EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006, in the Texarkana Gazette.
If football is a religion in the South — and many locals would agree it is — then Texarkana Gazette sportswriters Johnny Green, James Williams and Louie Avery easily could be called three of its most zealous disciples.
Johnny Green has covered sports for the Gazette for almost 37 years, and has 42 years experience as a sportswriter.
James Williams is right behind him with 36 years at the Gazette, and Louie Avery follows with 25 years.
Combined, that is more than 100 years of sportswriting experience at one newspaper.
That's a lot of Friday night football reported on Saturday morning's sports pages — not to mention the coverage throughout the year of basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, golf and other high school and college sports.
"I would be surprised if there is another paper in the country that has guys with over 100 years' experience," Avery said.
Williams said a paper the Gazette's size is often a stepping-stone to larger publications. But for various reasons, these three guys have turned down offers of more money and larger circulations to stay here.
As a result, they have made an impact not only on the local sports pages but in the community.
Williams is on extended medical leave from the Gazette, and his presence and abilities are sorely missed.
"He's been like my right hand for 36 years," Green said. "And there have only been four or five times I've had a cross word with him. I've really been fortunate to have these guys with me all these years."
Green is sports director at the Gazette and Williams is sports editor.
The position of sports director was created for Green when he returned to the sport's department after taking another job in the newsroom. Williams had been promoted to sports editor during that time.
When Green realized that news was not for him, he asked to return to sports — but he didn't want to do it if it had cost Williams his new position.
"I talked about it with James first," he said.
Management decided Williams would remain as sports editor and Green would be the new sports director.
The arrangement has worked out just fine.
"I've never had an inclination to go to a bigger newspaper," Green said. "My wife and I are both from Hooks and we're homebodies. Texarkana is getting too big for me."
Green, Williams and Avery have seen other sportswriters and reporters come and go in their years at the Gazette.
"A lot of people come and go. A lot of them I don't even remember. I've had some good times here and some bad times. I've outlasted the ones I couldn't stand," Green said.
There is a lot of camaraderie among the guys, but that doesn't mean they always get along.
"Strangers would think we hated each other. They really would," Avery said.
One minute, they may have a spirited argument — raised voices included — about how a particular team (usually the Dallas Cowboys) is doing this season. The next minute they are going to lunch together.
"Sports is one of those subjects where you can have a difference of opinion and debate things. We release some of our stress on each other," Avery said.
Avery and Green sometimes golf together in their free time. The nature of their business, however, makes it hard to find free time together.
"When one of us is off, the others are usually working," Williams said.
"We all get along," he said. "We laugh a lot and get mad every once in a while, but it never lasts. We talk about family and movies we see, but usually we talk about sports."
Obviously, with sports being both their profession and their passion, these guys have a lot to talk about.
"Most of us have been at it so long we've covered everything," Avery said. "There is a lot of knowledge. Nobody knows Northeast Texas like Johnny Green and nobody knows Southwest Arkansas like James Williams. I know about both to a slightly lesser extent," he said.
All three are known for their expertise on local sports, and Green admits the reputation is a fun part of the job.
"People always think they know you even if they don't always like you," he said.
Green attended Hooks High School where he played baseball, basketball and football. He and other students convinced the principal to offer a journalism class, but ironically Green didn't take the class because he needed extra help with geometry and the tutoring was at the same time as the journalism course.
He credits the principal with getting the extra help he needed.
"If he had not helped me with geometry, I would probably not have graduated," he said.
But the lack of a high school journalism class didn't impede his newspaper career.
Green started working at the Gazette in 1962, straight out of high school.
"It seemed to be a glamorous job even though it didn't pay a lot," he said.
He left in 1968 to accept a job with the Shreveport Times, but only stayed there 10 months. He returned to the Gazette as sports editor in 1969.
During his years in the newsroom he has also served as interim managing editor and managing city editor.
"I like to think I have some leadership abilities," he said.
He considers editing to be one of his strengths in the newsroom.
One of the things he enjoys the most, though, is reporting on high school sports, particularly meeting the coaches and kids.
"I try to be fair to the kids. I try not to get to close to them because I want to stay objective," he said.
He enjoys high school sports the best "because these guys are not getting paid. They have to love it to do it." One of his favorite assignments was covering Texas High School when they went to the state championship in 2002. He also enjoys covering junior college baseball, and has covered the Junior College World Series several times. Avery and Williams also had an interest in sports and journalism at young ages. Avery covered sports for both his high school and college newspapers. "I was destined to be a sportswriter," e Avery said. "My n k d . father weight was boxing a lightchampion, and I a- played high school baseball and football."
Avery was Springs, Ark., but raised in Tulsa, Okla, from ages 1 through 17.
He returned to Mineral Springs with his mother so she could be closer to her parents, and he graduated from high school there.
It was not an easy year. He was still recovering from a car accident he had in Tulsa and was in a wheelchair.
"I was all broken up and full of plates and pins," he said,
"They told me I might not walk again, but I played semipro ball four years later. I really wasn't that good, but I was out there and I played. That is one thing to my credit. I could have given up."
He graduated from Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, and his first reporting job was at the Magnolia Banner-News.
But Avery said he hated being a news reporter and was afraid he was close to being fired when his editor told him about a sportswriting position that had come open in Texarkana.
"l learned pretty much everything from Johnny," he said. "He's a legend. You don't get to be sports editor at a paper for 40 years without leaving a mark."
Avery started at the Gazette in 1972 but moved on two years later to accept a sports editor's position in El Dorado, Ark. He also worked for sports departments in Longview, Texas, for three years and in Monroe, La., for three years.
In 1979 he and his family moved to Claremore, Okla., but had only been there a few months when he received a call from Green that an assistant sport's editor position was available at the Gazette.
Avery accepted the position but left again in 1985 to be sports editor in Denison, Texas.
He does not regret moving around and having different experiences.
"I don't think I would trade it. I had fun everywhere I went and had a lot of opportunities," he said.
He covered Louisiana State University games and also the New Orleans Saints while he worked in Monroe and, while in Longview, had the chance to write a feature on heavyweight champion of the world George Foreman.
"I drove up in (Foreman's) yard and he was wrestling with a lion cub and a tiger cub. He said, 'Get out of the car,' and I said, 'When you put them up I will.'"
Avery returned to Texarkana for good in 1989 after the Denison paper was sold. The return was partly because of changes in Denison but also to be closer to his wife's family.
"I came back as a copy editor but wanted to get back in sports. I was lucky enough a position came open. Texarkana is a great town and I was glad to raise my kids here," he said.
The schedule of a sportswriter, however, does not always work easily with family life.
Avery's wife is a teacher, and for many years the couple worked opposite schedules.
"She gets off at 3 p.m. and I would be going to work," he said.
He has covered the Dallas Cowboys since his return, including two of three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
One Super Bowl was in Phoenix and the other in Atlanta. In order to cover the Super Bowl in Atlanta, where the Cowboys played the Buffalo Bills, Avery pooled resources with sports editors in Abilene and Wichita Falls.
"We drove to Atlanta and got a motel room, and I slept on the floor."
He met golf legend Tiger Woods when he played in a junior competition in Texarkana at age 13.
"He's a phenom. All of the other kids he was playing against were 17 and 18," Avery said.
The many experiences aside, he prefers high school sports.
"The kids play the game because they love it," he said.
He has covered Texas High and for the last several years Liberty-Eylau High School, including state championships in football and baseball.
Williams was raised in Knoxvile, Ark., near Russellville and "played every sport they had" during high school in nearby Lamar, Ark.
He was planning on being a coach when he enrolled at Arkansas Tech University, but a knee injury helped him change his career plan to journalism.
"I've always liked to write. I never regretted (changing)," he said.
While attending Tech, he worked part time as a sports reporter for the Russellville newspper.
He transferred to the University of Arkansas for the remainder of his education and graduated in 1970.
The Gazette was his first job out of college and it seemed to be a good fit for him.
"I liked the size of the town, the size of the paper and the people I worked with," he said. "I learned more in my first year here than my whole time in college.
"You think you know everything but then you are thrown into the fire of meeting a deadline while covering a game in a little town without a phone. The main thing I learned is deadline writing is the most important thing. I very seldom miss a deadline, and it makes me mad when I do. I'm pretty quick."
Though he enjoyed the job, he could not see staying for 36 years.
"I never would have thought I would be here that long," he said.
He considered making a move once when he was offered a sports editor's position in Little Rock, but changed his mind when the editor who hired him soon changed jobs.
"At that time I was ready to make a move, but I guess it wasn't meant to be."
He has covered Arkansas High and all of the schools in Southwest Arkansas along with the University of Arkansas.
"I've talked to a lot of people I've admired a lot including Frank Broyles (University of Arkansas athletic director)."
Williams said one of the jobs he likes best as a sportswiter is coordinating the office on nights when the other guys are out covering games.
"I especially like it on football nights when we have got a lot to do. I enjoy the challenge of making sure everything we need gets in the paper. I wouldn't want to do it every night, but it's probably what I do best," he said.
Williams said technology has made the job easier but just a few years ago one of the biggest challenges of covering an out-of-town game was finding a telephone.
"Press booths sometimes have phones, but all of them don't," he said.
One night after a game in Cabot, Ark., he had 30 minutes to meet a deadline but could not find a phone.
He finally found one hanging from a pole and managed to hook his laptop computer up "with traffic whizzing by about 3 feet away."
Another time, he hired a Hot Springs writer to cover a playoff game in Southeast Arkansas.
"Ten minutes before deadline he (the writer) called to dictate a story and he was whispering," Williams said. "I finally asked him where he was and he said, 'a funeral home. It's the only place I could find a phone.'
"I told him he could speak up because he was probably not going to disturb anybody."
Williams said while he once considered being a coach, he believes being a sportswriter is even better.
"I like sports and it gives me a chance to be around athletes and coaches. I always wanted to be a coach. Now I can be around them without having any of the headaches of being one."
In August 2004, Williams was honored at the annual Arkansas High School Coaches Association/ Arkansas Officials Association Hall of Fame banquet where he received the News Media's Distinguished Service Award, the most prestigious journalism award in the state.
It was, he said at the time, a humbling experience.
"Anytime you're honored by your peers, it's a very good feeling," Williams said.
The award recognized his years of covering high school athletics, which he has always enjoyed more than college and professional sports.
"I feel high school sports are our purest form of competition," he said.
In recent summers, the Gazette sports department has been lucky enough to have interns.
Green said he would encourage any of them to pursue sportswriting full time if they are interested, but the younger generation needs to know it's not always an easy job.
"They need to know its a labor of love. It's not something you are going to get rich doing unless you become one of the big guys and get on ESPN or have your own radio show," he said.
"You have to really like sports. You have to work strange schedules and you usually have to start at the bottom and work your way up. You also have to know when you cover two teams, you are going to be wrong 50 percent of the time."
Looking back on his years the Gazette newsroom, Green believes the consistency on the sports staff has been beneficial for coverage.
"We've been very fortunate to have a very low turnover the sports department ... The stability helps you be more familiar with the beat and with the coaches," he said.
It has also helped mold three sports reporters into one cohesive team.
"The three of us have been together a lot of years," Green said. "It won't be too many years until we're gone. I hope we're able to leave a legacy that someone else will be able to pick up and keep going."
Someone else may keep it going. But another staff having 100 years of experience?
That's a whole different ballgame.