The Dean of American Sports Writing

By Michael LeCompte

Long before live twenty-four hour sports coverage on TV, games were broadcast over the radio and sports writing was almost its own literary genre. In an era when fans couldn’t watch games on demand it was up to sports writers to transport their audience to the ball game with their words. The undisputed master of this athletic storytelling was Grantland Rice.

Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1880, Rice attended Vanderbilt University. A rather unremarkable athlete he nonetheless managed to play baseball and football while earning a degree in “Classics” in 1901.

In 1914 he began writing his Sportlight column for the New York Tribune. His pieces-elegantly written combinations of homespun wisdom and athletic heroics-were widely read and well-regarded.

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Rice’s sports writing career was put on hold during World War I when he was deployed to Europe. While oversees he entrusted his entire personal worth (about $75,000) to the care of a friend only to return home and realize he was broke. Rice shrugged off the economic setback, reasoning that he “shouldn’t have set such temptation before a friend.”

Unfazed by his economic troubles Rice embarked on what is perhaps the greatest sports writing career ever. In 1924 he gained living legend status thanks to his literary, biblical description of Notre Dame’s backfield after he watched them run roughshod over Army at the Polo Grounds.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden…”

That introduction to his article and the publicity photo of four football players on horseback that it spawned are now considered to be classic pieces of American sports writing.

In 1930 Rice’s New York Tribune column gained national syndication, carrying his heroic and inspirational brand of sports commentary across the country. From 1924-1954 he also narrated the sports segment for Paramount Newsreels.

Rice also authored many sports-themed poems full of sport-as-life metaphors and heroic athletes standing tall against the opponent of life that remain readable for sports fans today. (Alumnus Football is definitely worth a read)

Although he died in 1954 and his artistic, flowery style of sports writing is largely unpracticed Rice’s legacy as the “Dean of American Sports Writers” continues to be celebrated through the several scholarships and college football awards given annually in his honor.

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