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SMITH COLUMN: Remembering the great Phil Niekro

The University of Georgia Chapter of the National Football Foundation recently paid tribute to one of its most loyal friends, Phil Niekro who played in the Big Leagues for 24 years, becoming one of the biggest names in the sport’s history.

With his remarkable legacy, Knucksie, as he was commonly called, was a superstar, but you would never know it.  He truly was one who walked with kings without losing the common touch. 

Spending time on a river or creek was purest of fun for him. He had never fly-fished until he met Jimmy Harris of Unicoi Outfitters in Helen in the North Georgia mountains. Overnight, he became a seasoned fly-fishing angler. He was, shall we say, “hooked.” He waxed on and on about this outdoor experience, which was something of a phenomenon for him. “How do those trout see those tiny flies that float down the stream?” he said over and over. “It is amazing.” Big Leaguers were just as amazed by the unpredictability of his knuckle ball.

Baseball, the great outdoors and taking friends on a spirited discourse that ended with a hilarious punch line not only made his day, it made the day of those around him.

The bed of the Chattahoochee is covered with rocks. There are big boulders in the river, making sound footing a challenge. One day, I slipped and fell into the river.

No big deal, except that it gave Niekro an opportunity for a wise-cracking field day.  “That was a great fall,” he laughed. “I give you an eight. If we had video replay, we might be able to give you a nine.”

For the rest of the trip, he would greet me with five fingers on one hand and three on the other, reminding me of my great Chattahoochee faux pas.

The next February at the Braves spring training camp, he greeted me with the five and thee finger salute and then described my fall in detail to manager Bobby Cox and his coaches. A classic raconteur, Phil’s skillfully embellished story had everybody laughing.

His telling and retelling of my “Chattahoochee Splashdown,” which he called it, never offended me. I was familiar with the way of the locker room where he flourished for 24 years, which deserves the highest of high fives for longevity alone.

But to excel for all those years, winning 318 games, is a remarkable feat. However, he never talked about himself or his records.  He would answer specific questions — after all, he was a gentleman — but he would never bring up any of his accomplishments. 

Getting him to talk about the knuckle ball would usually bring about delightful hilarity. He would remind you that he often did not know where the ball was going.

The rest of the Phil Niekro story is not so comforting.

He went to that great spring training site in the sky in December 2020. Fishing was put on hold with the pandemic, but now is making a comeback. Owing to summer’s heat, however, fly fishing the Chattahoochee has concluded until the fall.

I didn’t get to fish with Phil this spring and I’m “hurtin.”