Tuscaloosa lost an institution to Cecil Hurt and I lost a friend

I don’t know how to write this. How do you do justice to a colleague of four decades, a few years more or less? How do you write about the loss of a friend, when you absolutely do not want to imagine that he is gone?

Cecil Hurt died Tuesday afternoon at UAB Hospital in Birmingham of complications from pneumonia.

I had a few weeks to think about this after he first went to the hospital and his condition worsened. But I couldn’t force myself to believe it.

Now he’s gone and I don’t want to accept him.

I’ve known Cecil Hurt for as long as I’ve known someone outside of my family and a few classmates, but I’ve probably spent as much time with him as I have with any of them, family included. Long journeys in cars together, spending hours on the road. Shared hotel rooms and memorable meals. Joke in the press boxes and respect for deadlines.

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Telling you that Cecil Hurt was an institution doesn’t ring a bell that you don’t already know. He achieved that status during those decades at Tuscaloosa News, where it has become more synonymous with coverage of University of Alabama athletics – football and basketball in particular – than any sports reporter. never did or never will.

To list the awards he has won for his writings, however numerous they are, would not do him justice. I never counted them, and I can assure you Cecil never did either. He did not write for trophies or plaques, although he was honored by many: he wrote for you. It was your window inside Alabama sports and around town.

Well, there is one achievement I can tell you about, which speaks not only of his talent and versatility, but also of his place in Tuscaloosa. After the mile-wide EF4 tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa in April 2011, killing more than 60 people on its way to Birmingham, Cecil went from sports columnist to community columnist, venturing into the damage and telling stories. He chronicled the recovery and helped a city heal. Our staff received the Pulitzer Prize, and Cecil was a big part of it.

Tuscaloosa News columnist Cecil Hurt chats with coach Nick Saban during media day on Saturday August 3, 2019 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

When I started writing for The Tuscaloosa News while I was still a student at Central High School, Cecil was starting his career. He taught me the ropes, sometimes before dawn while we answered the phones of high school coaches calling their games (The News was an afternoon newspaper in those days long before the internet).

As my career took me to Birmingham and Nashville, then back to Tuscaloosa, Cecil rose to his post as a columnist at a young age, with the title of sports editor. We worked side by side. And when I was promoted to Executive Sports Writer at Tuscaloosa over a dozen years ago and became his boss, nothing changed in our relationship. It didn’t matter if he was in charge or if I was. We were work colleagues, but we were also friends.

That didn’t change when I returned to Nashville, and last year I again oversaw the sports department in Tuscaloosa (as well as Montgomery and Gadsden and the SEC coverage team for the USA TODAY network) . This is the first one I called. This meant that we would work together and talk two or three times a week, sometimes for an hour or more – sometimes about work, sometimes other things, most of the time a mixture of the two.

So what can I tell you about Cecil that you don’t know? I can share some stories.

No road trip with Cecil has ever gone without a discussion of pro wrestling, a shared passion. We talked endlessly about Andre the Giant and Bruiser Brodie and Dick Slater and Brock Lesnar. There was the trip to South Carolina where Cecil surprised me with a lunch break at Abdullah the Butcher’s House of Ribs and Chinese Food, an Atlanta restaurant owned by a legendary Canadian wrestler (billed as being from Sudan ) who was best known for cutting off the heads of his opponents with a fork. (I’m not making this up.) The food wasn’t memorable, but we’ve said it dozens of times over the years.

A few years ago Cecil called and asked if I could drive with him to Tupelo, where there was a WWE show on Sunday. We traveled up the Mississippi and watched Roman Reigns and John Cena do their thing, and talked about the legendary Memphis wrestling feuds between Jerry “The King” Lawler and Bill Dundee and Andy Kaufman.

Lest you think Cecil wasn’t an intellectual, no librarian has ever read more books than he has. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cecil without a book nearby, almost always noble literature. He often brought a tome to the football press gallery with him and read it during commercial breaks. Only Cecil Hurt could browse Dostoyevsky during a match and include a reference to the Brothers Karamazov in his account.

He had a knack for finding out of the way food stops. We broke bread at an inland steakhouse in Hawaii to cover football in Alabama. I explored Cajun and Creole in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Gorged on more steak at Doe’s Eat Place (including the time Cecil, Michael Southern and I devoured 5½ pounds of steak in maybe half an hour at the short-lived Oxford, Mississippi branch). There was beef brisket in Texas and grills in the South.

Going to a game of bowls with Cecil has always been an experience. You walk around the host city or walk through the lobby of a hotel and readers show up to introduce themselves. They knew him from his words, recognized him from the passport photo that accompanied his column and just wanted to pay tribute to him. He always made conversation easier and found some commonalities that made them feel a connection.

08-12-05- Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.  (Jason Getz / Tuscaloosa News)

On Twitter he had over 100,000 subscribers. It was on this medium of social media communication that you could really get a glimpse of his wit and genius. In 280 characters, it could capture the essence of a game, a play, a situation, usually making you smile or laugh out loud.

As a writer Cecil could be funny, insightful, and engaging, but he was often enigmatic. Longtime readers understood his words and tried to decipher if a struggling coach was about to come out or the administration would stick with him. If he was arguing that the coach’s tenure had come to an end, you could bet the ax was about to fall.

Cecil has become an institution not only by its longevity but also by keeping secrets and forging relationships. He never betrayed a source. He rubbed shoulders with the legendary Paul W. “Bear” Bryant when he was a student in the Alabama Sports Information Department, and developed close relationships and contacts with all of the AU football coaches, from Ray Perkins , Bryant’s successor, to Nick Saban.

He was not only devoted to his profession, he was tireless. The last column he wrote was composed from a hospital bed – he called me and said he wanted to do it. He had planned to cancel the Alabama game against LSU, also from the hospital, but I had to tell him that we needed him to spend his energy trying to improve, which he did. reluctantly accepted. I remember driving all the way to Oklahoma City to arrive in time to cover Alabama softball by winning his 2012 national championship; he wanted to be there and drove without stopping to enter the press area just before the first pitch. A few years earlier, he drove to New Orleans so he could write a column to capture the vibe of the city when the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I’ve been fortunate enough to edit more of Cecil’s lyrics than anyone else, I’m sure. I couldn’t wait to see what he had to say, what perspective he might add to an event, or what insight he might give into the nature of a situation or a personality. We spent hours discussing angles he could take, topics he could explore, approaches he could take.

I already miss reading these words. I already miss our conversations. I keep thinking about things we did together, trips we took, things he would say, stories we would tell over and over again.

It’s easy to think of Cecil as a local journalist, a writer tied to his town by an anchor, and that’s right. But he dropped anchor by choice. He received several starting offers for larger markets and outlets – I recently learned that he had already accepted a position at the New York Times; but, as with “Bear” Bryant, “mom called” and he chose to stay.

There will never be another Cecil Hurt. The Tuscaloosa News sports page – and website – will never be the same again. We have lost a one-of-a-kind writer who helped us better understand not only athletes and track and field and what they mean in our lives, but also ourselves.

Our community has lost a precious voice. And I lost a friend.

Rest in peace, Cécile.

The Tuscaloosa News invites its readers to share their memories of Cecil Hurt and his impact on them through his words and their interactions with him, either in person or on social media. Send them to tdeas@gannett.com.

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