My wife often jokes about my ego when it comes to writing. The conversation typically goes something like this: “I know his sounds arrogant …” as she smiles and says, “You have to have somewhat of an ego to be a good writer … I think.”
That wasn’t always the case. It took a strong dose of reality to essentially scrap my writing style and start from scratch. I thought about that earlier this week when I heard Oscar Gonzalez Jr., one of my first sports editors, died Wednesday at the far-too-young age for 45.
I met Oscar in 2002 as I blanketed the country with resumes as a young sports writer hoping to catch my first break in the newspaper business. He’d recently been promoted to sports editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas.
To be the sports editor at a mid-sized daily at his age (30 at the time) was impressive. He interviewed me about filling his former position as assistant sports editor. Oscar asked a lot of questions that evening as we ate at “El Pato,” one of his favorite restaurants, but he repeatedly asked one: “Can you handle being the guy? I need somebody to come in here and kick ass.”
Being driven – and rather naïve – of course I told Oscar I was the man for the job. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
To say Deep South Texas was a culture shock to a 26-year-old who grew up in Missouri and Kansas would be a gross understatement. Throw in a bad marriage and you have a recipe for a mess.
As that marriage became a divorce, all I really had was work. I eventually was promoted to deputy sports editor, I assume partly because I was willing to spend more time at work than home.
That nearly became the shortest stint as a deputy sports editor in newspaper history when I wrote a column ripping Dennis Franchione, who was hired by Texas A&M in December 2002, for the way he bailed at Alabama without telling his players.
Predictably, the Aggie fans in the Rio Grand Valley were less than pleased. I arrived at work to find dozens of emails calling me a hack, moron and far worse. I responded to each email, as I always have, without venom. That is until one reader began to take shots at my personal life.
Finally, after a series of nasty emails, I referred to the reader as an “assclown.” While it was an accurate statement, it was the dumbest thing I’ve done as a journalist. After berating me for an hour, the assclown finally had what he wanted … and immediately forwarded it to our executive editor.
Little did I know that afternoon that the executive editor and Oscar had a meeting about the email. Several times, the editor told Oscar he was going to fire me. Oscar being Oscar, he told the editor, “Honestly, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard: Assclown.”
I didn’t know until several months later that Oscar saved my job, and possibly career, that day. You don’t want to be the guy who was fired for calling a reader an assclown in an email.
Despite that display of grace, Oscar and I didn’t mesh as co-workers (though I think we would have years later). He was brash, blunt and, at times, abrasive. I was simply not ready to lead a staff, even one as small as The Monitor’s was, and he knew it.
Though we shared thousands of laughs and moments sitting next to each other in the sports department, the tension was thick. We argued often. I remember at one point saying, “I’m tired of your shit” as I briskly walked out of the newsroom.
To add to an already-hellish day, I got pulled over on the way home and got a ticket. I’ll never forget calling my brother that afternoon and talking about quitting so I could move back to Kansas.
After some soul searching, I called Oscar in the office and apologized, breaking down in tears as I told him how much of a struggle life was as I slogged through a divorce 1,400 miles from home. Oscar, who had a gentle, caring side that some didn’t see, calmly said, “Dude, it’s OK. Come back in and we’ll work it out.”
We got along, for the most part, for the rest of my time in McAllen, which turned out to be another three months. There was one moment, however, that I’ll always remember.
We had a considerable amount of content for a small section on a Tuesday, and Oscar decided to bump my column inside. My ego couldn’t handle that, of course, so I questioned him repeatedly. Finally, he’d had enough: “Honestly, dude, you’re not that good of a writer. Not nearly as good as you think you are. Yeah, you never have a typo, but it reads like AP copy. It’s dull and doesn’t do anything for the reader.”
I wanted to scream at him. Honestly, I wanted to punch him. But I knew he had a point. It hurt, but he was right.
Years later, while I was working at the Topeka Capital-Journal, I thought about his jarring words as I copy edited some of the best writers in the Midwest. I told myself thousands of times while working the desk that I was going to take those words and become a better writer.
When I did start writing a column in 2006, a close friend said, “Your writing has really improved. There’s so much more life in it.” Much of that was a product of reading hundreds of wonderful stories by our sports writing staff, but much of it was thinking about Oscar’s biting words.
I share that story not to paint Oscar as some sort of ogre. He really wasn’t. What he wanted was the best for the reader and the best out of his deputy sports editor. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, and for years I resented Oscar for “being mean.”
Years later, with the advent of social media, we reconnected on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps because we had both matured, we got along quite well. I loved his quirky sense of humor and willingness to speak his mind. I admired that he took a shot, moving to California at age 40 because it’d always been his dream to live there.
When I heard of his death this week, my heart dropped. I exchanged a message with one of Oscar’s closest friends, Victoria Hirschberg, telling her Oscar and I really didn’t get along when I worked in McAllen. She responded by telling me that her husband Wade Baker, perhaps Oscar’s closest friend, was sitting next to her and said, “Oscar loved your ass.”
I teared up a little. Oscar might have been brutally blunt, but he was a loyal, kind soul. I’ll miss logging onto Facebook to find that he had responded to one of my posts calling me an assclown. I suspect he never imagined how many people shared a similar connection with him.