Sports

A Thin Line Between Heaven and Here

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Cecil Hurt, long time beat reporter of the Tuscaloosa News passed away on Tuesday, November 23, 2021 at the age of 62 after complications from pneumonia. This is the lede that no one wants to write, but this is the lede that is—Cecil would want journalistic integrity to shine above all things, and so this is where we have to begin.

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I am not a journalist. I don’t know how journalists, specifically sports journalists manage to do their jobs so quickly and with a thin skin. Most sportswriters would say that they could never do what Cecil did, but I certainly could never do it. He is the GOAT for a reason—there I am, using “is” instead of “was,” a tense shift that wouldn’t make it past an editor, but some things simply don’t need to be cut or changed.

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Cecil was a writer’s writer: a capturer of the moment with deft turns in his language—descriptions and jokes; a perfectly laid out formula that often bucked the formula. Cecil was delightfully old-school—a “throwback,” sure, but innovative with his crafting of sentences: wild metaphors and gentle meanderings that would always, somehow, find their way back home.

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There have been a lot of beautiful tributes to Cecil and his effect on just about anyone who had to hit a deadline when Corban Collins missed a three pointer to send a game into a fourth overtime down in Columbia. He was a mentor and a teacher—always generous with his time and his expertise: there have been stories of him allowing young journalists to use his desk when he was on a long road trip to who knows where with Fluff or Hunter, or whomever got the honor to be in the car with him to hear him wax poetic about literature, or what gas station on the road to Athens had the best bathrooms, or whatever else he was thinking about at that particular time.  

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On the 2003 Tennessee game: “Then there were the five overtimes, including Alabama’s failure to get off the field on 4th-and-19, all punctuated by the public address system greeting each overtime with “Are you ready for more free football?!?,” which was about like asking Titanic survivors if they were ready for more free ice water.”

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Joan Didion has a famously uttered quote about writing: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” I feel as if many of us didn’t know what to think about the Alabama game until Cecil wrote it down for us: his words were so often our words. When recapping a game over City Café fried okra, we would often find ourselves using his idioms to describe how we felt about the quarterback play, or how we looked crowded in the half-court.

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In that way, I think we are all hurting so badly because Cecil belonged to us—a true man of the people; a burly grey-haired subconscious that confirmed our thoughts: Saban does look happier this season, the DBs do look faster than last game.

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Last night, I was talking about Cecil with my friend Chris, who was born and raised in Tuscaloosa and was visiting for the holidays. “Dad loved him,” he told me. “It’s why we got the paper.” He was probably your dad’s favorite too.

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Cecil had a cat named Slim Charles. Slim Charles is the name of a fan-favorite character from HBO’s The Wire—my (and I imagine Cecil’s) vote for greatest television series of all-time. Slim Charles (the cat) became a fan favorite in the Gump Twitter Cinematic Universe—often judging Cecil’s every action and move.

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A thing I loved about Cecil is that he would be mad on your behalf. Someone would say something ridiculous in your mentions and he would be quick with a DM (either one sentence or like seven paragraphs, there was no in between) telling that person off. There have been moments where I have absolutely felt like I had perhaps said something wrong or did not phrase things the way that I should have. But Cecil would slide in, letting me know I was on the right path.

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Cecil was tradition. Cecil was an institution—as the official Alabama Football account said about his passing. But he wasn’t a monolith—he was wildly hip and in tune with everything. He was a Twitter maestro: Alex McDaniel last night said “remember when cecil would like or reply to one of your tweets and you felt INVINCIBLE,” and this was true. Every one of those moments was a little wink or a nudge on your shoulder and you felt blessed.

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“He was a man of integrity and a fair-minded journalist blessed with wit, wisdom and an ability to paint a picture with his words that few have possessed.”—Nick Saban

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 “Your favorite beat reporter’s favorite beat reporter.” –Nick Jones

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“He influenced so many of us over the years. It didn’t matter if you were a fresh-faced college journalist, a visiting writer from out of town or a member of the beat. He always had a kind, encouraging word. You always secretly hoped that he’d talk to you when he walked into a room. But at the same time, you kind of hoped he didn’t because you knew you had to match him. And he was always on. That wit never turned off.” –Aaron Suttles

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Cecil would send pictures of Slim Charles to people on Twitter who had recently lost their pets. “Slim Charles sends condolences. It’s so hard but Georgie knew he was loved every day.”

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“In the sense of “close” meaning a group of sisters, this Alabama team reached that, and the pain of Monday night was all the worse because the team had that bond.”

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“Just give me one extra season, so I can figure out the other four.” –John Prine

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“No disrespect, but I ain’t cut out to be no CEO.” –Slim Charles (the person)

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I hope Cecil knew that he was loved every day.

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No one ended a column quite like Cecil—there’s a joke in poetry that you only need the first line and the last line; the rest will fill itself out. While I have no doubt that Cecil pored over those middle thirds of columns, he seems like the type of guy who knew exactly what sentence he was going to end on—using those last short quips of sentences as an exclamation point.

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As newspapers made their inevitable march to digital only, I had a new tradition. As a kid, I read the newspaper voraciously—memorizing both the AP Top 25 AND the Coaches Poll and tracking the movement of every team like it was the gospel. Now, I would wake up on a Sunday morning and head to Roger Myers’ Facebook, where he would post Cecil’s column, and I would read it, blurry-eyed and more often than not, slightly hungover, as I got ready to make that movement from the before to the after.

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The beauty of his final sentences was always that while they seemed final, they also seemed aspirational—always looking ahead to the next thing. Cecil was never better than after a loss: after this year’s Texas A&M loss, Cecil writes, “No more No. 1 ranking. The usual formula is that a Saban-coached team bounces back, but this one will take a significant bounce.”

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If someone asks me what the most Tuscaloosa thing ever is, I will have to point to this hype video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EbKt5k3GNk&t=1s) for Tuscaloosa rockers The Dexateens’ newest album. The video is filmed at Skyy Boxing Gym and features former Heavyweight Champion of the World Deontay Wilder. And there’s Cecil, kicking off the video, playing it completely straight as Deontay Wilder knocks John Smith out and steals his guitar.

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On the passing of Luke Ratliff, “He was happy in the past few weeks, but all I could think of on Friday night was that call, how happy he was and how, maybe, at the end of the journey, he will be standing there, in plaid coat and twirling a cigar, and saying, “It was great, but I had to hurry so I’d be here to greet you.”

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We will bounce back from this loss, but it will take a significant bounce.

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My favorite quote from The Wire comes from the heart of the show, the want-to-do-right drug addict Bubbles. On a drive from the Baltimore suburbs, with wealthy white kids playing soccer in the park, to the Westside projects where Bubbles hustles for crack and lake trout, he looks at McNulty and says, “A thin line between heaven and here.”

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After the 2021 National Championship: “Alabama, though, was the best. And, for years and years to come, it will remain the best-loved.”

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Today we are reminded of that thin line—of how we are denied another Cecil Hurt byline that would always make us pay extra attention; no disrespect to the other columnists talking about the Tide, but Cecil was such a part of our routines that to go without him seems like a home game without crimson and white shakers slashing and swishing along to Dixieland Delight as the sun shines its last peek through the sliver between the upper and lower bowl. That small, final ray of sunshine that cuts through the press box level is where I’ll choose to remember him—on those November days just before the cold of the concrete sets in—the last of the golden hour.

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In the early days of American journalism, writers would type “-30-“ at the end of their articles to signify that the story had ended—there was no need to check for additional pages, or a larger paragraph break. It is a sign of completion—a race run, a moment to say that what exists before that mark is exactly what it needs to be, no more, no less.

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We have suffered a massive loss, and we are looking to what comes next—a comfort coming on a Sunday morning; a confirmation, a path forward, yet still reflecting upon what needs to be done. None of us have the words for it, but I think the courage to try is important—to grab onto whatever bookish whimsy we have. To defend the afflicted among the people, to break in pieces our oppressors. To have a pint of the good stuff at Druid City Brewing. To always be kind to others—to lift them up, to mentor, to laugh, to be inquisitive and curious, to always learn. Cecil may be gone, but he has given us so much: it is our turn, for all of us, to write the post-script.

5 comments on “A Thin Line Between Heaven and Here

  1. Alton Hill

    Fantastic Brian!!

    @bamanohio

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know how you did it, but that article is excellent. Cecil would be proud of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An outstanding tribute, Brian.

    In a world where sports journalism has largely devolved into a mire of low-brow excrement spewed forth from the insufferable likes of Barstool, Clay Travis, and their ilk, Cecil maintained a level of unimpeachable professionalism devoid of the ubiquitous “hot takes”. Given his exceptional talent as a writer, it’s a small miracle that the Tuscaloosa News was able to keep him as long as it did. Cecil was a Bama man through and through, yet he maintained a remarkable degree of fairness and objectivity while avoiding the blatant homerism of most beat writers. He was respected and admired by all who knew him or read his work. He was what every sportswriter should aspire to be.

    Although Cecil can never be replaced, I am glad that his legacy will live on through the work of a writer who not only learned a lot from Cecil, but may already be his closest approximation, and that’s Aaron Suttles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you. This was a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

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