So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Bill Nack knew the ending to “The Great Gatsby” by heart, not just that last line, but the entire final page. At a moment’s notice, he could recite it in English and Spanish.
It wasn’t just a parlor trick. Bill did everything by heart — he was the most passionate sportswriter those of us in the business ever knew.
He died Friday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 77, leaving behind not only his wife, Carolyne Starek, four children and several grandchildren, but also an amazing body of work borne back ceaselessly into the past. His words for Newsday, Sports Illustrated and other publications, including ESPN, matched the greatness of his subjects, from Secretariat to Bobby Fischer to Jackie Robinson to A.J. Foyt to Joe Frazier.
This is how he started his profile of Joe Frazier, “The Fight’s Over, Joe,” in the Sept. 30, 1996, issue of SI:
“It is always the punch a fighter does not see that hurts the most, and the little girl was so sweet and innocent-looking, standing shyly at her mother’s side, that there was no way Joe Frazier could have seen it coming.”
Nack then sets up the scene, a touring autograph show at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, and describes a mother coming up to Frazier with her 10-year-old daughter in tow. She says her little girl has a question for him.
“Frazier nodded. ‘O.K.’ he said.
“‘She wants to know if you ever beat Muhammad Ali.'”
As so often happens with a Nack story, the reader is hooked.
First and foremost, he was a great reporter. “He loved that part of the job,” says Sandy Padwe, who edited him at both Newsday and SI and taught a sports journalism class at Columbia University for 26 years. “He would do a class for me every year, never missed one. And he would always tell the students that it was the reporting that drove a story.”
As for the writing, as good as the prose was, it never came easy. “He agonized over every story,” Padwe says. “He would literally lock himself in a room, at home or on the road, with a pot of coffee for 24 hours. He took such voluminous notes, and it took him a while to get everything organized. True story — the SI business office once questioned his expense account because they couldn’t believe anyone could drink that much coffee.”
Padwe said Nack’s stories occasionally would come in a little late, “but they were always worth it.”
Actually, Nack came to sports writing a little late. After graduating in 1966 from the University of Illinois, where he worked on the student newspaper with Roger Ebert, he enlisted in the army and became a public relations officer for Gen. William Westmoreland. A horse racing fan growing up, he drowned out the sounds of fire during the Tet Offensive in 1968 by listening to tapes of races that his mother sent him.
After his tour of duty was finished, and the Louisville Courier-Journal turned him down, Nack was hired by Newsday as a city-side reporter. At the office Christmas party in 1971, he got up on a table and recited the list of Kentucky Derby winners from Aristides in 1875 to Dust Commander in 1970, and the editor-in-chief promptly offered him a job as the horse racing writer.
That’s how he first came to meet Secretariat, a 2-year-old colt then stabled next to 1971 Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge at Belmont Park. Nack chronicled Secretariat’s Triple Crown season in 1972, and immortalized him in “Secretariat: The Making Of A Champion,” a 1975 book that Red Smith called “the next best thing to watching Secretariat run.”
SI hired Nack as its horse racing writer in 1978, but he soon demonstrated that he could write about most anything, all the while regaling colleagues with war stories (real and sports) and expounding on the joys of Fitzgerald, Yeats and Shakespeare. He was a kick to be around, and an even bigger kick to read.
Nack would go on to win many magazine awards at SI, where he worked until 2001, and in 2017, in the middle of his fight against cancer of the adrenal gland, he was given the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement for Literary Sports Writing. But perhaps the greatest tribute to him was something he himself wrote for Secretariat in his classic “Pure Heart,” published in the June 4, 1990, issue of SI. The story starts this way:
Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Ky., where Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.
“We were all shocked,” Swerczek said. ‘I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size.”
They were both one of a kind.