police scanner in the Lincoln foothills. It was still early enough in the morning — we were an afternoon paper — that we could get something in the paper.
I had our police reporter call the sheriff’s office to see if they had any details. He told me it was no big deal. It was a hunting accident and the guy wasn’t even local. For whatever reason, he did not even bother to file a brief.
Imagine my chagrin when I got back from lunch and the newsroom was being inundated with calls from the London Times, the Paris Le Monde, to the New York Times wanting to know what details or photos The Press-Tribune had on what a sports scribe for a paper in Italy called the biggest sports story of the year — the reigning Tour de France champion being shot in a hunting accident at his uncle’s ranch and was clinging to life.
The 25-year-old LeMond had been sprayed with buck shot and lost about a third of his blood before emergency crews arrived. Doctors at the time said he probably came within 20 minutes of dying. Medical experts believed his incredibly strong heart and lungs — once tested an astonishing VO2 max of 93 — is likely what saved his life that day.
That brings me to the second opportunity I had to meet with LeMond face-to-face.
It turns out LeMond, who lived at the time in Rancho Murieta in eastern Sacramento County, was wild turkey hunting with his cousin “Coyote” in the Lincoln foothills when he got shot. “Coyote” accidently shot LeMond indicating he mistook a man who many at the time considered the greatest athlete in the world for a scrawny wild turkey that looks more like a pheasant than the domestic turkeys that grace countless dinner tables on Thanksgiving. The wound was so serious they dispatched a Life Flight helicopter.
“Coyote” also happened to be a friend of my brother who lived about a block from my mother’s house in Lincoln. For months my brother kept telling me LeMond was “Coyote’s” cousin and that he stopped by his house for lunch on his way back home when his training ride took him north of Lincoln. My brother even went as far as claiming “Coyote” had asked LeMond if it was OK if I stopped by for lunch sometime when he was in Lincoln given I was a big fan.
Naturally I thought my brother was lying through his teeth. First of all, what would LeMond be doing training in the Lincoln foothills. I was even more skeptical that “Coyote” was LeMond’s cousin.
Not only did we miss a big story that ended up being front page news across Europe, but I also realized I had passed on chances to have lunch with LeMond just a block from my mom’s house.
The fourth time I missed an opportunity to spend time with LeMond was after he won his second Tour de France.
Joaquin Farinha — a Lincoln dairy farmer turned developer — called me up one day and wanted to know if I wanted to join him and his wife to go to a 49er game at Candlestick. He had an extra ticket and was renting an RV. He said the real reason I’d want to go was because Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy were joining them.
Farinha was known for playing jokes on people. As an example, when he heard I took a job in Manteca he told me to drop in on the Machados sometime and tell them he said to say hi. I almost took him up on his offer but after riding through the countryside around Manteca the first two weeks I was here to get a feel for the area, I realized there were multiple Machado dairies.
Despite Farinha birddogging me for the better part of two weeks, I declined his offer.
To say I was stunned to say the least when he showed me pictures of the LeMonds with him in the RV and sitting together at the game. I literally could have spent almost 12 hours on a Sunday hanging out with Greg LeMond.
Four missed opportunities, four times that I could have had LeMond talking to me.
‘Who’s Greg LeMond?’
That brings me to the time that my sister actually got LeMond to turn his head — as well as those of a couple of other sports superstars — and not just look at her but speak at her as well.
It was before a Kings game. Mary volunteered — actually it was more like demanded — to be able to accompany me to the Sacramento Kings game against the Boston Celtics to do the box call-ins for AP.
Because it was the Celtics, every media outlet from Fresno to the Oregon border wanted game credentials. Julie Fie — the media coordinator for the Kings — had set up an overflow media table directly behind Boston and the Celtics radio station. As she was setting Mary up with her phone and I was giving her some last minute directions, they were getting ready to call the King’s Court to order. It typically involved a local dignitary of some sort picking up a gavel and pounding a table while declaring “I bring the Kings’ court to order.”
Celtics coach K.C. Jones was huddling his players while Boston coaching legend and then team president Red Auerbach was being interviewed by one of the radio sportscasters
I looked up and saw Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy being escorted along court side toward the scorer’s table where the gavel awaited.
I blurted out, “Look, Mary, it’s Greg LeMond!”
Mary without missing a beat, responded, “Who’s Greg LeMond?”
Then, almost on cue, not only did Jones and Auerbach turn their heads toward Mary but so did Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, cycling enthusiast Bill Walton, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale with more than half of them uttering in unison and clear disbelief — “you don’t know who Greg LeMond is?”
That prompted LeMond and his wife to look toward my sister as they were walking by.
To underscore how infatuated I am with LeMond’s athletic achievements and equally important his character as well as his sheer drive to overcome a near death experience to win two more Tour de France titles, Chuck Crutchfield managed to get me to do the impossible.
He got me to bid — successfully I might add — on a signed LeMond jersey.
Crutchfield had a hard time tracking it down as LeMond rarely signed jerseys.
It’s the only sports memorabilia I own. And I probably wouldn’t have it today if it wasn’t for the fact it was auctioned off during the final round one year for the Manteca Idol contest conducted at Kelly Brothers Brewing Co. as a benefit for my favorite non-profit — the Manteca Boys & Girl Club.
Everyone thought I was crazy given when the bidding was done I ended up shelling out $1,000.
To be honest, I probably couldn’t even draft LeMond where cyclists slip into the slipstream created by a lead rider in a tight line to take advantage of lower wind resistance. But as an athlete who never cut corners, who never lost his head, and who came back from almost bleeding to death in a hunting accident to win a second and third Tour de France title that are month-long endeavors that many consider is the most grueling sports challenge on the planet he sets an example that commands respect, not to mention a signature justifying giving $1,000 to a good cause.