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End of a Deseret News era: Longtime sports columnist Brad Rock is retiring

Deseret News sports writer Brad Rock hugs his wife Julie during his retirement party at the Carriage House in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.
Deseret News sports writer Brad Rock hugs his wife Julie during his retirement party at the Carriage House in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.
Kristin Murphy

SALT LAKE CITY — The Deseret News is marking the end of an era. On Aug. 31, our own Brad Rock is retiring.

For more than 40 years his byline has appeared on the pages of the Deseret News sports section, the last 25 with the title of columnist. His last assignment will be the BYU-Utah football game.

The former Idaho farm boy — who wrote sci-fi “novels” in the back seat of the car during family vacations — covered Super Bowls, Olympics, Final Fours, heavyweight title fights, NBA Finals and college bowls. He had ringside seats for two of the most famous title fights ever — Holmes-Ali and the epic Hearns-Hagler slugfest that some say produced the single greatest round of boxing ever.

He saw McMahon’s Hail Mary. He saw Ainge go coast-to-coast. He interviewed Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Ali. He witnessed the rise and fall of BYU sports, and the rise of Utah to the Pac-12 and Sugar Bowl. He watched as one era rolled into another — Jimmer, Ainge, Quarterback U/LaVell Edwards, Majerus, Meyer, Stockton-Malone-Sloan. The cast of characters changed — athletes and coaches came and went — but Rock kept writing.

The remarkable thing is that he pretty much yawned his way through it all. Not that he lacked passion for the job, just not in the way you might expect. There are largely two kinds of sports writers — those who use sports as a vehicle to tell stories and work on the craft of writing, and those who do it to be around sports. Rock is a writer first and a fan, well, never. He doesn’t even watch sports on TV unless he has to for the job, and he never roots for one team over another; free of loyalties and prejudices, he could write honest accounts with an objectivity and professional distance that are disappearing fast in the era of advocacy journalism. You know he’s doing his job well when readers accuse him of being a BYU fan and a Utah fan the same week.

In 1998, he was driving to Game 6 of the NBA Finals between Jordan’s Bulls and Stockton/Malone’s Jazz and realized he was excited about it — not to watch the game itself, but because it promised to be a gold mine for a writer.

He was no fan with a press pass. He took his sons on a Jazz road trip once and at one point Malone asked him, “How come you didn’t ask for autographs?” Rock replied, “You guys get enough of that.” (To which Stockton said, “Good call.”)

Somebody asked Rock if he ever cheered for a team. His reply: “All I cheer for is the angle I started at halftime — I cheer that it will hold up (on deadline).” Of course that didn’t always work out; he had his angle decided and his column almost written during that 1980 Holiday Bowl, which had the makings of a rout. Then BYU overcame a 20-point deficit in the final four minutes, capped by McMahon’s long, game-winning touchdown pass on the last play, all as deadline approached. All around Rock, writers were shouting and even cheering; Rock sighed and quietly started rewriting his story, more than a little annoyed.

During a telecast of an overtime game in Boston Garden, the camera panned to Rock sitting on press row — first, with his head resting on the table and then yawning. “You looked pretty excited,” friends teased him. It was after the game, when fans were going home, that Rock went to work.

“The thing I’ve always appreciated about Brad is that it’s never about him,” says Lee Benson, the longtime Deseret News writer and author. “When he writes about something, it’s about the subject and not about him, and he’s real comfortable doing that. He just loves to write. His writing makes other writers want to write better.”

Deseret News’ Tim Buckley and Brad Rock interview Andrei Kirilenko (l to r) before the Utah Jazz practice at the L.A. Clippers’ practice facility as they prepare for game two of the Western Conference NBA basketball semi-finals Monday, May 3, 2010.
Deseret News’ Tim Buckley and Brad Rock interview Andrei Kirilenko (l to r) before the Utah Jazz practice at the L.A. Clippers’ practice facility as they prepare for game two of the Western Conference NBA basketball semi-finals Monday, May 3, 2010.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Rock had many iterations in his career. High school writer. Pro hockey and Triple-A baseball beat writer. College beat writer. Jazz beat writer. Columnist. Rock Monster. The latter was a nickname gifted to him, over Rock’s protests, by none other than Hot Rod Hundley, the legendary Jazz TV/radio play-by-play announcer. Hundley was always assigning nicknames and not all of them worked or stuck. Darrell Griffith was the “Golden Griff.” Thurl Bailey was “Big T.” Ron Boone was “The Boonemeister.” Those stuck. There also was “Little” John Stockton and “Slick Willie” Deron Williams and “Sky Blue” Edwards. Those did not work.

Then one night he targeted Rock while doing one of his regular on-air ads, this time with an ad-lib — “For the best in sports coverage, read Brad Rock the Rock Monster!!!! Only in the Deseret News!” Rock winced. When Hundley repeated the line the next game, Rock protested to the paper’s marketing department, which passed the word to Hundley. The next few games, Hundley skipped the nickname, but expressed his displeasure by doing the ad in a dull, blase manner. He made his point. Rock relented. Hundley resumed calling him the Rock Monster and it stuck and became part of his schtick — Rock’s and Hot Rod’s.

(True story: Rock and his wife, Julie, were checking her into a hospital for the birth of one of their daughters. When Julie told the receptionist her name, the latter looked at Rock and asked, “Are you the Rock Monster?!” Then she began questioning him about the Jazz and the team’s prospects. After watching this conversation unfold, Julie finally interrupted — “Excuse me. Can I have my baby?”)

Like a good pitcher, Rock mixed up his deliveries. He could be funny and snarky; he could be analytical. He could be eloquent and introspective, as he was in the lead paragraph of a column about Hundley’s retirement:

“The best way to listen to Hot Rod Hundley was alone, cruising down a long stretch of highway at night. There was something in the vast darkness on the way to Las Vegas or Evanston that took your mind back to the intersection of what is now John Stockton and Karl Malone drives. Something in his voice that made you think of, well, an old cowhide globe. A national writer once said Hundley sounded like he had “gargled with salt water on a foggy night.”

And then he ended the column with a poignant personal story:

“After Mom died, Dad continued to keep a Jazz schedule by his bed. He would turn on his radio, and through the lonely winter nights, Hot Rod kept him company. Dad said sometimes he’d drift off into a half-sleep with the broadcast on and think Mom was still by his side.

“It was Hot Rod’s gift.

“He kept a lot of us company in the dark.”

Then there was his column on Stockton late in his long NBA career:

“He had said all he was going to say about being 40.

As he left, his steps were quick, all economy of movement. No reason to let up, no respite had been earned. Another game was on the way.

Out the locker room door, down the hall to meet his wife and kids and into the night.

With Time trailing, ever trailing, a half-step behind.”

He also could write with understated humor as he did in a column about an eating champion:

“After a brief handshake, my interview with the great Kobayashi was over. As we parted, he quickly bowed in traditional Japanese show of respect.

“This man once ate 43 slices of pie in 12 minutes.

“The honor was all mine.”

When Rock announced he was retiring, the Deseret News asked me to write a profile about him. I gladly accepted of course. If nothing else, it would give me a chance to get to know him since I have only worked with him a mere 40 years. Rock is as pleasant and friendly as Easter Sunday, but he’s not a talker and not one to take control of a room or draw attention to himself. He was chill before anyone called it that. The Deseret News is planning a reception in his honor; I’m going to be there if for no other reason than to be entertained by his discomfort. He likes being the center of attention as much as Stockton enjoys autograph requests. His natural reticence belies a keen wit and sense of humor, which is clear to anyone who spends any time with him. He is a sharp observer of people and their foibles, which is fairly useful for a columnist.

He grew up on an 80-acre farm near Rexburg. He and his two brothers rose at dawn each day, donned a pair of heavy coveralls and went out to feed the cows year-round. In summer they bucked hay. He had no interest in farming, especially since he planned to play professional basketball. He played for the high school JV basketball team (he had more success in track, qualifying for the state meet in the 440-yard dash). When he realized that pro basketball was not in his future — not as a player anyway — he turned to writing, a natural extension of his love of reading. He read so much that after he finished with the Hardy Boys novels and the Asimov and Bradbury science fiction novels, he read the Nancy Drew series.

“My plan was to be a novelist,” he says.

He submitted his writing to his mother, a high school English teacher, for approval, completing much of his work in a small notebook during vacation car rides. In high school he was assigned to write a report on a vocation; he couldn’t find much information on a novelist’s career but in the process stumbled upon the vocation of sports writing and decided this was his future. His classmates elected him as editor and chief of the school newspaper.

He began studying journalism at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). After his freshman year, he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then returned to Ricks, where he was named sports editor of the school paper. He had been a sports fan in his youth — following the Yankees and Mickey Mantle and the Lakers and Elgin Baylor (whom he later interviewed) — but if he still had any vestiges of a fan in him they were squashed by a phone call. The Ricks wrestling coach complained about coverage of his sport and indicated that Rock was expected to be part of the team and write accordingly.

“Right then I realized, I’m not on the team; it came pretty fast,” he says. “I wasn’t there to be a cheerleader.”

He wound up graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Utah, where he served again as sports editor of the student paper and worked part-time at the Deseret News as a high school stringer and library assistant. By then he had already mailed dozens of resumes to newspapers even though, as he puts it, “there was nothing on it.” The response was underwhelming. He accepted an offer to cover sports for the Gallup Independent in New Mexico, which meant high schools, Little League and rodeo.

“I remember sitting on a fence post at a Navajo rodeo in Window Rock, Arizona, and thinking, ‘This is awesome. I’m getting paid to be a sports writer,’” he says. “All I’m covering is rodeo at $8 an hour — which I could’ve made working at McDonald’s — and yet I’m doing a little fist pump!”

Still, he was less than enthusiastic about some of his assignments. The publisher ordered him to write about his wife’s golf foursome one day each summer. It wasn’t even a tournament, just a routine golf outing, with Rock following the ladies around the course. He also was asked to look up the names of all the Little League players whose dads owned local businesses and write stories about their sons, hoping this would cause the dads to buy news ads. Rock ignored that one.

He stayed at the Independent only eight months. After he won first place in a statewide writing contest, he sent another letter to the Deseret News in which he mentioned, in a by-the-way manner, that he had just won the award. The Deseret News took the bait and offered him a job with a whopping $100 raise. He told his boss he would stay if he matched the offer. “We don’t work that way,” his boss responded.

“That’s how close I came to torpedoing my own career,” Rock says. “Over $100.”

In January of 1977, at the age of 24, Rock began working for the Deseret News. He covered high schools and minor league pro sports for a couple of years before moving to colleges. He did that for about 11 years and then was assigned the Utah Jazz beat, which proved to be a difficult four-year stretch for a family man.

He and Julie — whom he began dating in high school and married in college — raised six children, but during those four years he was on the Jazz beat she was almost a single parent. Rock spent about 100 nights per year on the road following the team and worked for eight months with no days off. He missed his children’s concerts, ball games, ballets and two graduations.

“One year I opened the mail and discovered that I had won first place in feature writing from Pro Basketball Writers,” he says. “I always thought that would be the epitome. It wasn’t worth it; it wasn’t worth all that I had missed.”

He was relieved when he was offered the columnist position.

“The thing about Brad that is pretty amazing is his poise under fire, writing interesting, entertaining columns on ridiculously tight deadlines off live events,” says Sports Editor Kent Condon. “Equally impressive is the way he carries himself, never taking himself too seriously and never above anything that is asked of him. Always a team player, always a total pro.”

As Benson noted, Rock’s crafting of words influenced other writers. One of them was Trent Toone, who began reading his stories as a student at Bear River High in the ’90s. “Brad’s articles were always so well-written, clever and easy to read,” he says. “He was one of the writers who inspired me to pursue a career in journalism. “ He wrote to Rock for advice and always received a thoughtful response. Over the years, Rock even alerted Toone to job prospects. Toone told him one day he hoped to work alongside Rock. Toone joined the Deseret News staff in 2010.

As for Rock, who turned 66 this month, he accomplished everything he set out to do when he left the family farm — mainly, by earning a living with his writing (he never did write that novel, but he did co-author a biography about Dale Murphy, the two-time Major League MVP). Rock’s work was recognized for its quality. He received numerous national awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and three awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association (including two first places), and was voted Utah Sports Writer of the Year five times by his peers. For 15 years he also taught a sports writing class at the University of Utah, another recognition of his excellence.

Now he will leave the job behind and turn to other things, although he hasn’t figured that part out yet. This will leave him more time for his one real hobby, his daily distance run, although this seems at cross purposes for a tall, spare man who is constantly attempting to gain weight while all his peers are trying to lose it.

Looking back at his career, Rock says, “It’s amazing how blessed we (the sports staff) all were. We never had a day without a job, and we never had a day we hated our job. Honestly, I can’t believe that it worked out so well. I had this plan and basically the whole plan worked.”