It was the kind of football game that made our pulses pound. Not because Dirk Facer and I were worried about who would win.
We were worried about the clock.
A 7 o’clock kickoff in Los Angeles is an 8 o’clock start in Salt Lake. Which meant we had an hour less time than usual to write.
Our deadline was coming on like a safety blitz.
UCLA and Utah were locked into a terrific battle, the momentum wildly swinging. The inexorable deadline had arrived. It was nearly 11 o’clock in L.A. But since it was a down-to-the-wire game, neither of us was willing to hit “send” until we had a final score.
In the days of print newspapers, no one liked a first-half summary in the next day’s paper that contained the phrase “at press time.”
There we were, side-by-side in the Rose Bowl press box, typing and deleting and retyping as the totals mounted on both sides of the scoreboard.
Just then, Dirk said as he was typing, “Brad.”
“What?” I said, slightly irritated.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
He used that line more than once on me, just to make me laugh on deadline.
“No,” I said. “But I’m about to.”
In a profession filled with self-importance, Dirk was the antithesis. Football press boxes have a fair share of people who think they are vitally important. Dirk, on the other hand, merely thought his job was. But that didn’t stop him from injecting levity into tense situations.
When his story came out the following day, and after every other game, there it would be — clear, clean and accurate. It’s something that barely exists in the clickbait world of today’s Twitter-driven journalism.
Dirk passed away on Wednesday at age 59. He worked at the Deseret News for 27 years before being caught in the kind of gut-wrenching layoffs that have hit all newspapers. His career was a bodacious run. He covered everything with equanimity.
All too often, writers with eyes on big league assignments tend to dismiss high school coverage. Not Dirk. He covered it with the same professionalism as he did when assigned to cover the Bulls and Jazz in the NBA Finals. He was honored for distinguished service by the Utah High School Activities Association.
Through it all, he never lost his talent to make people laugh. He would look over my shoulder as I was writing, solemnly shake his head and say, “Kid, you’re better than that.”
Dirk was a central figure in the press box. He was always the first person to arrive. He wanted to get organized and gather material well ahead of the deadline. He once drove me to a game at UCLA in which we arrived even before the press box was open. We even had to talk our way through the stadium gates. We once got to a game at Michigan four hours early.
He admitted he was overpreparing, but on the other hand, he never missed a kickoff.
Much of his career involved covering Utah football and basketball, though he also spent time covering Grizzlies hockey, minor league baseball and Weber State, Utah State and BYU sports. He chronicled the Utes’ Fiesta and Sugar Bowl wins and every Utah-BYU game during his quarter century at the newspaper.
I teasingly called him ”fanboy,” because he admitted to loving sports and was prone to wearing Seattle Mariners hats. The team was his boyhood crush. Dirk talked me into going to see the Tigers, Angels and Astros while on road trips, even though to me it felt like another day at work.
Yet he had come into journalism after graduating from the University of Utah with a firm belief that fandom wasn’t why you got into the business.
He didn’t take cheap shots, but he didn’t fawn, either.
In the process, he made everyone comfortable — readers, colleagues and subjects.
He was the Morgan Freeman of newspapering.
I had a nickname for Dirk, but it never caught on. I called him D-Man the Free Man.
He was a free spirit, to be sure.
Dirk won Utah Sportswriter of the Year five times. Some insist the award — determined by voting among media members — is nothing more than a popularity contest.
If so, he would have won it every year.
But he had the respect of those he covered. If a story broke, he could call Kyle Whittingham late at night and actually get a pickup. Same with Larry Krystkowiak, and every other coach he encountered.
He took his job seriously, but not himself.
The approach could disarm even the most cantankerous interviewee. When retired Hall of Famer Eddie Murray visited Salt Lake for an event, several media members gathered around the prickly star who made headlines for his run-ins with the media. Murray glared at everyone as they approached the dugout. Dirk opened the questioning by saying something like, “Eddie, is this where we start to get scared?”
Everyone laughed as he broke the tension.
It even made Murray smile.
The star’s baleful glare had no effect whatsoever on Dirk.
Actor Bill Murray came for an anniversary game at Smith’s Ballpark to commemorate the historic Salt Lake Trappers team that won a record 29 straight games. Murray was once a part-owner.
Dirk stopped Murray long enough to remind him that he had covered that team for the newspaper. Murray spotted Dirk’s wife, Kirsten, wearing a Salt Lake Trappers T-shirt, and said, “You two married?”
“Yes,” they said.
“How long?” said Murray.
“Oh,” said Murray. “So it’s working out.”
Dirk was even a good setup man.
As he and I sat in scores of different press boxes through the years, side by side, fighting the deadlines, sweating the small stuff, he always finished writing before me. As soon as he hit the send key, he would swivel and do an imaginary 180-degree dunk.
In your face.
The Free Man was on the loose.
His gift was that he could make everyone else feel loose, as well.