SMITH COLUMN: Remembering iconic sports writer Billy Harper
Published 9:30 am Friday, February 17, 2023
For many years, I enjoyed a friendship with a French sportswriter by the name of Denis Lalanne, who wrote for L’Equipe, (The Team), a daily sports paper based in Paris.
Lalanne traveled the world, covering all sports, but was considered an expert in rugby and tennis. He later added golf to his “preferred lineup.” He was the Jim Murray of France, one of the most respected sports journalists in Europe.
With a flat in Paris, he spent his work week in the “City of Lights,” and repaired to his home in Biarritz which is near the Spanish border on the weekends. We often went into San Sebastian, just across the border, for dinner along with a great number of Frenchmen who had an affinity for Spanish ham. The wines were very good, too, and my friend Denis was an expert with a seasoned regard for food and wine.
Often, people would stop him in the street and compliment him on his writing. One night, a young rugby aficionado got carried away and gushed with great emotion about my friend’s work, saying in halting English, “He is our Hemmingway.”
As we moved on to our place for dinner, Denis turned and said, shrugging his head and lifting his arms, “I’m just a local star.”
That scene flashed back in my mind when I heard the news that the longtime sports editor of the Athens Banner Herald, Billy Harper, had passed away. Billy was a local star in the Classic City for years. He was a nice man who wrote nice things about everybody.
He didn’t travel the world as my French friend did but became highly appreciated for his patronizing of Bulldog teams and whatever competition was taking place in Athens. He wrote about Little League baseball, Pony League games and whatever competition was taking place at the “Y.”
My recollection is that he never wrote a critical column. After all, the sports he covered were about local teams which were part of HIS community. He felt that it was his job to support local teams, not to critique someone’s little boy when he pitched a no hitter but walked enough hitters that he lost the game 20-19; or find fault in print for some fuzzy faced, precocious quarterback who threw an interception that cost his team a big game. In fact, Billy consoled the poor kid in print.
Billy enjoyed being a homer. He was there to bring about a “feel good” atmosphere for the kids growing up in Athens. I bet there are seasoned businessmen in Athens who have a faded clipping in a treasured scrapbook with Billy’s smiling photo and a tribute to their prowess in competition in Little League, or the Athens YMCA, or one of the local high schools or a moment in the sun in Sanford Stadium.
I will always appreciate his love of high school football. He enjoyed the competition of the prep games as much as he did UGA outings in Sanford Stadium or the confines of the plush stadiums around the SEC when the “Dogs” played on the road.
When the news came that Billy had moved on to that great press box in the sky, the sad disclosure came from a couple of his former staff members—Steve Colquitt and Chuck Perry. Steve was a long-time photo manager for UGA sports and Chuck advanced from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports pages to a successful run as a book publisher.
They both were “around” some very accomplished writers over the years. While Billy’s credentials might not have turned heads in major league baseball or the National Football League, owing to his confining himself to a small market, they pointed out what was important.
He was a good boss at the Banner Herald, and he was always giving his staff a pat on the back as he directed passionate coverage of all local sports teams.
The last time I saw Billy was one fall morning when he was loosening up on Rutherford Steet by the Barrow Street School, prepping himself for his daily three-mile run down Milledge to Prince Avenue and back.
This local star loved his life, his family, the University of Georgia, and his community. He invested his time into the local sports scene because he loved what he did and loved his constituency.
The cynicism that has always been a staple of sports writing was never embraced by this local star with a big and generous heart.